[UPDATE] THIS DINNER HAS BEEN CANCELLED DUE TO TRAVEL COMPLICATIONS.
On Thursday, Empire State South and chef Ryan Smith will host chef Brandon Baltzley, author of the new culinary memoir “Nine Lives: A Chef’s Journey from Chaos to Control.”
Baltzley’s story begins at age nine, when he fell in love with cooking at the Whistle Stop Cafe, a kitchen in the back of a gay bar in Jacksonville, Florida, where his single mom made soup and sandwiches.
From there, he paid his dues job-hopping through kitchens high and low, while playing drums in punk and heavy metal bands and battling multiple addictions — finally rising to chef positions in high profile fine dining restaurants in New York and Chicago.
Baltzley’s dark, funny and passionate account of food, rock, drugs and sex has drawn comparisons to Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential” and Gabrielle Hamilton’s “Blood, Bones and Butter.”
But Baltzley, who is still under 30 and clearly something of a culinary prodigy, is his own man, capturing the culture and attitudes of his generation in prose that’s raw and real, and sometimes shocking. Especially when he’s writing about food, it can be exhilarating, too.
Thankfully, Baltzley’s story has a happy ending. Currently, he’s on tour with Crux, his nomadic culinary collective. And next year, he and his wife, Leigh, plan to open a restaurant, TMIP, on their farm in Indiana.
I caught up with Baltzley last week, when he phoned from a stop in Miami, where he was doing a couple of Crux pop-up events. Here’s some of what he had to say:
Q. How’s the tour going so far?
A. We went through Chicago, Pittsburgh and New York and did some signings, but nobody really knows who I am right now. The book signings at places like Barnes and Noble are really, really strange. Very “Spinal Tap.” I go there and there might be two people in the audience.
Q. But now you’re on tour cooking, again, right?
A. This leg of the tour I’m doing independently. I’m going to places where people have expressed interest in cooking with me or where I’ve cooked before. But we had a little problem when we headed out from Chicago. We got pulled over in Nashville, and I didn’t have a drivers license. They didn’t impound the car, but they said it might be wise if I fly for the next few dates, and then go back to Indiana and get a drivers license.
Q. Where is home now?
A. The farm is in Michigan City, Indiana. We’re moving there from Chicago in June. It’s about an hour drive. We’ve already seeded our first crops and they’re all healthy and good looking. My mom is coming from Florida to help out. We’re gutting the place and turning it into a restaurant in the next couple of months. The entire staff is going to move in on October 1. We’re going to spend two or three months getting ready and doing friends and family. When we open to the public, I’ll hand off Crux to another chef. We don’t want that to ever go away.
Q. What brings you to Atlanta and Empire State South?
A. I’ve never met Ryan in person, but I know about their food and I really like Hugh’s philosophy. It’s pretty much what we’re trying to do at TMIP. When I was planning out this tour, I was looking at people who share the same food beliefs as we do, and we just reached out to them. A lot of them were super long shots, like Sean Brock and Hugh Acheson, but they responded really quickly, so that was wonderful.
Q. What will the ESS dinner be like?
A. It will be a little different, because Ryan will be doing a couple of dishes and I’m going to be doing a couple of dishes. Usually, we have all the chefs hands in every plate. So it will be interesting to see how it all flows together. But I’m really happy with how the menu came out.
Q. Has your cooking changed?
A. It’s changed a lot over the last couple of years. I don’t even [mess] with molecular [stuff] anymore. What we’re doing is picking flavors that go well together and finding ingredients that are really fresh. I don’t really think about technique until the product is there in front of me in the kitchen and it’s time to go at it. That’s the way I cook now, and it feels much more natural.
On Thursday evening at ESS, Brandon Baltzley and Ryan Smith will be preparing a six-course dinner, with optional wine pairings by Steve Grubbs or non-alcoholic pairings by Kellie Thorn. $130 (tax and gratuity not included), includes a copy of “Nine Lives” signed by Baltzley. Dinner begins at 6:30 p.m.
Call for reservations: 404-541-1105.
Here’s a link that includes the menu: hughacheson.blogspot.com
— By Bob Townsend, for the AJC Food and More blog.