Photo by Angela Jackson
Austin, Texas, native Dean Wirkerman may have grown up eating meals made by his Mexican grandmother, but he was several years into his career as a chef before he got excited enough about the food of his childhood to open a Mexican restaurant. On the eve of COVID-19 stay-at-home orders this spring, the former chef at Cardinal Spirits in Bloomington opened La Una Cantina, just a mile down the road from his old job. “I didn’t love my grandmother’s food when I was a kid,” says Wirkerman. “I fell in love with French cooking. I fell in love with Thomas Keller. The Soul of a Chef was one of the first books I ever read, and it introduced me to the Culinary Institute of America.”
Wirkerman attended the famed culinary school on the Hudson River in New York, and after graduation logged time in kitchens around the world (Japan, France, Italy, Thailand, India, Mexico) in between jobs at the legendary Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago, and, yes, at Per Se, a New York outpost from his hero and original culinary inspiration, Keller. More global travels followed, and a planned quick stop in Westfield with his wife Robyn to pick up their dog from his in-laws turned into a permanent move to Bloomington, a town that reminds Wirkerman of Austin.
After overseeing the food program at Cardinal Spirits for a couple of years, Wirkerman was approached to open La Una Cantina, where he got to design the menu and vibe from the ground up. His biggest lesson in moving from his first-love French cooking technique to designing a Mexican menu? “I guess I feel silly saying it because it’s true to every cuisine, but it’s all about the sauces.” So the thing that most diners take for granted at Mexican restaurants—salsa—is the current object of Wirkerman’s affection. “It’s not just about having a red and green salsa. It’s the chilies we’re using, and dialing those in so they’re really strong.” What defines a good salsa for Wirkerman? “A mix of fresh and cooked ingredients, a lot more salt than I was expecting, and a little bit of oil.”
And when it comes to the debate between a flour or corn tortilla, where does Wirkerman land? “Corn. Mandatory.”
254 N. Walnut St., Bloomington, 812-287-7458