With the various meanings of the word "zest" -- enthusiasm, appetite, flavor -- Lonnie Zoeller, executive chef of U Street's compact wine-food destination Vinoteca, fits the bill. For him, working the kitchen has fulfilled his life's dreams and ambitions. "I am really passionate about cooking," he explained.

As with many of his contemporaries, Zoeller's kitchen dreams were launched early on. A native of Cooperstown, N.Y., and a big baseball fan, he nonetheless decided as young as 12 that he preferred the kitchen to the baseball diamond. His next step: going to work in a local restaurant as a dishwasher and line cook.

After high school, he considered going to the local community college, but with the support of his stepdad, he attended the Culinary Institute of America, or CIA, instead. "I didn't like college," he said, "so why not cook if I am good at what I do?"

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1940 11th St. NW
Hours: Mon.-Fri., 5 p.m. to close;
Sat. and Sun., 11 a.m. to close

With his culinary degree in hand, Zoeller worked in various restaurants in the Northeast, including as a sous chef under the James Beard Award-winning Sam Reda at the Buffalo Chophouse in Buffalo, N.Y. He eventually ended up in D.C., working as a sous chef for local superstar chef Jose Andres at his Mediterranean-focused restaurant, Zaytinya.

After several other cooking jobs in D.C., Zoeller spent six weeks working at Els Casals restaurant in Sagas in Northern Spain. There, he says, he ate local cheeses and charcuterie garnished with simple yet elegant toppings. "These don't have to be complex so long as they are delicious," he said.

And that is how he approaches his cooking at Vinoteca. Inspired by what he learned in Spain, and determined to focus on a menu with fewer options but with more dazzling presentations, Zoeller has adopted techniques from the molecular gastronomy movement in which chefs transform ingredients into different forms to capture a different presentation and heighten specific flavors. "I like to play around with the whole molecular thing," he said, "but I don't base my whole cuisine on this. I still work from scratch and don't forget the basic skills of classic cooking."

For example, he created a dish he nicknamed "bison in a berry patch," an intriguing name for an entree that starred a bison steak topped with a strawberry ancho-balsamic sauce. "I read about one chef who said, 'When you have a protein on a plate, how would your find that protein in nature?' " Zoeller said. "So that's what I am trying to do, taking that philosophy so what you create is internalizing what that animal does."

When you scan his menu, filled with unusual cheese, meat and vegetable innovations, you get it: Zoeller is one happy guy, getting his kicks from kitchen creations.

What is your comfort food?

Any form of chicken, or chicken and rice. My wife is Colombian.

What's in your fridge?

Deli turkey, Romaine lettuce, cherry tomatoes, olives, chicken, mango juice.

What is your most memorable dish?

The bison with the berries.

What is your favorite restaurant?

Bar Pilar and Cafe Saint-Ex.

Where do you go on vacations?

Bogota, [Columbia]. My wife's whole family is there.


Pan con tomate

4 servings

12 (1/2-inch-thick) slices baguette

5 to 6 Roma tomatoes, cut in half

1 tablespoon olive oil, plus extra for bread

Pinch of sea salt

2 cloves garlic

Manchego cheese slices

Sliced jamon serrano

Using a box grater and bowl, grate tomatoes until tomato skins remains. Strain tomato pulp. Reserve pulp in mixing bowl and add liquid to saucepan. Reduce liquid by half. Add reduced liquid and sea salt to pulp. Gently whisk in tablespoon of olive oil with spoon.

Brush bread slices with olive oil. Using a saute pan at medium heat, toast each side until the edges are crispy while the center remains soft and toasted. While bread is warm, rub the edges of each slice once or twice with garlic. Spread pulp onto slices.

Garnish with jamon serrano and 6-month aged Manchego, or any preferred selection of cheese, chorizo, or boquerones and olives.