Culinary Artist at Work: Baltzley tests a new concoction, red-pepper fluid gel, for proper aeration.
Baltzley doesn't cite drugs as a reason for dropping out of high school—just a general desire to escape. He started as a coffee-house dishwasher/pancake flipper and quickly discovered a talent for work in the kitchen. By 16, he was running the line at a Jacksonville bistro, beginning a streak of landing increasingly high-skilled, higher-paying positions that he'd piss away.
The combination of substance abuse and workaholism played out first in music. When his band lost its drummer, he locked himself in a room with drumsticks and phone books, got "pretty decent" in a month, and was working steadily in Jacksonville clubs by 17. He met a visiting art student at one gig, fell in love, and followed her to Savannah, Georgia, which became a mystical town for Baltzley, particularly when drugs kicked in after shifts at local eateries: "A bunch of Spanish moss and ghosts hanging around, bar fights at every other corner because of the military dudes getting hammered."
After working briefly at Paula Deen's restaurant, The Lady & Sons, Baltzley left Savannah for a stint in St. Augustine, only to be lured back by an offer to join the sludge-metal band Kylesa, who were going on tour. "Fancy word for a $50 per diem and enough dope to get through the all-nighters across the country," he says. He left the band amid conflicts and returned to the kitchen, this time as a sous-chef at the award-winning contemporary-American restaurant Cha-Bella. When the drugs became too much, he left to enter rehab in South Carolina. "Cooking coming down sucks," Baltzley says. "I used to drop acid at Cha-Bella to help come down off coke. Cooking on acid is crazy. Walking through Savannah tripping is crazier."
At 21, Baltzley moved to Washington, D.C., hoping for a clean slate in a new city as chef de cuisine at Nora, the country's first certified-organic, farm-to-table eatery. He was drinking before he got off the Amtrak, however, and started smoking weed soon after the job began. One night in Dupont Circle, he asked a dealer about coke and the kid popped a bag containing a crack rock out of his mouth. "What am I supposed to do with that?" Baltzley asked. On tour with Kylesa, he'd done his share of cocaine and knew about crack. "Not the high, though," he says. "Powder tweaks you out. Crack is instant euphoria, intensely palpable. It's right there in front of you—and then it's gone."
When things in D.C. fell apart, he was off to New York, where he made a conscious decision to up his game. "I'd started taking myself a little more seriously," he says. "It happens when you serve food to people and they treat you that way, no matter how much you fuck up. I thought I'd see if I could make it in New York."
He did, moving up to Michelin-starred restaurants and chefs—Upstairs at Bouley, Allen & Delancey, Salumeria Rosi. He landed executive positions first at Susan Wine's Vintage, then at the 6th Street Kitchen his final year in the city. But the lifestyle of New York's frenetic culinary scene ensured a repeat of the pattern: two months clean and working followed by three months indulging. "The big difference," Baltzley says, laughing, "is that you can call out for coke in New York, like pizza. It's there in half an hour."
He remembers the strange feeling of "waking up 100 percent clean and sober" on his 25th birthday, January 23, 2010. "I still have no idea why that happened," he says. "Maybe just my internal clock was clicking off the quarter-century." A friend had made reservations at wd~50, Wiley Dufresne's bastion of molecular gastronomy; Baltzley, trained in traditional kitchens, was developing an interest in the new cooking technique. The meal changed his life.
"It was mostly a plate of scrambled-egg ravioli, charred avocado, and kampachi. Food had been my job for half my life, but this was that same instant gratification as crack, and so … there. And I finally got it: This is what I could have been doing if I'd stayed straight." He woke up the following morning feeling the old compulsion—not to get high but "to cook food that was palpably euphoric."
He was also violently ill. "Sick off my ass," Baltzley says, "for, like, five days." He can't figure out if it was the result of going cold turkey or the raw fish—or the new fixation. "I couldn't stop thinking about how much skill went into that ravioli, a 'pasta' made of egg scrambled hard enough to act as a binder for a perfectly cooked soft-scrambled-egg filling. It was pretty disgusting, actually," he says, laughing. "I spent five days tasting the three fats: eggs, fish, and avocado—can still taste them." He points to the knife on his Adam's apple. "Right here."
Baltzley managed to stay sober for the next nine months, his longest stretch to date. "Things got weird at 6th Street Kitchen when I got back," he says. Different plates began coming out of the kitchen. "People asked what I was doing, talking modernist food, molecular gastronomy. I was just having fun." His foams and gels didn't always foam or gel—but he knew what he wanted.
Foam food, as the Iron Chef Michael Symon sometimes calls it, is about capturing the essence of a flavor in a mouthful, then marrying it to other bite-size essences. Baltzley tends more toward a dominating flavor that endures longer than you expect it to—as if he doesn't want its palpable euphoria to end. The whimsy comes as the other flavors later kick in fully: Baltzley calls the experience "the peacock's tail," a term borrowed from wine tasters. "What I really learned from Grant Achatz," he says, "is that it's not just the intensity of a flavor, but the amount of time you taste it."
On a whim, he sent his résumé to Alinea and was in Chicago a month later. Just 14 days into his tenure, he got a phone call: Baltzley's mother's house had been hit with bullets in a gang-related shooting. He rushed down to Florida, and by his return a week later was drinking again. Rather than disappear, this time, out of respect, he wrote a resignation letter to Achatz.
After six months of stints in and out of high-end kitchens, he reached out to Simon Lamb, who had announced plans for the new, 170-seat Tribute. Chicago had arrived as an American food destination—the Michelin guide took the city on in 2010—and Tribute was the biggest opening of the year, with more than 100 highly qualified applicants for the executive-chef post. Baltzley made it to Lamb's short list of a dozen, then blew away five other finalists in a cook-off.
Along with more money than he'd ever seen before, Baltzley got a sweetheart deal through one of Tribute's backers on a nearby floor-through loft with a professional kitchen. And he was given a suite at the Essex, where he and his team met to discuss preparations and receive vendors while construction on the restaurant began. As the 10-week project ran to three months, and then four, sample wines left by vendors were accruing steadily in the Essex suite.