FALMOUTH — Ignoring the flame suddenly flaring from the skillet on the stove, Brandon Baltzley reaches into the refrigerator and pulls out a package of Trans-Ocean’s Crab Classic.
“I eat a pack of this stuff a day. I’m not even joking,” says Baltzley. “It’s [expletive] delicious on a plate with French dressing.”
Not what you expect from a wunderkind chef who’s worked in renowned kitchens in New York and Chicago. But then Baltzley, a former sludge-metal drummer who has a knife-and-fork tattoo on his Adam’s apple, isn’t famous for doing what people expect. That’s how he ended up here, living with his pregnant girlfriend at her parents’ house in the woods of Falmouth. (Most recently, the mercurial Baltzley has cooked at Ribelle in Brookline, taken the traveling pop-up dinner CRUX on a Rust Belt tour, and been an Uber driver in Boston.)
Peers call Baltzley a brilliant chef, one of the most dazzling and innovative in the country, but a ferocious appetite for drink and drugs has derailed his career more than once. Now, at 31, the nomadic chef swears he’s (mostly) clean and sober and ready to begin again, this time on Cape Cod. Baltzley and his girlfriend, Laura Higgins, plan to open The 41-70 in Woods Hole on Thursday.
The restaurant, named for its latitude and longitude, marks a comeback of sorts for Baltzley, whose reputation for being an enfant terrible is well earned, even in an industry where bad behavior is de rigueur. Aside from out-of-control cocaine use, which he writes about in grueling detail in his 2013 memoir, “Nine Lives: A Chef’s Journey From Chaos to Control,” the hyper-creative Baltzley has a reputation for getting easily bored. Friends and fellow chefs say the challenge in Woods Hole, a seaside outpost not known for its cuisine, will be finding an audience for the unorthodox food that excites him.
“Brandon’s very committed to doing things the hard way, personally and professionally,” says Matt Jennings, the chef-owner at Townsman. “He’s picked a tough environment to do that. People want quality, but they don’t always want to think. They don’t want food that’s like one of those Russian dolls you open and there’s another one and another one.”
Baltzley can’t help himself. On a recent afternoon in Falmouth — a knit cap pulled over his pile of dreadlocks, and wearing a black T-shirt that reveals the root vegetables and Native American motifs inked on his hands and arms — the chef and his curly-haired sous prepared a few items from the 41-70 menu: Caesar salad with charred kale and swordfish dressed with freshwater seaweed, sea buckthorn, yolk, sardines, and candied kelp; oysters harvested by Baltzley off nearby Washburn Island and smoked on splinters of cedar and oak with juniper beurre monte; and Portuguese sweet bread with chourico butter and beach plum jam. All of it uncommon, and uncommonly delicious.
“We’re definitely playing the game,” says Baltzley, stepping outside to smoke a cigarette. “We have to disguise the food in a way that makes it approachable, not intimidating, but lets us do what we want to do. On the menu, it’s a Caesar salad with grilled swordfish. But that’s not what it is.”
Baltzley has been meddling with food since he was 9 years old, when he’d stand on a stepstool at the Whistle Stop Cafe, a kitchen his mother owned in the back of a gay bar in Jacksonville, Fla., cutting corn off the cob for turkey chowder or scrambling eggs, always with a pinch of something from the spice drawer.
“I liked tagging along with my mom, and food gave me something to do,” he says. “I got into video games and skateboarding, but they didn’t hold my attention like food did.”
Unconventional is one way to describe Baltzley’s family — “My last name is the name of my mom’s girlfriend’s father, who ended up marrying my grandmother, got that?” — and school was never a priority. By 16, he’d dropped out to cook full-time. When Baltzley wasn’t fixing food, he was behind the drums making a racket in bands with names like Dish Boy. That led to a stint in Kylesa, a Savannah, Ga., ensemble whose music — one song was called “Welcome Mat to an Abandoned Life” — might be characterized as the opposite of easy listening.
But Baltzley used his talents as a cook to pay the bills, first in Savannah, at Paula Deen’s fried-food palace, the Lady & Sons, and then at Cha Bella, where he developed a raging drug problem. (Baltzley discovered he functioned better in the kitchen if he took LSD to counter the effects of the cocaine from the night before.) Sobriety was intermittent in Washington, D.C., as well, where he worked as chef de cuisine at Nora, the country’s first certified-organic restaurant, and in New York, where, eating one night at chef Wylie Dufresne’s acclaimed wd~50, he was confronted by a “completely baffling” plate of scrambled-egg ravioli prepared with a blowtorch and resembling a piece of plexiglass.
“It was the dish that changed, fundamentally, who I am as a chef,” Baltzley writes in his book. “Maybe, if that scrambled egg was possible, there was a way to think conceptually about food, to really tell a story on a plate.”
He was hired soon after to run the East Village restaurant 6th Street Kitchen, but owner Chris Genoversa forbade his new chef from playing tricks with the food. He didn’t want Baltzley making mischief with gels and foams.
“We actually had a tag line printed on the menu: Simple food for complicated people,” says Genoversa. “I wanted good cooking that was comforting, not challenging.”
Baltzley acquiesced, but only for a while.
“Brandon’s one of the best cooks I’ve ever worked with. He’s like an astronaut, a future-of-food kind of guy,” says Genoversa. “But, sometimes, once he gets something down, he isn’t interested in doing it anymore and he’s onto something else.”
Indeed, Baltzley was on to Chicago, where he worked — for 14 days — at Grant Achatz’s Michelin-starred Alinea, and then for enigmatic chef Michael Carlson at the celebrated Schwa, from which Baltzley was fired after barely a month. Still, when Simon Lamb was looking for a chef to open Tribute, a new, 170-seat restaurant at the Essex Inn on trendy Michigan Avenue, he tapped Baltzley, whose audition blew away the competition.
“He cooked regular food, not experimental, and killed it,” says Lamb. “I’d heard there might be some challenges, but I decided to take a chance.”
Baltzley assembled a staff and worked for months on the menu, but as the opening approached, his behavior became erratic and he disappeared for days at a time. When Lamb discovered his chef on the floor of a hotel suite strewn with empty whiskey bottles, he let him go.
“My wife thinks I’m nuts, but I’d work with Brandon again,” says Lamb, who managed to open Tribute only to close it a few months later. “Watching Brandon in the kitchen is like watching a little kid with a toy. I’ve been in this business for 35 years, and he’s got a passion you don’t see very often.”
Baltzley arrived in Falmouth in 2014 after opening — and closing — a 10-seat restaurant on a small farm 45 desolate miles outside Chicago, in Michigan City, Ind. (He used the $60,000 advance he received for his book to buy the property.) Called TMIP — The Most Important Part — the restaurant had a tiny, live-in staff that raised pigs and produce to create dishes with a distinct Native American flavor. If that sounds like a commune, that was the idea, says Baltzley.
“Growing up, especially playing music, I was prone to a style of living where everybody pitches in and lives cheaply and everybody has a role in the household,” he says.
The restaurant, which Baltzley hoped would become a destination for serious foodies, never had all the permits necessary to open, but began serving dinner anyway and closed within two months.
“The issue was a $40,000 septic tank. I probably could have raised it using Kickstarter,” Baltzley says. “But I see no difference between Kickstarter and sitting on the corner bumming money.”
TMIP’s use of indigenous ingredients is characteristic of Baltzley’s cooking. At The 41-70, which he describes as a mash-up of English, Portugese, and Native American influences, he’ll use locally sourced fish and vegetables, but also flowers (Begonia, marigold, evening primrose), herbs (yarrow, sorrel, sweet fern), and any other ingredients he can forage (reindeer lichen, mountain ash, jelly fungus).
“It kind of amazes me — and worries me — that someone hasn’t done something special on the Cape before,” says Baltzley. “Everyone’s so concerned about making money, and obviously that’s an important factor in business, but there’s no soul in anything here.”
Baltzley’s new boss, Carol Grigas, who owns the 88-seat restaurant on Water Street that was formerly Phusion Grille, has read Baltzley’s book and knows all about his highs and lows. Still, she’s not concerned.
“His food is beautiful,” Grigas says. “I’m just excited to have young, talented kids in the kitchen.”
Baltzley is not completely sober these days. He continues to drink — mostly beer — and smokes marijuana, but he’s kicked the crippling cocaine habit, thanks in part to Higgins, a Culinary Institute of America graduate whom Baltzley met in Chicago and worked with at Ribelle. Only half-jokingly, Higgins compares herself to the bumpers that prevent a bowling ball from entering the gutter.
“To be honest,” says Baltzley, looking out the window of his Ford Escape at the gray, churning ocean, “I’ll be driving along and have a flashback of doing a bunch of drugs and feel like, ‘I really want to do that again.’ But five minutes later, the feeling is gone. It’s a maturity thing, I think.”
It’s fair to wonder, given his vagabond background, what Baltzley sees himself doing a decade from now. His answer is predictably unexpected.
“A free restaurant,” he says. “If the whole food-is-art concept is real, why can’t we open a museum that’s a historical representation of food on Cape Cod and make it free?”
Baltzley then laughs and takes a long drag off a cigarette.
“It’s a cool idea,” he says.
More in Food: