Kitchen Ink: Brandon Baltzley shows off his tattoos at CRUX, the Chicago pop-up restaurant he hopes will redeem his reputation.
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."
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.
"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."