When Brandon Baltzley arrived in Washington, D.C., he was unemployed and barely of legal drinking age. A few days later, he was cooking a crab cake with lobster bubbles and a fennel orange salad that earned him the second-in-command chef de cuisine position at the first certified-organic restaurant in the United States, Restaurant Nora. He was also making $65,000 a year. For most cooks, it would have been the opportunity of a lifetime, but for Baltzley, who had just spent two weeks in rehab shaking off a cocaine habit, it led to a crack-cocaine addiction that cost him his job. It wouldn't be the last one he'd lose.
In cooking, the line between a genius and out-of-control artist is a fine one. When it comes to Baltzley, diners, restaurant critics and even his closest friends suspect he might be both.
"He's a prodigy," says Chris Genoversa, a New York chef and restaurateur who hired Baltzley, then 25, as the executive chef at his 6th Street Kitchen three years ago. Brought in to cook comforting, home-style dishes, the irrepressible Baltzley was drawn toward off-limits experimental cuisine, which led to a showdown over a brioche crouton with pickled lemon, parmigiano, romaine lettuce gels and anchovy foam. Customers went wild over it, Genoversa was driven wild by it, and Baltzley was soon off to Chicago, for a job as a chef de partie at Alinea, one of the world's finest modern restaurants.
"He's an artist," says Genoversa. "When Brandon is in the kitchen, he's privately developing these things that come up as a surprise to everyone around him. His food is tremendous."
Canadian diners will get a taste of that food this summer during Baltzley's North American cooking tour, including stops in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Montreal, where he will partner with local chefs to put on pop-up dinners. In early 2014, he plans to open his own farm-based restaurant, The Most Important Part, with partner/farmer Leigh Hansen in Michigan City, Ind.
Baltzley's cuisine – modernist and technique-driven while simultaneously nostalgic and influenced by terroir – won over Calgary Herald food writer Gwendolyn Richards last March with a 21-course pop-up lunch at Calgary's Winebar Kensington.
"I don't understand how his mind works. It's so creative. Some of his dishes are simple, but not simple. It's a paradox," says Richards. The best way to describe his ingenuity, says Richards, is to describe his dishes: a single grilled scallion served with a puddle of black bean sauce, crispy pig's ear and sour milk powder, which she describes as "completely out there," or her favourite, a seared scallop with rhubarb compote and slow-cooked cream. "Good god, I'm going to be thinking about that one for years. So stupidly simple, so beautifully done."
Now, in his gritty memoir, Nine Lives: A Chef's Journey from Chaos to Control, Baltzley is dredging up a messy and occasionally blurry past in which his addictions – alcohol, cocaine, crack, marijuana – fuelled a manic journey from restaurant to restaurant. While this is familiar territory in chef memoirs, already well-chronicled in Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential and Gabrielle Hamilton's Blood, Bones and Butter, Baltzley's own experience is so recent and so raw some sections practically bleed off the page.
After ditching his dream position at Alinea and going on another binge, Baltzley was hired as the executive chef at Tribute, a high-profile Chicago restaurant that has since closed. With one more high-paying job and a two-bedroom penthouse that used to be R. Kelly's recording studio, he started smoking crack for the second time, which led to yet another crash and another stint in rehab.
"I hurt people," says Baltzley. "It's a thing all addicts share: You'll be walking down the street, or riding the bus, and your mind will go back to a certain situation when you were high. You feel overwhelming guilt and shame, and your stomach just falls."
Clean again but unhirable, he founded Crux, a boundary-pushing culinary collective. The once-weekly supper club, first based in Chicago and then Pittsburgh, operated out of an apartment where dishes were scrawled on the windows in dry-erase marker and reservations were made online. It was a critical darling, although Baltzley quickly tired of having to talk to the media about his tattoos and the drugs. "The whole rock-star chef label drives me nuts," he says.
Baltzley says he finally has his drug problem under control. While he hasn't stopped drinking or smoking pot, he says the goal of earning his own Michelin star is what he's fixated on these days.
Genoversa, once an addict himself and a good friend, says only time will tell. "Something's going to give," he says. "He's not going to change because it seems like a good idea. He's going to change because it's the only way to move forward."