- Jeffrey Marini
- One of the dishes Baltzley prepared at a pop-up dinner in May
Pittsburgh is called the city of bridges. They're everywhere, spanning the three rivers in steel. It's easy to see how this place gave birth to someone like Andy Warhol, someone obsessed with the power of reinvention. Just cross the water and you're somewhere new. In that way, it's a fitting place for Brandon Baltzley, transient chef and all-around enfant terrible who left Chicago two years ago after a spectacular fall from grace. It's late April, and Baltzley has been living in Pittsburgh for just under a year now, making it the closest thing he's had to a home in a while. In a week, he'll leave Pittsburgh and eventually settle on a small farm in Indiana to open a restaurant he plans to call TMIP.
We're in Baltzley's car, a Mini Cooper that reeks of Red Bull and cigarettes, touring the city's winding hills and checking out his haunts—where he works, where he lives, where he drinks. This city is a strangely beautiful place. Streets seem to come out of nowhere and lead to nowhere. There's no palpable sense of geometry, no discernible grid or plan. The city sprung up around the mills, Baltzley explains. No one thought about it, they just built as they went. There's a certain romanticism to that, whether it's true or not—the idea of creating yourself as you go.
Baltzley is quiet as he guides the car across a bridge, one place giving way to the next. He tends to be most himself in these moments. In conversation, he's too conscious—too aware of how he seems. "Who wants the truth?" Warhol asked. "It's not what you are that counts, it's what they think you are." Two hours from now, Baltzley will leave me sitting alone at a bar and return to tell me that he's been doing coke and playing with guns. An hour after that, he'll cry in a hotel room while we talk about his dad. Two hours from now, he'll give me what I think he is—an hour after that, he'll show me the truth.
It's possible to walk into any kitchen, anywhere, and find a Brandon Baltzley. The restaurant world is teeming with hard-living, heavily tattooed prodigies—cooks who could turn into marvelously talented chefs if only they could get their shit together. The industry tends to draw very intense, creative people. But creation and destruction can be the same impulse, refracted differently by the will. It's not uncommon to find cooks who endure punishing 12-hour shifts and then spend the next several hours obliterating themselves with their drug of choice. It's also not uncommon to see those same cooks return to the line on little to no sleep and do the whole thing over again the next day. Perhaps unsurprisingly, kitchens can be unstable places. Tempers flare, egos clash. People leave jobs, people lose jobs. People battle their demons with varying results. It happens every day.
So why did Brandon Baltzley get a book deal out of it?
When I see Baltzley next, two weeks later, it's at a Barnes & Noble in Skokie. He's nervous, and drinking a Starbucks latte spiked with a miniature bottle of bourbon snagged from the hotel. This is the second leg of the tour to promote his memoir, Nine Lives: A Chef's Journey From Chaos to Control. He's already done a few events in New York, accompanied—for reasons he'd rather not disclose—by a bodyguard.
"What saved you?" asks a young woman, timidly. Baltzley smiles and shakes his head.
"I'm not saved," he says. "I have a restaurant in the making. I have people to take care of. That's it."
On the book's Amazon page, Baltzley is described as "a rising young chef" and the book as a "gripping story of culinary triumphs, consuming drug addictions, and his continuing quest to stay on top while staying sober." Wylie Dufresne, of New York's WD-50, calls Nine Lives a "compelling story of perseverance and the power of food." And Hugh Acheson, chef and owner of Empire State South in Atlanta (and a judge on Top Chef), writes that Baltzley is a "phenomenally talented, self-taught, but self-destroying chef."
"What's it like to write a book?" someone asks.
"It sucks," Baltzley says. "This book is nothing but a journal of everything fucked up I've done in my life."
He's seated at a table, drumming his fingers, one of his constant tics. Spread out on the shelves behind him is a spectrum of culinary celebrity: Mario Batali, the Barefoot Contessa, Giada De Laurentiis, Paula Deen. Chefs who have transcended their craft to become personalities with a capital P. Copies of Baltzley's book are stacked next to him on the table. He has signed each of them and inscribed them with a quote: "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." On the book's cover, Baltzley is photographed in profile, tattooed from fingers to shoulder, and appears to be arm wrestling a fish.
"Why do you cook?" someone asks.
"I don't know, I don't think about it," Baltzley answers. "I just cook, I just exist."
"What saved you?" asks a young woman, timidly. Baltzley smiles and shakes his head.
"I'm not saved," he says. "I have a restaurant in the making. I have people to take care of. That's it."
"Why did you call the book Nine Lives?" asks a woman named Kathy, a Barnes & Noble employee who has been moderating the Q&A and seems to have taken a kind of maternal liking to Baltzley.
"I feel lucky," he answers. "I feel like I have nine lives."
"Well, let's make this one the last one," Kathy says in a gentle voice.
"Trust me, I want to."
Most people who know Baltzley in Chicago are probably familiar with the life that began here in August 2010. Baltzley had just relocated from New York, where he'd served as the opening chef at 6th Street Kitchen, a small restaurant in the East Village focused on classic representations of American cuisine. The 6th Street job had been the high point of a tumultuous five years in New York. Baltzley, who grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, had been to rehab, been to jail, and had quit or been fired from more jobs than he could count. He'd fathered a child with a woman who left him midway through the pregnancy, never to be heard from again. He'd battled coke, crack, alcohol, and Adderall and worked his way onto the shit list of more than one jilted dealer. But by the time the 6th Street gig rolled around, Baltzley was sober and finally beginning to develop a cohesive culinary philosophy, striking a balance between minimalism and molecular manipulation. His boss at 6th Street, however, wasn't interested in experimentation. Baltzley was told to concentrate on simple dishes like roast chicken and deviled eggs. He was prohibited from using solidifying agents like agar or xanthan gum and warned that his boss "didn't want to see a foam within a mile of this restaurant." When an opportunity arose to work at Alinea, Grant Achatz's lauded beacon of modernist cuisine, Baltzley jumped on it.
"People want the ugly. It makes them feel better about themselves."—Brandon Baltzley
He resigned his position in New York, packed up his things, said good-bye to his girlfriend, and moved into a rented room in Wrigleyville. He began working at Alinea in the middle of August and lasted just into September. Two weeks into the job, Baltzley had to return home to Jacksonville after his mother's house was shot up in a drive-by. In the book, he writes that once in Jacksonville, he fell back into drinking and drugs. He was too ashamed to return to Alinea, perhaps for having forsaken the strict discipline of recovery. So he quit, and returned to Chicago jobless and broke. His girlfriend in New York dumped him. His Wrigleyville roommate changed the locks. He took up with an old acquaintance, Leigh Hansen, who was pursuing her PhD at the University of Chicago. They became a couple; Baltzley moved in. Then he got a job at Schwa, working under the famously unpredictable chef Michael Carlson. Less than a month later, Baltzley was fired.
In early November, he was tapped to take over Mado, a much-loved Bucktown restaurant that had just lost its founding chefs, Rob and Allie Levitt. Baltzley was given 48 hours to overhaul the menu and hire a staff. An article on the food blog Eater announced the change and referred to Baltzley as a "relatively unknown-in-Chicago New York chef." Online commenters added their own descriptions. A time bomb, an asshole, a mess, a fake. "So he staged at Alinea and now he's running Mado," someone wrote. "Awesome." Baltzley's mom posted, lambasting the anonymous criticism and calling her son a genius. And then Baltzley himself wrote in, asking to be given a chance. "I'm just trying to cook some food. I am nobody special. Why do you even care?"
One month after he took the job, Baltzley quit—walking out just hours before service and taking his entire staff with him.
The Mado debacle played out publicly. Both Baltzley and Mado owner David Richards gave interviews to local food writers, each trying to wrest control of the narrative away from the other. Baltzley claimed that Richards refused to pay his purveyors or staff. Richards claimed Baltzley's costs were out of control. Regardless of the truth, Baltzley was now on the radar. The postmortem on Mado became a hot topic on local food blogs and, in a written statement to the Chicago culture blog Rock 'n Roll Ghost, Baltzley called the sudden attention a "media shit storm." When he was hired to open Tribute, a 6,800-square-foot restaurant slated to launch in the Essex Inn in May 2011, people were paying attention.
He spent months developing the menu—and training the staff. But just before the restaurant officially opened its doors, Baltzley lost the job. He'd gone on a five-day coke binge, ignored increasingly frantic calls from his friends, his coworkers, his boss. When he finally came up for air, Baltzley was fired. He asked the owners to keep the situation under wraps; they said they would try. Ten minutes later, he received a message on Twitter from Tribune food writer Kevin Pang inquiring about what had happened at Tribute. Baltzley had asked for a chance to prove himself, and he'd been given one. He'd won the job with his interpretation of Carolina barbecue: pork belly confit with sweet potato panna cotta and mustard barbecue sauce. Baltzley had been given free rein over a menu that would walk the line between classic American cooking and modernist innovation. Tribute was his opportunity to finally just cook some food—to be judged not for his personality but for his craft. And Baltzley fucked it up.
But perhaps not entirely.
"Don't read what they write about you," Warhol said. "Just measure it in inches."
In early June, just weeks after he'd lost the job, the Tribune published a 2,100-word profile of Baltzley. The writer, Pang, wove elements of Baltzley's biography with a minute-by-minute account of his cab ride to a rehab center on the southwest side. Baltzley claims that after the coke binge, his bosses at Tribute had agreed to suspend him if he sought treatment, and reinstate him once he was clean. After he made arrangements to enroll in a 30-day program, Baltzley alleges, they reneged on the deal and fired him. "But I already had a bed," Baltzley told me. "So I was like, 'Fuck it, I'll go anyway.'"
Pang sat next to Baltzley in the cab as it made its way to the rehab facility, literally counting down the minutes until Baltzley's life would change. Baltzley was hungover, scared, a nervous wreck. He was sitting in the middle seat, between the writer and Baltzley's new girlfriend, Emily Belden, because "sitting by the door might give him second thoughts about what he's about to do." Belden was quoted about his extensive cocaine use and utter lack of control. His mother recalled realizing he was using drugs after witnessing him collapse. Baltzley's former boss at Tribute spoke of his prodigious talent—a talent that simply wasn't enough to outweigh his destructive tendencies. Baltzley emerged as a lost soul, completely enslaved by vice.
The Tribune article ends as Baltzley stands outside the rehab center, taking one last drag on a cigarette before walking through the doors. Two days later, with no reporter watching, he walked back out. A few months after the article ran, Baltzley was approached by ICM Partners, a talent agency with offices in New York, London, and LA. "They'd read the Tribune interview," Baltzley says, "and told me if I wrote a proposal, they could sell my book."
I ask if Baltzley had any reservations about writing a memoir at the age of 26, or about sharing the sordid details of his life.
"None," he says.
Back at the Barnes & Noble book signing in Skokie, a young woman has pulled Baltzley aside. She's writing her own book—about vampires—and asks for his advice. "Don't do vampires," he says. "Go trolls. People want the ugly, it makes them feel better about themselves."
"That girl probably fucking hates you right now, just so you know," Baltzley says to me over drinks on the night in April when I visit him in Pittsburgh. He nods toward a pretty dark-haired woman at the end of the bar and speaks under his breath, though she's well out of earshot. "She doesn't know why you're here, she just knows that you're here with me." I catch the girl's eye and smile. She smiles back. If she hates me, it doesn't show.
The bartender pours two shots, one for me, one for Baltzley, and then someone drops off a plate.
"Where did this fish come from?" Baltzley asks of no one in particular. "Are we near an ocean?" He left this restaurant two weeks ago after several months as its chef, and the menu is already starting to change.
"Everything should be local," he says. "Everything. We should be using Amish cheese, not fucking Manchego."
"Roof?" someone asks.
"Oh hell no," Baltzley screams. "You know I'm not going up there."
Two minutes later, we're climbing through a narrow shaft in the dark. One hand on the splintering rungs of a wooden ladder, the other clutching a beer. Once we're up, Baltzley positions himself in the center of the roof, near an air shaft. The rolling hills of the city extend toward the river, blanketed in the soft darkness of night.
"Brandon, get over here. You have to see this!" someone says. In the parking lot below, a woman appears to be giving her companion a blow job. She stops angrily when he pushes her away to answer his phone. Baltzley laughs but he isn't moving. "I can't," he says. "I'm scared of heights."
"You're not scared of heights, Brandon. You're scared of the edge."
Baltzley drinks his beer for a while longer, smokes a cigarette. Finally he looks at me and says, "I'm ready to go back down." We reclaim our seats at the bar, then Baltzley disappears. Twenty minutes later, he returns and tells me we need to leave. Now. He's jittery in the car. "I went to mess around with this guy's new gun and I did a line of coke," he says. "Just one. I really do not want to be driving right now. Shit, I don't even have a license." Once we're back at the hotel, he uncaps a bottle of bourbon and places it on the table. "I like to drink Deadwood style," he says, referring to the HBO series about life in the old west. "Pour a shot, toss it back, and do it again till the bottle's gone." I don't have Deadwood-level stamina at this point. I'm exhausted but Baltzley clearly wants to talk. He wants to talk about his dad.
- Jeffrey Marini
- Baltzley: " I found happiness in the woods of Maine. TMIP [his new restaurant] is my Maine. I need affection. It's a weird thing. That's why I'm a dog guy. That's why I fuck around. Drugs are used out of boredom. TMIP is safe."
The small farmhouse in Michigan City, Indiana, has been abandoned for over a year and is being slowly reclaimed by the earth. Tall grass grows in between the floorboards of the porch, and a family of bats occupies the attic. In the corners of windowsills, wasps have been constructing their fragile paper nests. Here, in the small formal dining room with faded, peeling wallpaper and a window overlooking the pond, is where the guests will sit. Ten people, one seating per night. Through the door and into the kitchen, picture an island here, a small bar by the windows, a chef's table that will seat four, possibly five. The equipment will be mainly over there along the southern wall. Now up the narrow wooden staircase to the staff quarters, please ignore the pile of excrement left by the bats. One bedroom here, an office there.
"Wait, what happens when somebody wants to have sex?" Steve Newman asks with a laugh, but he's only half kidding.
"Well," Leigh Hansen pauses to think, giving the question the same level of consideration she would give any question pertaining to operations at TMIP. "I guess maybe we would have to devise some sort of schedule."
"Great," says Newman. "I'll need about seven minutes."
Newman first met Baltzley two years ago through a mutual friend who'd spent time with Baltzley during one of his stints in rehab. Newman and Baltzley have a lot in common: they're both from Florida, they're both cooks, and they'd both been struggling with addiction for years. Following Baltzley's dismissal from Tribute, the two had collaborated on a few of the pop-up dinners and found they worked well together. They briefly shared an apartment before Baltzley decided to leave Chicago and travel to Maine. When Baltzley made plans to return to the area and open a restaurant on a farm, Newman was the first person he called.
"I can't wait to be out of the city," says Newman. "No street corners, no dealers."
I ask Newman if he thinks it's impossible to stay sober in the city. "Impossible? No. But it's really hard.
"TMIP will be a place where we can be," he goes on. "A place where we can truly exist. As it is, I work on the 16th floor of a high-rise. I don't see the sky for 12 hours. It could've been raining all day and I wouldn't have the slightest idea." Newman is standing on the porch of the farmhouse, smoking. He surveys the land and smiles.
"To be able to just walk outside? Man."
I ask if Newman has any trepidation about partnering with Baltzley, if he ever worries that Baltzley, given his history, is fundamentally incapable of seeing a project through.
"No," Newman answers. "Leigh gives him structure. TMIP will give him structure. Brandon is committing to an act of self-preservation that he'll have no choice but to uphold."
Over dinner in April in Pittsburgh, at one of the three restaurants where Baltzley worked during his ten-month stay, Baltzley had asked why I wasn't writing anything down. Of all the questions I'd posed, why did I never seem to record his response? The reason, though I didn't tell him so, is that I'd discovered the most sensitive questions are best asked via text; there's something about the disconnect that seems to make Baltzley feel safe. So when Newman mentions structure, I'm immediately reminded of a text exchange I'd had with Baltzley weeks before on the subject of addiction.
Me: Do you think what defines an addict is that they always need something?
Baltzley: Yes. It's the constant inability to be happy with oneself. I teeter the line of being happy with myself.
Me: Do you think TMIP will make you happy?
Baltzley: I found happiness in the woods of Maine. TMIP is my Maine. I need affection. It's a weird thing. That's why I'm a dog guy. That's why I fuck around. Drugs are used out of boredom. TMIP is safe. The constant care for life. Plants. Animals. My staff. I like taking care of people.
Me: Because you can't take care of yourself.
Baltzley: I think that's rhetorical.
Me: It wasn't a question.
Like Baltzley, Leigh Hansen has several tattoos. She has a T.S. Eliot poem on her back and, on her foot, a quote we attribute to Newton: "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." There's a scene from The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry on her arm, and I'm reminded of one of the book's most famous quotes: "Tu deviens responsable pour toujours de que ce tu as apprivoisé"—"You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed."
Hansen and Baltzley first met in New York when she lived in an apartment just around the corner from 6th Street Kitchen. Once she returned to Chicago, her hometown, and Baltzley relocated for the Alinea job, they reconnected on Facebook. Soon after, Alinea fell apart, as did Baltzley's relationship with his girlfriend in New York.
"He wasn't in a great place," Hansen says. "And so he ended up in my apartment."
Baltzley is never unattached for long. He is candid about this in his book—perhaps too candid. I wonder if Hansen is bothered by the many graphic descriptions of Baltzley's past exploits.
"Both the publisher and I had the same comment, that the women in the book were interchangeable," she says. "I'm not a feminist, but I am a literary person, and it begs a repetitive structure."
Hansen smiles and shrugs. "I told Brandon that it just made it sound as if his life was this rut of nameless sex and drugs. And he said, 'Good, because that's exactly what it was.' The women seem interchangeable because, at the time, they were.
"Besides," she says. "All those chapters came before me. The last three are mine."
By the final three chapters of Nine Lives, Baltzley's relationship with Emily Belden, his girlfriend at the time of the Tribune article, has ended—in part, Baltzley says, because Belden was unable to accept his evolving definition of "sobriety," which still allowed for drinking and occasional drug use. At that point in the book he'd founded the culinary collective Crux—so called because he liked the word's meaning: the most important part. But it was his dream to eventually own his own restaurant, ideally on a farm, and despite his peripatetic nature—or perhaps because of it—he was ready to get out of Chicago.
Hansen happened to be at a crossroads in her own life, having found that academia left her feeling too disassociated from the everyday world. So the two packed up their belongings and drove east, eventually finding work on a farm in Maine. Hansen spent her childhood on her grandparent's commercial farm in Cherry, Illinois, so farming wasn't new to her. But farming was never something that Hansen, who just months before had been pursing a PhD in French literature, imagined herself doing. After Maine, she changed her mind. Hansen and Baltzley decided to partner on a restaurant, TMIP. They would open it on a farm, serving primarily only the things they were able to raise themselves. Baltzley would be in charge of the restaurant; Hansen would oversee the farm.
They left Maine for Pittsburgh, where Baltzley had an opportunity to work with chef Kevin Sousa at his restaurant Salt of the Earth. That relationship soon soured, Baltzley says, because Sousa was under the impression that Baltzley was sober. From there he went on to take jobs at Stagioni, an Italian restaurant in Pittsburgh's South Side neighborhood, and Bar Marco. Hansen, meanwhile, moved back to Illinois to concentrate on securing the land for TMIP. She worked on the deal in Michigan City for weeks, scouting out properties, attending zoning hearings, and making sure they could acquire the myriad licenses they would need to function as both a restaurant and a farm.
On April 16 of this year, while still in Pittsburgh, Baltzley tweeted: "I got a restaurant!!I got a restaurant!!"
A few minutes later, he tweeted: "WE got a restaurant!! WE got a restaurant!!"
On her own Twitter page, Hansen posted: "That's better . . ."
Hansen recalls a day when Baltzley called her after checking his bank account, astounded to discover how much money was there. "That's what happens when I control the money," she told him. Because of old habits, Baltzley does not trust himself to have access to cash.
I ask Hansen the same question I ask Steve Newman—does she ever worry that, like so many other things in his life, TMIP will be something that Baltzley can't see through? The question is especially pertinent to Hansen, who plans to move full-time to the Michigan City property in a few weeks to begin renovating the house and cultivating the land. And also because, after years of being a couple on and off, she and Baltzley were married earlier this year.
"No," answers Hansen, without hesitation. "He is committed to this."
From a text conversation with Baltzley:
Me: Is part of the reason you're with Leigh for balance?
Baltzley: Leigh is balance. Leigh is my best friend.
Me: Are you scared of what would happen without her?
Baltzley: I think I would live a very different life.
When Baltzley and I got back to the hotel room the night I visited him in Pittsburgh, we began talking about his childhood, about how he and his mother never seemed to stay in one place for long. His mother, Amber, who is a lesbian, had a string of abusive relationships, and Baltzley recalls breaking up more than one fight between his mom and a hard-drinking girlfriend. When he was 12, Baltzley asked to go stay with his father, who lived in Louisiana with a wife and two sons. In an effort to give Baltzley a more stable life, Amber obliged. Six months later, after Baltzley had settled into his new home, enrolled in a Catholic school, and begun playing on the football team, his father sent him back to Florida, offering Baltzley no explanation. "I just wanted a house," Baltzley told me that night in the hotel. "I just wanted meals. Instead of my mom and a bunch of rough lesbian chicks. I just wanted a family."
He poured himself a shot to calm his nerves. Baltzley says he doesn't do a lot of coke these days. What little he says he did that night, he didn't seem to handle well. He was jittery and agitated, regretful. I'm convinced that he did it so I would write about it—so I would help show people the ugly he thinks they've come to expect.
- Jeffrey Marini
- Baltzley’s May pop-up dinner at the home of the parents of his wife, Leigh Hansen (standing behind him), was a tribute to the menu he conceived—but never got to execute—at Tribute.
On a warm night in early May, Baltzley is cooking a pop-up dinner for eight in the Lincoln Park home of Leigh Hansen's parents. He decided to do it just days before and has been frantically preparing ever since. The oven went out that morning, so Baltzley cooked everything in the fireplace. He's doing all the plating; Hansen is helping him serve. In the corner of the dining room, trays of tomatoes and herbs grow beneath a light, waiting to be transplanted into the ground.
The theme of the night's dinner is Tribute.
"We all know I didn't make it to the opening of Tribute," the invitation read. "So I thought I'd show y'all what was supposed to go down. I'll be resurrecting dishes from the menu as I envisioned them before it all went to shit."
The menu lists no components, only places. Cities and towns in which Baltzley has lived and worked. Palmyra, Maine, is a halo of spring radishes, dipped in lamb fat and dusted with bee pollen. Saint Augustine, Florida, is a rich fish consomme with mussels and delicately seared snapper. Chicago is Baltzley's interpretation of Italian beef, cooked in ash and placed over fermented sunchokes and giardiniera puree. The dish manages to capture the essence of Italian beef with no literal representation of its flavors. It is completely unfamiliar to me and yet somehow tastes exactly like home.
After dinner, the guests gather around Baltzley in the kitchen, lauding him with compliments. Someone has brought him a bottle of whiskey and he amiably lines up the glasses and pours everyone a shot. After the drink, most of the guests thank him once more and say their good-byes. But a boisterous middle-aged couple is hanging on. Baltzley pours them more whiskey as they pepper him with questions and ask him for stories. They refer to chefs like Grant Achatz and Wylie Dufresne by their first names, as though they're personal friends. Having been the recipient of more than one of Baltzley's shots, I write in my notes, "People collect chefs like shells." Baltzley rolls a blunt as the couple watches, enthralled. He takes a long drag and holds it while signing the menus they've saved. They laugh, delighted, as he exhales. Baltzley looks at me and smiles.
"Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art." —Andy Warhol
When TMIP becomes operational in 2014, the hope is that it will be funded, in part, by royalties from Baltzley's book. He envisions it as a beautiful existence, far removed from the ugliness of his past lives. It will be a place for Leigh Hansen to farm, to feel connected to both her history and her work. It will be a place where Steve Newman can see the sky. And for Baltzley, it will be the home he's always wanted—the piece of him that's always been missing.
"What does TMIP stand for?" I ask him one day.
"The most important part," he says.