|By Kevin Pang, Chicago
TribuneMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
June 07, 2011--Here the man falls, all gruff and bravado, falling like a rocket that exploded midflight. One week he's poised to be the wunderkind chef of a big-time downtown restaurant; the next, he's slipping away from the success he'd hoped to achieve, falling from the grace he's yet to taste.
Brandon Baltzley slides into the middle seat of a taxi. Sitting by the door might give him second thoughts about what he's about to do. The cab swings out the driveway of the Gold Coast high-rise where his girlfriend lives and onto southbound State Street.
It is 8:35 a.m. His belly feels scorched from the bottle of Jim Beam and the nearly entire deep-dish pizza consumed the night before, when the thought of the cab ride and where he was heading filled him with such anxiety that he stayed up all night. Arriving at rehab exhausted and hung over isn't the best idea, but Baltzley has been through this before and is keenly aware of what he is about to face.
"I definitely don't want to go," Baltzley says to his girlfriend, Emily Belden, 24. He exhales loudly, clears his throat. "These 30 days are going to be f---- rough."
A week earlier, Baltzley, 26, was the head chef at Tribute, an ambitious, 170-seat restaurant set to open in the Essex Inn in the South Loop. He spent months developing his menu, crafting a document to tell the world: This is who I am. Instead, on this morning in late May, he will check himself into a drug rehabilitation program on the West Side.
The night before, he paid $100 he owed his dealer. He gave his apartment keys to a friend with instructions on locating his cocaine paraphernalia. Throw it all away, he told him.
In his duffel bag are clothes, two cooking books, toiletries and paper for letters he promised to write Belden every day.
The pressures of the kitchen drive an untold number of chefs into substance abuse. "Aside from officers and firefighters that put their lives on the line, there's no other profession that puts demands on an individual and sets (its workers up) so well to fall into substance abuse and failed marriages," said chef Phillip Foss of the forthcoming El restaurant. "And the vast majority of substance abusers just let it slide." But Baltzley sought treatment voluntarily, and in the process let go of a high-profile position many cooks would kill for.
The cab will arrive at the rehab center in eight miles, 26 minutes.
IN THE MID-1990s, years before he frittered away what he called his dream job, 9-year-old Brandon needed a stepping stool to reach the kitchen counter. He'd cut corn from the cob, mom would slice cabbage.
It was the two of them -- always the two of them in life -- working in The Whistlestop, the cafe Amber Baltzley owned in Jacksonville, Fla., where Baltzley made his first bowl of white corn turkey chowder. His mother sought ways to spend time with her only child, and cooking held his attention like no other.
He was less devoted to his studies, and he dropped out two weeks into high school. Amber Baltzley knew forcing her son to return was a waste of energy, so she cut him a deal: If you don't go to school, you work full time. By 16, Baltzley was cooking at one of the toniest restaurants in Jacksonville, Stella's Piano Cafe.
Baltzley found parallels with cooking and his other love, playing drums. Both provided immediate and intense tactile gratification. For two years he toured with the metal band Kylesa, and he submitted to all the rock star vices -- booze, girls, weed, his first line of cocaine. Amber Baltzley first realized her son was dabbling while watching a show. He looked as if he'd been awake for a week, she recalled. After the last song, Baltzley collapsed onto his drums.
Tired of traveling and eager to cook again, he landed at an Italian restaurant in Savannah, Ga., at 21, but the drug habit lurked. He said he stayed clean in Georgia but lapsed when he moved to Washington, D.C.
Moving to New York only made things worse. Getting cocaine was as easy as pizza, Baltzley said -- you called and they'd deliver in 30 minutes. He was making good money at restaurants like Allen & Delancy and Bouley Upstairs. But the jobs were more pit stops: six months here, nine months there. On days off, he'd disappear from the world, snorting cocaine alone in his apartment, always fearing the crash that followed the high. In a single four-day binge, he recalled going through $2,000 of product.
Baltzley was, however, lucid enough to check himself into a rehab facility early last year. He called it the worst 30 days of his life. The withdrawals were hell. His three roommates were legally obligated to be there, he said, and offered no support. And for a chef -- the indignity of hospital food! Square slabs of fish served on compartmentalized trays, well, that just put it over the top.
He emerged a shaken man, with a result that would not hold.
THREE MILES, 14 MINUTES IN, the cab turns onto the Eisenhower Expressway on-ramp. He stares down at nothing in particular; Belden is looking out the window. Their arms are hooked at the elbow.
As Baltzley describes what he's feeling, the conversation turns to vaccinations, and the feeling of knowing a needle's coming. The nurse removes the plastic cap and you catch a glimpse of metal, and every muscle tenses up, and your heart's pounding -- you're rubbing the tops of your knees for distraction, and you know the needle's coming ...
"That's exactly what it's like," Baltzley says.
HE SENT HIS RESUME TO ALINEA on a whim. Not a chance, Baltzley thought. So when he was hired in September, Baltzley was over the moon. He moved to Chicago, and his trajectory was headed in one direction: to the skies.
But two weeks after he started at Alinea, his mom's Jacksonville home was hit by bullets. She lived in a part of town plagued by gang violence. Baltzley flew down to comfort his mother, knowing fully well that if he went home, his old friends would come around, and the urge ...
When he returned to Chicago a week later, Baltzley was in bad shape. He'd taken up drinking again. He wrote chef Grant Achatz, and, in one of his most humiliating moments, apologized and said he wasn't in any state to continue.
A month after Alinea, Baltzley took over the head job at Mado in Bucktown. He didn't realize the mess he was in for: He was told he had 48 hours to open, so he scrambled and assembled a kitchen crew mostly of culinary school students. When squabbles with the owner over finances began to boil over, he and his staff walked out right before Thanksgiving.
Around this time, restaurateur Simon Lamb was looking to open a restaurant at the Essex Inn on Michigan Avenue. (Lamb oversaw daily operations at Gioco and Redlight.) Lamb called Baltzley and suggested he apply, and, from 100-plus applicants, Baltzley made it to the round of a dozen finalists. Then came the cooking tryout.
"Brandon blew everybody away," Lamb said. "He cooked food where I was later dreaming about the dish." Baltzley wowed him with a modern take on Carolina barbecue: pork belly confit with Brussels sprouts coleslaw, sweet potato panna cotta and mustard barbecue sauce. "He was driven, entertaining, nontraditional, very relaxed and very funny. I thought, I gotta give this guy a shot."
Baltzley landed the highest-profile job of his career -- a tattooed dropout heading a restaurant on Chicago's most famous avenue. But his newly steady paycheck also enabled his drug habit. Gaps of time appeared in the otherwise constant chatter on his Twitter feed; phone calls went unanswered.
It is difficult to quantify substance abuse among chefs, or, when it comes to drinking, at least, even to define it. Television would have you believe that cooking is a glamorous industry when a reality of 14-hour days and $350 a week is closer to the norm.
Before Rick Gresh became executive chef at David Burke's Primehouse, he witnessed friends strung out during service. At one restaurant, Gresh recalled asking a line cook working next to him, "Dude, are you alive?" The cook collapsed moments later.
Anecdotes suggest a combination of factors that make work in the kitchen conducive to substance abuse after hours: a high-pressure environment, the type of people the job attracts and a social hour that begins after midnight.
"We're in a business where you can get anything you want, any time of day, any day of the week," Gresh said. "It's just how it is."
SEVEN MILES, 23 MINUTES IN. The cab turns off the Eisenhower and onto Independence Boulevard.
"Cooking gives me a gratification that nothing else gives me," Baltzley says. "It's the fact that I'm so f--- up and I do all these horrible things in my life, but when I can cook for someone they don't think about those things. Cooking is my mask."
Silence inside the cab.
"I'm secretly wishing they'd turn me away ..."
Baltzley is asked if he's done his last line of cocaine. Seven seconds tick by.
"Yeah. I think I'm done."
Why the long pause?
"It's been in my life for seven years."
On the right, a three-story brick building appears.
"Oh God, we're here," he says. "Oh my God."
EMILY BELDEN DOESN'T KNOW WHY she fell for him. She was the product of a stable, drug-free household in the suburbs and dated clean-cut men with steady careers. An hour into their first meeting, three months ago, Baltzley gave his full disclosure -- "I'm self-destructive. I'm an addict. I pretty much would ruin everything." -- and yet it developed into romance.
Belden first saw him use on their second date. They spent a perfect Sunday together, but that night Baltzley said he needed to get high, and, being naive about cocaine's effects, she didn't protest. In hindsight, she said, it was a mistake.
The first sign of trouble came in late April. Baltzley, between apartments and staying at the Essex Inn, left work one night and started doing lines in his hotel room. It was a few days until anyone reached him, and by then, Baltzley was in cocaine's full grip.
His kitchen staff found him shaking, sweating, vomiting, suffering from chest pains. Belden walked into his room and found empty wine bottles, cigarette butts and drug bags strewn about. She was massaging out fist-size bumps of lactic acid built up on Baltzley's back.
Lamb entered and saw shame in Baltzley's eyes. They read, "I let you down." Lamb was more concerned than angry -- by that time the two had become friends first and colleagues second. Still, Lamb had a lot of investors' money riding on Tribute. He made Baltzley sign an agreement saying he'd find help.
But it happened again in mid-May. He called Belden: "I'm doing drugs tonight. You don't want to be around me."
The next five days were a blur for him. Baltzley simply vanished. Lamb said he left 20 messages for him and called around to all the hospitals. Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday -- nothing.
Tuesday morning, May 17, Lamb got a text from Baltzley. It read: "We have to talk."
THE CAB METER STOPS AT $23. Baltzley arrives at the Gateway Foundation Alcohol & Drug Treatment center at 9:01 a.m. One week has passed since he and Tribute agreed to end their relationship. He and Lamb remain amicable. (On May 18, Tribute announced Lawrence Letrero, who worked under Baltzley, as its new chef.)
Baltzley says he doesn't know which is more frightening: the next 30 days, or the first day he re-enters the world. He doesn't know if people will ever take him seriously again. But he says he's sorry for the people he has let down.
Said Belden: "Seeing him do drugs has changed my opinion of what a drug addict is. Brandon does this alone on a Sunday night. Yes, he decides to take the first hit ... but once he does that, he loses all control over it. I feel like he's trapped in a body that's convincing him that he needs it."
A patient stares out the window, as if sizing him up. Then, he waves a friendly wave. Baltzley lights up one last cigarette.
"I don't want to be here for the next month, but I have to if I want to ... if I want to be hirable. If I want the opportunity again for someone to put their trust in me."
He takes one final puff and extinguishes the cigarette. He rubs the back of Belden's neck with his hand. She drapes her arm across his back. Brandon Baltzley walks inside.
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