Why chef Brandon Baltzley keeps coming back to Calgary

The innovative, and sometimes self-destructive, chef on what inspires him about Canada 

Brandon Baltzley

Brandon Baltzley is all smiles as he nonchalantly downs two glasses of bourbon before sitting down to answer questions. It’s one of two vices he allows himself these days, the other being the ever growing collection of tattoos that now creeps down his arms and up his neck.

Baltzley’s notoriety began with a very public battle with drug addiction within the kitchens across Eastern U.S., which almost destroyed his life. He has since cleaned up his act and published Nine Lives, a biography that details the struggle, and is now earning fame of a different kind: being acknowledged as one of the most creative chefs on the continent.

His excitement is palpable as he speaks hurriedly about upcoming projects between sips of bourbon: a three day stagiaire at Noma in Copenhagen; attendance in this year’s Cook it Raw event (a culinary gathering of innovative chefs and food producers from around the world that showcases a sense of place and adventure) in Charleston, South Carolina; and the upcoming opening of his farmhouse restaurant just outside of Chicago.

Even with his growing accomplishments and recognition, he has always been emphatic about his next visit to Calgary. Most recently, his love for the city has compelled him to return for a third collaboration on his Crux tour called, “This is Not Winebar,” a one-month restaurant takeover with like-minded local chef Cam Dobranski of Winebar Kensington

With Calgary well into the throes of a culinary revolution, hosting one of the most innovative and talented chefs on the continent is certainly attention grabbing. For the curious and the adventurous, the menu entices with an entire sous-vide and deep-fried rabbit and its associated offal made into a terrine and eaten sans utensils, a charcuterie board with vegetables disguised as meat, and crumbly maltodextrin pork fat with radishes and floral bee pollen that pays homage to the classic French pairing of radishes and whipped butter.

“The people on both sides, in the kitchen and the guests, are eager to do new things. People here are excited, the chefs are excited; what we’ve done here has been pretty well received,” Baltzley responds about why he loves coming back to Calgary. “For the size of population you have, the turnouts are huge. Jacksonville has a million people. If you do a pop-up down there you’re lucky to sell one ticket. No one gives a fuck. People here seem to genuinely care.”

In addition to the diners, Baltzley is also impressed with the level of passion behind the pass.

“The calibre of cooks in Canada is very high. The willingness to show up for work, do what they’re told to do, to keep their hands busy and to keep an open mind — nobody is too set in their ways here,” Baltzley notes. “Back in the States, you’ll have a line cook who will tell you to, ‘Fuck off’ if you tell them to do something in a different way than they’ve been doing for the last year. Everyone here seems to get along well.”

The admiration is mutual. The industry's support has been enormous. Chefs from other cities came in to work with Baltzley and every night, at least a quarter of the restaurant was filled with industry regulars, who came to observe and become inspired from this American chef and his cuisine. However, Baltzley doesn’t see the delineation between American and Canadian food: “It’s good food all around. What is Canadian food? Canadian food is native food. What it is right now is an influence from all kinds of places. You look at places like Model Milk and Milk Tiger; they are very highly influenced from places on the East Coast and Toronto as well. I couldn’t classify anything as ‘Canadian’ except the product. The beef, the produce, the Saskatoon berries, the chokecherry — I think Canadian food is based more on product than style.”

A wise scholar once said, “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try, sometimes, well, you might find you get what you need.”

What Calgary gets is Baltzley’s imagination to open new culinary doors and propel it to the next level. But what does Baltzley need or want? The day he left, he tweets, “I found peace in the woods of Maine. I found camaraderie in the city of Calgary.”