All or Nothing: One Chef’s Appetite for the Extreme
by Jesse Schenker
Nine Lives: A Chef’s Journey from Chaos to Control
by Brandon Baltzley
Some people whose lives have been shattered or broken by substance abuse have looked to the kitchen and cooking to help turn their lives around. Becoming a chef has the reputation of being a career move that can save people from sabotaging themselves. Two recent memoirs by young chefs reveal the roller coaster ride of keeping their cooking careers on track.
One thing that Jesse Schenker relays in All or Nothing: One Chef’s Appetite for the Extreme (Dey Street, 2014, 25.99) is that he was never content to follow rules. His playful experimentation in the kitchen started at four years old with his great-grandmother. As a kid, he remembers “building layer upon layer of texture and flavour” by cooking a unique recipe that included packing ground beef around a hot dog and wrapping it all with a strip of bacon. Schenker writes about his childhood: “Food was my first real escape from the unease within me. When I couldn’t focus on anything for more than a few minutes at a time, food caught my attention like nothing else.” These biographical elements demonstrate the energy, creativity, anxiety, and intensity that carried over into his life as an adult chef.
Once a month at his New York restaurant, Recette, he lets his imagination run wild with novel tasting menus, steering him away from making identical dishes with the same ingredients day after day. It is a risky proposition to always be re-inventing yourself and your menus, but self-imposed stakes are high for someone living an extreme lifestyle that pushes him to give it all or nothing. After years of abuse, Schenker made the conscious choice to change his addiction from one extreme to another, from taking drugs to cooking food, but he recognizes in his fast-paced, edgy restaurant that he is “just as addicted as ever — it was only the substance that had changed.”
Not every good chef starts out gaining kitchen skills as a kid, but Schenker did, and so did Brandon Baltzley, as evidenced in Nine Lives: A Chef’s Journey from Chaos to Control (Gotham Books, 2013, $27.50). A love of food was instilled at a young age in both of these men who turned into outstanding chefs. Baltzley was a hyper nine-year-old when his mother opened a café, often bringing him to the kitchen where he was put to work. He writes: “Cooking held my attention like nothing ever had before, and from the first moment, I was hooked.” From an early age, he was caught up in the magic of cooking. He worked his way up in many of the finest restaurant kitchens in the U.S., all the while torturing his body with addictions.
Baltzley has extreme promise as a chef, but time and again squanders opportunities by getting caught up in the dark side of the industry, which he argues is an overwhelming part of working in it. He has a propensity to abuse drugs and alcohol to an extent that obliterates nearly everything in his life, but cooking remains constant through both the stoned and sober times. He writes: “A huge reason for my lack of focus in the kitchen was, of course, what was going on outside of it, which is a common theme in kitchens all across the country and, I imagine, the world. I’ve heard many theories attempting to explain the abundance of drugs and alcohol in kitchens. A kitchen is a high-paced, competitive, and sometimes stressful place, so maybe having a common vice tying everyone together is somehow a comfort.”
Both books portray the seedy lifestyle that drugs dragged them into, and how coming back to their intense and creative approaches to food always gives them new life. If Baltzley has nine lives of chances at rehab, that number is at least doubled when referring to the lengthy resumé of restaurant gigs he has acquired. He realizes he could continue on with his destructive lifestyle, but it would ruin the career he has been tentatively holding together at a patchwork of restaurants across the U.S. The shame he feels for so often showing up to work extremely hungover, and the realization that his reputation will eventually alienate him from the industry, eventually gets him to sober up. Only by making the decision on his own can he eliminate his compulsion to use drugs and focus on building on his career with his own restaurant.
Along with their achievements of getting clean and gaining culinary chops along the way, Schenker and Baltzley are both good storytellers, relaying very compelling, honest, and poignant stories about the intertwining of their personal and professional lives. For these two chefs, creativity in the kitchen goes hand-in-hand with creativity and proficiency on paper.
Darin Cook is a freelance writer based out of Chatham. He keeps himself well-read and well-fed by visiting the bookstores and restaurants of London.