Brandon Baltzley has been a star burning at supernova for awhile now. Having spent time in many restaurants across America, but known mostly for his time in Chicago (Alinea, Mado and Tribute – both shuttered, and his own weekly CRUX dinner series), Baltzley is a Chef who polarizes people to say the least. His extensive coverage by the online food writing world, particularly in Chicago, has managed to polarize people even more. He gained national exposure with an article a year ago in the Chicago Tribune about his issues with addiction as well as a big spread later the same year in Details magazine.
But despite climbing out of addiction and setting his feet firmly on the ground, Chicago ate away at him, eventually distracting him enough to take an opportunity working on a farm in Maine as a means of clearing his head, work on his upcoming book (out summer of 2013 from Gotham Publishing), and to learn all he could about farming in an effort to prepare for his next culinary adventure. In that time he’s put out a call to arms to the culinary community of America as well as laid the groundwork for an upcoming dinner in Pittsburgh, PA with acclaimed Chef Kevin Sousa (Salt of the Earth, Union Pig & Chicken, Station Street Hot Dogs), with more dinners and some big plans to be revealed in the coming weeks.
This Sunday, July 22nd, Sousa and his Chefs at Salt of the Earth will partner up with Baltzley for a 12 course dinner with optional beverage pairings (see the full menu above and here) that Sousa has dubbed “balls completely out”. The idea for the dinner came up before Baltzley even made a beeline to Pittsburgh on the way to Maine to specifically to eat at Sousa’s flagship restaurant.
Once he arrived in Portland, Baltzley and Sousa would e-mail and Skype back and forth when both had time (usually Sundays) about dish ideas, presentations and more, ultimately hashing out a final menu. That menu, along with other surprises, will be presented to a select group of 36 diners on Sunday (four tickets still remain as of this writing – call (412) 441–7258 for reservations).
On a break from working on the farm, Baltzley and I discussed the collaboration dinner with Sousa, what prompted his move to Maine and just what it is that drives him to veritably scorch the earth around him when it comes to his creativity.
Rock ‘n Roll Ghost: What interested you about Kevin Sousa at first?
Brandon Baltzley: Our food is the most similar to each other. His food is just close to mine in appearance, very vegetable heavy. The majority of all of his product comes from one farm in Pittsburgh. Yeah, he still uses modern techniques and his food doesn’t look farm to table but it really is. That stretches all the way to the design of the restaurant.
What’s the plan for the dinner?
Brandon Baltzley: 12 courses we released. We did that and planned all of the techniques via Skype. We meet once a week on Sundays on Skype just to keep everyone in the loop. Talk more and more about individual techniques for the dishes. I’ve done some testing here in Maine, he’s done some testing in Pittsburgh.
This is just us getting together, putting together a bad ass menu that is influencing us right now. The menu is very vegetable heavy and it has flavor combinations that I don’t think people who have eaten my food have seen (from me) before. I’m getting into some new areas. I’m not bringing anything back, everything’s new. I’m trying not to repeat any components I’ve done before. I haven’t done a dinner in awhile, so it’s like, yo, this is what I’m doing now!
A lot of restaurants change up their menu a lot, that’s a given. But your thing, when you were in Chicago doing CRUX dinners every week that were completely different week in and week out.
Brandon Baltzley: If you followed the last dinners I was doing in Chicago and you could see the menus (they’re all on the CRUX website) you could see where they were changing every course until near the end where there were a couple of things re-appearing. There were things that I would add things to or change the presentation of the dish. And that’s when I left. Because I was like I’m out of ideas, so fuck it, let’s change the environment if the environment affects your decisions. I’m going to go live on a farm and work on a farm and finish my book and get inspired by something new. And that’s what I did. And it worked.
What I’m getting at is, what do you feel is the thing that drives you to need/want to do something different, even week in and week out?
Brandon Baltzley: I don’t know. The way my brain works, a week after I do something I feel like I can figure out a way to make it better or do something different than it was previously. The reasoning for changing things up is to stay ahead of the game.
Changing things up is good, but the way you do it is rather hard for people to understand.
Brandon Baltzley: You have to be able to…it’s definitely hard and it’s not comfortable. I don’t know how to explain it.
What’s not comfortable?
Brandon Baltzley: The ever moving. The raging mind. It’s one of those things that, if I’m doing something and then I become comfortable, immediately to me that means my mind isn’t working at the level I want it to be working at. I think that right now I’m at a peak of coming up with ideas so I’m trying to get the most out of it until it ends.
What I’m getting at is, you understand that when you don’t live up to the desire that you want to do that brings on its own crash and that there’s no legitimate way to keep that level up in the way that you pursue, right?
Brandon Baltzley: I don’t know. I’ve been keeping it up now for about a year.
But I’m talking about those weekly dinners where you were pretty hard on yourself for not having a completely bold original, previous menu scorched to the earth, new one born out of the ashes kind of thing.
Brandon Baltzley: Right, but I think what had a lot to do with that was my surroundings at that time period and the things that were going on in my life. Breakups and moving and my sous chef going to EL. So I figured that I should get away from this stuff so I can actually put my focus back on the food. And as soon as I did that it they all came back.
The pursuit is almost more exciting than the actual end result.
Brandon Baltzley: Of course it is. The pursuit is what it’s all about.