"I was a basket case by April," Baltzley says. "Highly functioning by day, obliterated by nightfall. I had another place, a share I'd kept in Ukrainian Village, and I'd go there to cop and use. I didn't want the backer to see me coked-up in the loft. But everyone knew."
Baltzley frenetically makes and remakes more than 40 recipes to create his pop-up's ever-evolving 10-course menu, which he updates on the window with a Sharpie.
One morning, sous-chefs arriving for a meeting found him in a chair in the suite's living room: pale-white, shaking, complaining of chest pains. "I'd been trying to tweak some preparation," he says, "but I can't remember which one it was."
To keep his job, Baltzley signed an agreement in which he promised to get treatment, and he stayed clean and sober until May 13. That night, a new restaurant was hosting a friends-and-family opening, and for some reason he can't remember now, he went downtown and got a Mohawk before tearing into the open bar. He wasn't heard from for five booze-and-coke-filled days, "most of it sleepless," he says. When Lamb finally tracked him down at his North Loop studio, the hopeless resignation in Baltzley's eyes was terrible to witness. Tribute was more than a great gig. It was the breakthrough his life had been careering toward. Now it was to be his Waterloo.
Fired two days later, he checked into the Gateway treatment center for two weeks—officially his third stint in rehab, though he remembers dozens of other half-assed attempts. "Most didn't last the first full day," he says. He brought clothes, toiletries, and a few books about cooking, though it's one he read after rehab—The Perfect Egg, by Aldo Buzzi—that really blew his mind. "There's a chapter about making chicken stock?! It's not even really about food. It's a book about obsession."
It's the day of the pop-up, and we're on a rooftop patio by the 32nd-floor swimming pool atop a new high-rise in the South Loop, which Baltzley has paid $400 to rent for the night. He has miscalculated the tables and chairs available and is soon frantically working his cell phone. "Someone might just be eating Japanese-style tonight," he says with a shrug. "This menu's a fucking joke anyway."
Minutes before guests arrive for the first seating at 5 p.m., the place starts to resemble a serious restaurant, if one with an unusual feel. BYOB and prepaid months earlier, it's like a rooftop soiree hosted by tattooed Marxists, serving aperitifs to well-dressed guests appreciating the yachts swelling on Lake Michigan. Many of these 49 patrons are recognizable to Baltzley—foodies who are used to this type of service. Underground restaurants are a big trend in Chicago, where the hottest eatery, NEXT, owned and run by Baltzley's former employers Achatz and Beran, doesn't even have a phone.
Baltzley, in and out of the kitchen constantly, is wondering if one or both of the two men seated individually at the bar are secret Michelin tasters. As each course arrives, they devote a full minute or two to plate sniffing and taking notes and photos. The room gets loud by the second course, Baltzley's fried-chicken-skin take on soul food, which brings a carefree mood swing after the complexity of the tobacco amuse-bouche.
Early "fish courses" (fried clam bellies, then "scallops" of poached bone marrow) meld into meatier and progressively more savory dishes, and then something strange kicks in. The room gets quieter, but as night falls it seems to brighten, often literally, as the flashes fire for cell-phone photos of newly arrived plates. By the beef, cola, broccoli, and eel gastrique sixth course, it's clear this is more than just a meal. Despite the small, modular portions, it's a feast.
And yet, on the drive home, Baltzley is even more convinced his menu was just a joke. "There's not a single dish from tonight I'll serve again," he says, equally imperious and dismissive. Watching him stare out the car window, his mind churning relentlessly, I realize I'm looking at an artist at a creative peak. And a hard-core one at that: Routine is the salvation for many in recovery, but it never could and never will be for Baltzley, whose spiraling obsessive tendencies are kept at bay only by the pursuit of his less destructive fixations. For now, and possibly for a long time to come, what will keep him off the junk is the awareness of how far the plummet will be the next time—a height he now needs to ratchet up every time he cooks.
"What odds do you give yourself of staying clean and sober?" I ask him.
Baltzley doesn't answer immediately. "Shitty, after all the rehabs?" He throws up his hands. "I have a great support system. Chefs who are in recovery have reached out to me. If I hit the pipe or snort a line again, my heart may explode. Drinking will only lead to that. So I stick to coffee and cigarettes." He'd rather speak of his parallel addiction and a menu he's mulling over. "I've been reading about Apicius," a collection of ancient Roman recipes from the 4th century. He's working on his own book, an addiction memoir, and planning his next pop-up, a $140-a-plate 10-course meal for 60 at Pensiero Ristorante in Evanston, an area restaurant that has been recruiting him for a full-time position. To be overseen by both Baltzley and Jared Wentworth, it may well be the first pop-up sold without a menu. Only a post-dinner snack is specified: an entire boar to be eaten by hand off the carcass.
He's brainstorming an appropriate centerpiece as we pull into his driveway in the North Loop. "Why not just a straight-up orgy?" he says. "A buncha guys having anal sex. Or maybe an animal—a flamingo, a peacock—staked by a live fire?" In the quiet of the car before he gets out, I realize he's dead serious. "Definitely a peacock."