Q&A: Delicia’s Chef Tony Cooper

Bloomington native Tony Cooper grew up tasting the cuisines of the world and later cut his teeth at the legendary Restaurant Tallent. Now, he brings some of his favorite flavors from his travels to the new-Latin cuisine at SoBro standards Delicia and La Mulita.

You’re only the second chef in the long run of Delicia. What was it like taking over the kitchen at such a popular SoBro spot?
Obviously, one of the hardest parts was tying my own dishes and vision to what was already on the menu. I had to keep some classics while phasing out other dishes and tweaking some of the best sellers. For example, we’ve had tamal corn cakes on the menu since the beginning that were more like fried masa cakes, and I wanted to lighten these up by making them actual tamales. Delicia definitely has a following because of its location and look, but it’s also because the food is unique from any other place around. And I think I’ve done a pretty good job of bringing some new dishes to the menu. Once people have tried them, they’ve generally loved them.

How else have you brought your own vision to Delicia and La Mulita?
I’m using as many Indiana ingredients as I can, which work surprisingly well for Latin and Caribbean cuisine. I’m using local green tomatoes and Indiana cornmeal, and I’m using Fischer Farms and Dewig Meats, both from Indiana. What’s more Hoosier than pork, tomatoes, and corn? I’ve actually got a lot of flexibility with the diversity of the cuisines we focus on at Delicia and La Mulita. We’ve got a smoker now, and we’re doing a smoked pork dish that comes with roasted poblano slaw, fried chihuahua cheese grits, and a chipotle barbecue sauce that uses the braising liquid. I used to own a barbecue cart, so it’s in my wheelhouse.

But you’ve also added more vegan options. What’s inspired that?
I’m making a vegetarian albondigas, or meatballs, with Impossible Meat with a gluten-free binder. We smoke them and finish them in coconut milk and chipotle. I think the future of food is plant-based, but most people who eat these can’t even tell they’re not meats. I was mostly vegan a few years back. That may seem odd for someone who operated a barbecue cart, but it was just the natural progress of what I was eating at the time, and cutting out meat and dairy wasn’t that hard for me. And, well, maybe the woman I was dating at the time had some influence.

You grew up in Bloomington, which has always had a great food culture. How did that influence your love of diverse cuisines?
I can’t be more grateful for growing up in such a great food scene. My dad was a developer and built houses, and my mom was an interior designer. We traveled all the time, and they made sure that we tried all of the weird foods where we went. I had snails in Paris and haggis in Scotland. I’ve been to Mexico at least 30 times. But we also ate at a lot of the great local restaurants. I love Grisanti’s Italian restaurant, and I even worked there as a busser for a short time, and, of course, Anatolia Turkish restaurant and India Garden. As far as cooking, I learned the most from my grandmother, actually. She was the one who really cooked at home.

How did this love of food turn into a career?
I wasn’t exactly looking at restaurant cooking as a career, but I really admired what David Tallent was doing at Restaurant Tallent. I actually begged him for a job, and he let me stage there for a few weeks. And I ended up working with him almost five years. He went to the Culinary Institute of America, so I had to go there, too. He’s a great mentor, and that time has been truly influential on what I have done as a chef.

But you eventually struck out on your own with the barbecue cart?
My buddy Eric Sjaaheim, who’s now the chef de cuisine at Fat Rice in Chicago, had this idea for the cart, which we would set up outside of the Atlas Ballroom or the Sample Gates for lunch. We were at the Bloomington Farmer’s Market as well. Our biggest seller was our Notorious P.I.G., which was pork with a maple barbecue sauce on a house-steamed bun with an egg. We ran the truck for parts of 2010 and 2011. It was fun, but we eventually went in different directions. I came up to Indy to help open Bluebeard, and I’ve worked at several other places, including Liter House. It’s been a fun journey.

What kinds of things do you do when you’re not in the kitchen?
I love to be outside, and I golf a lot with my buddies. I have a paddleboard, and I take it to Eagle Creek quite a lot. And I’m an avid biker as well. I actually had a pretty bad bike accident last year when I was cooking at Liter House and I took a wrong turn on the way home and ended up on Meridian Street. I had to have four surgeries on my arm and didn’t cook for several months.

How has your accident influenced what you’re doing at Delicia?
It’s made me grateful for everything and especially for being back in a kitchen. It’s just something that kind of changes the way you look at everything and makes you weigh what really matters in life. As far as a cook, I just want every bite to be excellent. It’s been a rough time for chefs everywhere, and I’m not sure what restaurants will look like in the future. Maybe more carryout. Definitely ways to keep overhead low. But I’m confident that people will come back. Recovering from the accident has shown me that we can.