Chef Brian Caplinger’s plates are his canvas at The Vine
When Brian Caplinger was in fifth grade, his friends called him Betty Crocker. Now they call him for recipes.
Caplinger has known since elementary school that he wanted to become a chef—a passion he has followed ever since, and one that has recently landed him at The Vine, 214 S. Main Street.
He was hired as the executive chef by Jeanne Kern, who purchased the restaurant in late 2016. Although he said the first eight months of his time in Elkhart have been a whirlwind – Caplinger has already experienced several major downtown events, including the Elkhart Jazz Festival and the revived Elkhart Riverwalk Grand Prix – he is more energized than ever about his craft.
Brian Caplinger has been the executive chef at The Vine since November, when Jeanne and Tom Kern took ownership of the restaurant at 214 S. Main St. Photo by Jason Bryant.
"Faith has put us together and here we are," Caplinger said. "Eight months into it, I couldn’t ask for better people to be working for and the town of Elkhart has been very receptive to me. I’m overwhelmed sometimes by how well it’s going."
Caplinger grew up in Port Huron, Mich., and learned to cook after eating a few too many burnt dishes prepared by his mother.
"My mom wasn’t a very good cook," he said, laughing. "Her philosophy on food was: ‘If it’s brown, it’s cooking; if it’s black, it’s done.’"
He started baking cookies in his mom’s kitchen and graduated to his first restaurant at the age of 14. He was hired as a dishwasher, but only sudsed up for two days before he earned a spot on the line.
Caplinger graduated from St. Clair County Community College in 1984 with an associate degree in food service management, but realized that education was not quite what he needed to achieve his goals. So, he went back to school and in 1988, he graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.
Caplinger traveled for some time, finding jobs at golf courses, private country clubs and small fine-dining restaurants (his favorite type of place to work). He never thought he would move back home to Port Huron, but when several family members fell ill at the same time, he did exactly that.
He may not have grown up as a Hoosier, but Elkhart has been on Caplinger’s radar for some time. His wife, Kathy, is from here and her family still lives in the area.
"I kind of fell in love with the town," he said.
Now that his children are grown, Caplinger was ready for a move so he and Kathy looked to Elkhart. On one visit, Caplinger dropped by the Greater Elkhart Chamber of Commerce and handed his resume to Director of Downtown Development Andy Jones. Jones knew that Kern was preparing to take over The Vine, so he connected her with Caplinger, and they hit it off right away.
Brian Caplinger, known as Chef Cappy, has known he wanted to be a chef since elementary school. He is now living out his dream as executive chef of The Vine, 214 S. Main St.
Photo by Jason Bryant.
Caplinger is grateful for Kern’s leadership and his staff’s dedication. He gives much credit to sous-chef Charles Dean, who persevered through some difficult times at the restaurant before the Kerns took ownership.
"I really appreciate what they do and how they guided me through," Caplinger said. "A great chef couldn’t function without a great team behind him, and I’m lucky to have a good front-of-house and good back-of-house. It makes it so much easier."
Caplinger has had fun testing out new ideas — some of which come to him in the middle of the night — on the Elkhart scene. He often selects two meals to feature on special, which act as an informal poll of Elkhart dining tastes. He offered fresh oysters recently, for instance, and they were a hit.
"I came here hoping to open people’s minds about cuisine," he said. "I want to try to get people more interested in doing different things. Explore. Let your taste buds be your guide."
Although some customers have been hesitant about change at the restaurant ("The Garbage Salad" had to stay, Caplinger learned), they have also been open to new and different tastes.
Caplinger appreciates the chance to put his creativity on display.
"All chefs are artists," he said. "That plate is my frame, and I can lay it out however I want."
He also appreciates the opportunity to work with local farmers. About 90 percent of items on the menu are fresh — which is no small feat, as the smaller farmers can’t keep up with the volume of food The Vine orders. But Caplinger thinks the extra work coordinating orders from different sources is worth it.
"I’m all about sustainability and sustaining the community," he said. "This is our city, and we should embrace that by supporting local people. That’s what I’m big on. I think it’s very, very important."
Now that the busy summer season is dying down, Caplinger is looking forward to taking time to explore the area more and taste fare from other local restaurants. He has hopes for himself and for The Vine (although he guards the latter a bit more carefully).
Caplinger hopes to watch the sun set over Lake Michigan some day soon, after watching the sun rise over Lake Huron so many times during his childhood. He’s also an avid kayaker and looks forward to exploring more waterways.
He is unsure exactly what the future holds for him and The Vine, but his is confident in the future of downtown Elkhart. He thinks that the public’s attitude toward small businesses is shifting for the better. The shopping malls have mostly come and gone, and people are once again deciding they would rather spend an extra $5 on a fresh, local pie rather than one from a big-box grocery store.
"Downtowns are coming back and revitalizing themselves because people are realizing once again that if they support their cities, their cities will thrive a lot more," Caplinger said.