Strange odors greet you as you get off the elevator on the 15th floor of a lakeside apartment building in Chicago's North Loop. Toasted hay. Burnt orange. Deep-fried vinegar. Sweetgrass and strong tea, camphor, lavender, tobacco, blueberry, maple syrup, bacon—all smelling as if they're being run through vaporizers. It's a mindfuck.
It doesn't get any clearer inside Apt. 1511—a studio that a half-dozen densely tattooed and sweaty chefs in bandannas and aprons have transformed into a test kitchen/staging area. Brandon Baltzley, who lives here with his girlfriend, Emily Belden, is the one with the cleaver, the worried look, and the knife-and-fork tattoo on his Adam's apple. Standing in black clogs at a stainless-steel table—variously screaming at the hardest-working people to focus or sidling over to the temporarily idle and impishly grabbing at their genitals—he doesn't look the part of the guy in charge. That may just be the tattoo talking: How close can you get—or would you want to get—to someone who puts a knife to his own throat? Baltzley, one quickly learns, wouldn't have it any other way.
At 26, he's spent half his life in restaurant kitchens, earning a reputation as both a great American chef and one of the culinary world's most flagrant cautionary tales, an addict whose competing, and possibly inseparable, obsessions to cook and to use have made each of his notorious falls plumb new depths of rock bottom. In less than a year, Baltzley lost or left dream jobs at four top restaurants in Chicago: Alinea, Grant Achatz's acclaimed three-Michelin-starred eatery, which established Chicago as America's next food mecca; Schwa, where Baltzley battled mercurial chef-owner Michael Carlson and acquired a taste for Vicodin; the award-winning but now shuttered Mado, which he walked out of with his entire kitchen staff; and Tribute, Simon Lamb's restaurant at Michigan Avenue's Essex Inn. After winning the executive-chef job at Tribute, Baltzley didn't make it to the opening, winding up instead in rehab after a particularly vicious five-day free fall of near-nonstop coke snorting.
"With the food culture glamorized to death as it is, there's a real danger in getting typecast like that," says Jared Wentworth, the executive chef at Chicago's Michelin-starred Longman & Eagle. "But for those of us in the industry who know that it's nothing but toil and misery, when we hear about Brandon, we think: 'Who hasn't been there?' I know I was and that a lot of the celebrated chefs I looked up to as a line cook were stoned out of their minds on coke. It's what you do after that counts."
Baltzley's latest shot at redemption is being prepared in his apartment: a pop-up dinner for 49 that sold out online months ago. To be held the next evening on a downtown roof deck, the $100-a-head 10-course meal will be the opening of CRUX, "a concept to bring the co-op/collective business model to the Chicago food scene." As night falls, Baltzley and his staff are looking at an all-nighter as emulsified-dessert preparations, panna cottas, and marrow bones fail to set, mold, and braise properly in the packed oven and overstuffed fridge of the tiny galley kitchen.
Baltzley, three months clean and sober, has been courted by backers to open his own place and has received offers for jobs at Michelin-starred restaurants, but CRUX is his top priority for now. "The kid can flat-out cook," says Wentworth. "If he can keep his shit together, he's one of those sky's-the-limit chefs." The only guys who can crash and burn like rock stars are rock-star chefs—the ones with not only the gift but also an unending passion for the stuff.
"It's the obsession that drives you to cook in the first place," explains Kevin McMullen, who's emerged as one of Baltzley's top sous-chefs during the weeks of prep. "It's like the smell of French fries on your clothes. There just isn't enough beer in the world to leave this behind."
It begs the question … Why bother?
The answers start coming after midnight, as final preparations begin: candied-crab birthday cake, a faux-crab-cake entrée that an Old Bay frosting and burnt-orange "glass" will help pose as the first of four desserts. A lavender ice cream, which mimics the centuries-old Turkish salep dondurma, a stretchy, chewy dessert of milk, orchids, and pinesap. The viscosity of his new take, emulsified by mastic gum, has Baltzley swearing the room to secrecy. "This is the happiest I've been since I came to Chicago," he says, shaping the fluid gel into cylinders.
Baltzley's green-tea shooters have been tormenting him since he conceived the pop-up. He wanted to begin the meal with them, not for their calming effect but for their astringency. The idea came to him when Dave Beran, the chef who recruited him at Alinea, turned him on to Everything Is a Remix, the website for a documentary about creation and collaboration: "Why not rip off every chef I respect the most? In one bite?" Baltzley's remix became a Chopped recipe on amyl nitrate: Take the turdlike ingredients of four "mystery baskets" (hay, tobacco, Fisherman's Friend, and green tea) and assemble an amuse-bouche to welcome Chicago's culinary elite back to the nightmare of your career.
The base of his tobacco pudding, an infusion of steeped cigar leaves, makes me want to vomit: An eighth of a teaspoon has my mouth feeling like an ashtray. And what about the nonsmokers among his guests?
Check. "Why not just create a menu themed on drugs?" I ask.
Baltzley's brow furrows incredulously. "What the fuck do you think we're doing in here?"
After half a decade in and out of rehab, Baltzley still isn't sold on the conventional mantras of recovery. "I go to meetings, and I embrace that process," he says. "But I've never done a single 'step' or gone for the 'higher power' stuff. I've come to see that, to me at least, it's all just compulsion, obsession—whether it's drugs, drinking, cooking, or playing drums. You wouldn't believe the stranglehold that a simple beat has over me."
When pressed, Baltzley will trace that compulsion to his mother, Amber, with whom he still speaks daily. "Her life makes mine look tame," he says. Shortly before his birth, Amber married a Mr. Baltzley to cover the cost of her pregnancy. They had moved to Jacksonville, Florida, but never stayed in an apartment long, and Baltzley's better childhood memories are of afternoons in the strip of gay bars where his mother worked, "drinking Cherry Cokes, playing Pac-Man, and putting Meat Loaf on the jukebox." It's there he began cooking at age 8, helping prep soups and chowders in the kitchen his mother ran in one of the bars. Other memories aren't so pleasant.
"My mom was a dude, man, a straight-up fucking dude," he says. "And the women she took on could get rough. When you think of women fighting, you think of nails, biting. These were fistfights." He says it might be more accurate to trace his origins as a chef not to the food he helped make but to the first time he wielded a knife, to break up a particularly nasty beating his mother was taking from an ex-girlfriend.
He was playing guitar in a punk band by 13 and left home (the first of many times) at 14. Drugs and beer came into the picture: "Fairly normally," he guesses, "at least northern-Florida-style. You go out in a field after it rains, find the cow pies, and pick magic mushrooms." Eventually, shrooms became his remedy when he had to face mornings as a chef after coke-fueled benders. "I don't know what it is about psilocybin. It's a trippy hallucinogen for most. For me it just cleans the cobwebs."