Behind the Scenes with Chef Lynn Wheeler at Third & Vine

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Credit: Sumner Dilworth

Chef Lynn Wheeler is the culinary genius behind Third & Vine, a wine bar known for its unique wine and cheeses as much as its small plates. A veteran of New York’s Waverly Inn, Chef Wheeler’s love of cooking began in his mother’s kitchen in Ohio. Today, he continues to expand his culinary skills as executive chef at Third & Vine, where he conceptualizes and perfects innovative dishes and desserts for Jersey City’s ever-demanding clientele.

Third & Vine celebrated its two-year anniversary last month. What have the past two years been like?  

Lynn Wheeler: It’s been a wild ride. When we started working on the concept Brian Rothbart, Jamie Mayne, and I thought we were going to have a small local spot with just the three of us, but soon we realized that we were going to need a lot more staff. We quickly grew from just the three of us to 12 people working various shifts and positions throughout the week.

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BuzzFeed just named Third & Vine the best wine bar in New Jersey. To what do you attribute Third & Vine’s success?

LW: I think our success starts with the fact that we’re doing something no one else is. Our cheese program is original; Jamie curates a great list with 35+ different cheeses that can please any palate. Meanwhile, Brian has put together a wine and cocktail program with unique wines that — although not many people may know — fit into what our guests are looking for. And the small plates provide an opportunity for people to enjoy comfort food like mac & cheese, deviled eggs, or something a little more adventurous like foie gras or white anchovies. I absolutely love cooking and I think that really shows in the flavor and execution of my food. I also have to acknowledge our staff, both my staff in the kitchen and the staff on the floor. They’re dedicated, hardworking, and they all really enjoy working with and for us which I think has a good deal to do with our success.

How did you get started in the culinary industry?  

LW: My road to the kitchen was long and very interesting. My mother and grandmother cooked a lot and I loved helping them in the kitchen. They’re both excellent cooks and I learned a lot from them. My stepmother owned a diner for a short time when I was a teenager and I worked there sometimes as a short-order cook, which was a lot of fun when I was young. I entertained the idea of culinary school, however, I decided to study fashion design, which was another passion I got from my mother. But I kept going back to the restaurant business. First, as a dishwasher and pizza maker at Pizza Hut to help pay for college. I quit school after two years and moved to New York from Ohio working as a waiter and then manager at a lot of places including The Waverly Inn — where I met and worked with Brian and his wife Jamie. We all became great friends. In 2009 I started catering small parties for friends and a year later I was offered the executive chef position at a small Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village. After 15 years in the business, I finally found my home, what I really love doing, and I never want to go back.

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Third & Vine has a very creative small plates menu that encompasses everything from blue cheese crème brûlée to lobster mac & cheese. How do you decide what goes on the menu?  Where do you draw inspiration? 

LW: I try my best to keep the menu tight, but not boring. I like to make subtle changes that make a big difference. Like our white anchovies, for instance. Since we opened I have changed the components of that dish three times, but the soul of it is still the same. On the other hand, the mac & cheese has been pretty much the same since we opened — other than offering the lobster version for Valentine’s Day. I take my time in changing things up and often try multiple iterations of a dish before adding it to the menu. I taste potential dishes with the owners and the staff to get feedback before making a final decision. And if I am torn between a couple of new items, I will run them as specials for guests to help in making decisions.
My inspiration comes from all over the place. Seasonal produce, menu items I’ve seen at other places — not that I’ve ever copied someone else’s dish — but I may find a component of a dish I like and create a version of that component to add to one of my dishes. The inspiration for the blue cheese crème brûlée came from Jamie. When we first opened we had the maple bacon cheesecake and one other dessert on the menu, but Jamie was offering a brûléed blue cheese from the cheese station. As we talked about adding more desserts, I decided to try working the blue cheese into a creme brûlée and we ended up loving it. I just really love food and experimenting with it to see what I can come up with. Food is such a great medium for what I consider my art.

As executive chef you’re in charge of everything that comes out of the kitchen. Do you have a preference for cooking or baking? 

LW: This is a really hard question for me. I love cooking because of the freedom to experiment and make changes and adjustments. I also love baking because of the precision and science behind it. In my almost 21 years of working in the culinary industry I’ve found I’m pretty adept at formulating recipes for both cooking and baking. People often ask me what type of food I most like to cook and it’s really hard to choose as well.

What are some of your favorite food and drink spots in the area?

LW: I love Union Republic. They’re great neighbors and the food and cocktails are fantastic. Roman Nose and Razza are also places I like to go to when I have time. Dullboy has an amazing tuna tartare. Raval is a beautiful space, unfortunately I’ve only had drinks there. I have to admit, being busy at Third & Vine and living in Manhattan I haven’t tried as many Jersey City restaurants as I’d like, but I hit one or two every time I have a chance. I live in the financial district in Manhattan and my husband and I go to a Mexican place called Mad Dog & Beans a lot — great margaritas! Blue Ribbon used to be a regular spot for me when I was working at restaurants in Manhattan. I’m also trying to get to The Dead Rabbit, as I’ve heard noting but great stuff about them.

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What can we expect from you in the future at Third & Vine?

LW: We’ve been tossing around a couple of ideas, but nothing is solid yet. We’ve discussed possible cheese and wine classes for the public, but again, nothing definite. We’re meeting with Michelle Berckes, owner of Busy Bee Organics, to talk about a collaboration. I’m personally hoping we do more of the festivals around Jersey City this year. As far as myself, I started a blog recently where I’m sharing some of my recipes and I’m compiling recipes in the hopes of writing a cookbook. Eventually my husband and I plan to retire in Florida and I will likely venture into my own business there, but that is a way off at this point.

Third & Vine | 353 Third Street | www.thirdandvine.com

 

(Image Credits: Sumner Dilworth, Lynn Wheeler, Third & Vine)