World-traveled chef comes to Cardinal's regional kitchen
By Clark Gudas
From New York to India, Dean Wirkerman has devoted his career to food.
Now, as executive chef at Cardinal Spirits, he is further honing that worldwide experience here in Bloomington.
Since February 2015, Cardinal Spirits has offered craft cocktail, whiskey, gin, vodka and rum and won regional and national awards for their spirits. Starting in late May, the restaurant has offered meals and appetizers along with their cocktails and other spirits.
For Wirkerman, creating food is about finding the authentic recipe.
“I want to find, not a chef’s interpretation of something, but something a grandmother cooked, the same recipe that’s been passed down two hundred years,” Wirkerman said.
Wirkerman is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, and has worked in countries such as India, France, Japan and Italy. His professional experience includes chef de partie at Per Se, a 3-star Michelin restaurant in New York City and at Charlie Trotter’s, a legendary fine-dining restaurant in Chicago.
His menu at Cardinal Spirits strives to create food genuine to southern Indiana. One of his creations, porketta, is composed of braised pork with creamy cornbread polenta, fennel and smoked paprika. With pork and corn as staples, co-founder of Cardinal Spirits Jeff Wuslich said the dish is very “Indiana.”
“These are really wonderful midwestern dishes done in a really fun way,” Wuslich said.
For Wirkerman, creating these particular dishes was about localizing recipes to a specific region.
“On my travels, I looked for these authentic recipes that explain where you are in the world,” Wirkerman said. “It goes to speak of a time and place. I think we can do that here in Bloomington.”
Not only does Wirkerman and the Cardinal Spirits kitchen strive to create recipes authentic to Bloomington, they plan to change their menu as the seasons change.
“The whole menu is seasonal,” Wuslich said. “Our cocktail menu changes five to six times a year, and we hope to change the food menu the same amount.”
As an example, Wirkerman described the Secret Garden Salad as a summertime salad.
“It’s very refreshing,” Wirkerman said. “Whether it’s our cocktail menu or our food menu, we’re looking at the season. You don’t want something hot or heavy in the middle of a hot summer. You want something cool, a cucumber martini, watermelon, these kinds of juicy refreshing things.”
Cardinal Spirits is a proponent of home-grown products. The restaurant buys produce and vegetables from the Bloomington Farmer’s Market and local farms for its dishes.
“I look at what is growing seasonally and then see what I can do to support that,” Wirkerman said. “There’s a lot of strawberries, cucumbers, that support the season.”
Wirkerman noted how the Peter Rabbit appetizer’s small turnips can only grow in late spring.
“You cannot grow these turnips a month from now,” Wirkerman said. “It’s this time of year, spring, when you find them like this.”
Cardinal Spirits not only promotes home grown food, but homemade products. It produces more than fifteen spirits and does its labeling and corking on site.
“We make our spirits from scratch, we make our cocktails from scratch and now we want to make our food from scratch,” Wuslich said.
After traveling and cooking worldwide, Wirkerman said he thinks Bloomington has great potential for Cardinal Spirits and its locally-sourced cuisine.
“We don’t have a fryer, so I wouldn’t call this food nutritious, but you’re not going to feel terrible after you eat it,” Wirkerman said.
Wirkerman said he came to Bloomington to serve dishes to those who might appreciate a meal supported with cocktails and other spirits.
“I think Bloomington is a great city,” Wirkerman said. “I see a bunch of great things you get in New York and Chicago on a much smaller scale.”
Among the values of Cardinal Spirits is also to increase human connection.
“We’re all about forming relationships among people,” Wuslich said. “Having a great food experience along with a great cocktail experience is critical.”
When creating the menu, accessibility to a customer’s diet paired with spirits was an important consideration, both Wuslich and Wirkerman concurred.
“I want to speak to the vegetarian and vegan population,” Wirkerman said. “We’re trying to make sure we hit the food the population wants to eat, but also make it combine with cocktails.”
Not only accessible in terms of diet, Wuslich said he wanted to find a balance between fulfilling passion and being affordable.
“I was in Chicago last week,” Wuslich said.
“Regular cocktails were sixteen, seventeen dollars. You know, that hurts your soul. Here, you can come have the Peter Rabbit, a cocktail, bread and butter and get out for a reasonable price.”
For as much as he traveled, Wirkerman said Wuslich is as important a boss as he is a mentor.
“I’m over here saying all these crazy ideas, and I turn back and he’s back there smiling, saying, ‘Yes. Do it,’” Wirkerman said. “I’m always looking for that, someone who can teach me things and also allow me to start developing my voice.”
Cardinal Spirits hopes to offer more food service options in the future in the way of brunch, a working person’s lunch and an ice cream machine. It currently offers comedy nights on their porch.
Wirkerman offered an invitation to anybody to come over any day of the week and try their frequently changing menu.
“For us, it’s all about the experience and making high quality cocktails,” Wuslich said. “Come with coworkers or friends and share a dish.”
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