The Reader‘s archive is vast and varied, going back to 1971. Every day in Archive Dive, we’ll dig through and bring up some finds.
Journalists are ace bullshit detectors. Or at least that’s what we like to tell ourselves. You do not need me to tell how a lot of that is absolute bullshit. Journalists are just as susceptible to a good story as anybody else, especially when the person telling it makes us feel trusted and important and special. Often this has had disastrous consequences. But you don’t need me to tell you that, either.
And then there are pieces like Sarah Nardi’s 2013 Reader story “Who does Brandon Baltzley think he is?” It’s a portrait of a very gifted and very troubled young chef whose substance abuse problem kept getting in the way of his career. As Nardi points out, it’s not an uncommon story. “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.”
At the time of Nardi’s profile, Baltzley, then 26, had already been through New York, Alinea, Schwa, Mado (until he walked out just before opening), Tribute (until he was fired for disappearing on a five-day coke binge), jail, and rehab. Now he was starting over, again: he was in a new and serious relationship, had just published a memoir, and was about to open a new restaurant on a farm near Michigan City, Indiana. Other Chicago chefs were mystified: how did this fuck-up keep getting so many chances? Besides that he could cook really, really well?
Nardi spent a lot of time with Baltzley. Their interviews went deep into some very dark places, almost like therapy sessions. Over a long night in Pittsburgh, over many shots of bourbon, he tells her about his hard-luck Florida childhood and about his struggles with addiction. “Two hours from now,” Nardi wrote, “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.”
But Nardi was smart enough to know what she was dealing with: she knew she wasn’t the first reporter he’d opened up to. Baltzley was no stranger to the press. He knew how to perform for reporters, even when the subject wasn’t food. Kevin Pang, then with the Tribune, had accompanied him on the cab ride to rehab and written an affecting story about it. And now it was Nardi’s turn:
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.
The new restaurant lasted less than a week. Baltzley has gone through two more restaurants since then. The latest, the Buffalo Jump, opens this Friday in East Falmouth, Massachusetts; his co-chef is also his wife, who according to a profile on Munchies (Vice’s food site), keeps careful track of his drinking. He writes for Kitchen Toke, the new Chicago-based magazine about cooking with weed. A new book called Hot Mess presents a fictionalized account of the Tribute debacle; its author, Emily Belden, was his girlfriend at the time. Baltzley’s a fuck-up. But, as Nardi points out, he’s a talented, charismatic fuck-up. The beauty of her profile is how she remains sympathetic while seeing straight through him.