Swivel to run wasn’t exactly the plan for Chef Abel Garcia when he took over the helm mapinal spirits in Bloomington last February. Making sure the carryout survived the drive home and sourcing as many ingredients as possible from local producers and from what was left of the liquor-making process was definitely a challenge. This was a Chicago native raised in Columbus, Indiana up to. This is where the head chef and podcast co-host who usually asks the questions needs some time to ponder his roots as a chef, where we are in culinary history, and where we are going in the post-pandemic future.
After working at Finch’s Brasserie and The Roost in Bloomington, you joined Cardinal Spirits just weeks before restaurants were closing due to the pandemic. What do you have planned for your new position?
When I came to Cardinal Spirits, they had a sous chef and three other people, a nice, solid team that knew each other well. But they needed a confident guide to make decisions and I wanted to put my own concept and vision of Slow Food on the menu. The pandemic actually made it a little easier as we began to see some cracks in the global food system. When that collapsed at the supply level, we just turned to the local farmers, which I wanted to do all along. We also had the benefit of being able to use some of our culinary staff on the bottling line or making hand sanitizer, which we ramped up. For the first few months, I mainly planned the staff’s meals and kept people alive. We have had some employees with families or some older employees who were more at risk. I was happy that we could actually let our employees decide what to do.
What did you do when you restarted your menu?
Sometimes during our absence I would order takeaways from places I really liked and then I would come home and find the bun was damp. And why did I get fries? They were cold and limp. I wondered why no one thought about doing it in the long run. I didn’t want to just put it in a box and call it a day. I wanted to compose my carryout menu with items that would be just as good in the hall or in the trunk after a 10-15 minute drive home. I even had some customers and employees who would test it for me. Setting sauces and dressings aside and making more things that were great at room temperature were definitely key. But I also played with the recipes for things like ice cream. My friend called and said the ice cream was good but it was a little soft or runny so I adjusted the amount of alcohol and other ingredients so it doesn’t melt as quickly.
What was the reason for your decision not to offer patio service in warm weather?
We have primarily taken care of the health of our employees. And when you look at our space, it’s so cramped and small that with all the stuff we had to bring to take with us, there just wasn’t enough room. The expectation that a restaurant will offer both a full service take away menu and personal dining is just not realistic. When you think about it, most people want their takeaway meals from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. The intensity makes it impossible to provide good service to the customers who dine there. We just never considered it.
They have also committed to using more by-products from the distillation process. What things did you recover in the end?
When I got here, I looked around and saw that there was a lot of trash when we were making certain ghosts. Some of these ingredients were quite expensive. I wondered why no one had put A and B together. For example, for our Lake House flavored rum and some of the other spirits, I could reuse vanilla pods, peppercorns, cinnamon sticks, and organic orange peels. And we didn’t use as many of our spirits as we already had so I started doing more of them like in my amaro cake that uses our La Boite Amaro. We’re also doing a lot here to tap into local businesses to help, such as getting The Chocolate Moose to stir our ice cream. If we save money wherever we can, we can really achieve more while reducing our carbon footprint.
Where did your love for cooking come from?
I was born in Chicago and grew up in a large Mexican family. I moved to Columbus when I was in 6th grade. It’s a really traditional Catholic family where gender roles were pretty strict, so I wasn’t allowed to help the women in my family cook for big meals and holidays. Probably in my early twenties I started working for Papa John and then I started setting up bars for bartenders. I started cooking for friends at home, big barbecues and hatchbacks. But I’ve been close to many kitchens and have the benefit of being who I was. The cooks said, “Wait, you are Mexican but you speak English?” I have a bad memory, so I would be the guy in the kitchen who writes everything down in a notebook. That’s how I gained so much of my culinary knowledge. And now my family is more than happy that I cook for them.
They also host special episodes of the No Dishes podcast entitled “Shift Change”. What’s the concept of it?
The name comes from the point on the day in a restaurant when the staff change and pass the information from one chef to the next, which is what you need to know to get your job done. Right now I’m trying to catch guests from the food industry and share their insights or whatever they think as they leave their mode of work. I learn a lot from chatting with locals, their experiences, the legendary local restaurants they’ve cooked in, and what they do when they’re not working.
What do you look forward to most when you go out to dinner in person?
I miss using my artistic eye for plating. Like once, I had watched my friend’s kid play a video game and I saw a waterfall and I wanted that to happen on a plate. So I did it with a short rib special where the rib was a tree trunk, microgreen the waterfall and the water a mole pool. Sometimes when I’m making large cheese and meat boards I try to make them look like a painting. I made one that was the entire Acapulco Bay with mountains, water, and even New Years Eve Stallone’s house. I can’t wait to do crazy things like this again.