The first time I spoke with Brandon Baltzley was while he was working for CRUX, an underground dinner club. He had just come back from rehab, the last stop on a downward spiral that would define him not only as a chef, but also as a personality. One of the few things I recall from that interview is that he cursed a lot. Now, three years later, Baltzley has a lot to prove with his latest endeavor, TMIP, a Native American restaurant located on Exterior Farm in Michigan City, IN. Or as he puts it: “Let’s be honest, people are more interested in the f*cking crackhead Brandon Baltzley show than what we’re trying to do here. Let’s get real.” It doesn’t get much more real than this 10-seat restaurant, which hosts two meals a day, lunch and dinner, with all of the ingredients sourced directly from the farm or nearby producers.
I’m the first to arrive, after a two-hour commute and missing the unmarked driveway twice. A bearded man waves me over to the other side of overgrown bushes. “Am I in the right place?” I ask, getting out of the car. He says yes and introduces himself as one of the three full-time employees living and working on the farm. Maybe he senses my skepticism as we wait for the other diners, assuring me that by the end of the meal everything will make sense.
Dinner begins with a tour of the farm. We walk through three plots of vegetables, with stops at the pigpen, chicken coop and garage-turned-barn that houses chicks and piglets, before heading into the 150-year-old farmhouse restaurant. Guest walk through the kitchen, which is outfitted with not much more than two stainless steel prep tables, and are seated at one of the two wood communal tables adorned with branches, feathers and candles. The handwritten menu that night includes things like “Fergus,” the name of the pig that was raised by the staff and recently slaughtered.
“If you’re going to eat it, you’re going to be fully aware of what the f*ck it is, what it was to us and the pain we went through to kill it in order to feed you,” Baltzley says. “Because we had to deal with it, so why shouldn’t you have to? You take the responsibility. All I want to do is respect the things we killed.” He tells me that after the slaughter, he went through a three-day depression during which he was unable to get out of bed in the morning or interact with his staff.
The first course is pemmican, a staple of the Native American diet, made with preserved bison. Here it’s served on a small tree stump and eaten in one bite with a side of dewberry cordial. The chewy meat is followed by a starkly different texture for our next course, bison tartare, served with preserved raspberries and freeze-dried strawberries. Then comes another mushy dish, sunflower risotto, made with fermented sunflower milk that mimics cheese and is garnished with marigolds. Using the tarnished spoon, I push the grey blob around in my ceramic bowl to try and make sense of it all, starting to wonder if maybe there isn’t more to the chef than his dramatic story.
Then the fish arrives, a course that pays tribute to Baltzely’s time living along the Appalachian Trail, where food is scarce. Grilled trout is served on a back walnut twig over cream flavored with sassafras root. It’s also served without silverware. Diners are instructed to eat with their hands, pulling the succulent flesh off the charred branch. I stick my fingers into the still-warm fish, tearing a piece off from the stick, which was suspended over a fire in the backyard just moments before. It’s easily the most delicious fish I’ve ever tasted, and suddenly the hands-on meal starts to makes sense.
Baltzley mentions an article he wrote for the Pittsburg Post Gazette about eating food with hands — he argues that when you touch food, your digestive track is more prepared to take it in. The primal nature of flesh and fire becomes glaringly clear with tiny fish bones stuck between my teeth and crispy skin suck to my fingers. “Everyone is making New American, whimsical American cuisine and all that sh*t, but we’re Native American,” he says. “It’s definitely got a creative spin on it, but when I say Native American, it’s primitive. It’s precivilization to a certain extent…we’re cooking over a fire.”
Ash-roasted carrots also get the primal approach with a dark-charred exterior and a tender center, thanks to time curing in fermented carrot juice. The simple dish is finished with freeze-dried peas and Dark Lord vinegar. I may have my fork back, but this course’s earthy presentation and flavors connects me once again to the life outside the window. It also helps that two chefs literally run past the window as I take a bite, heading to the plot where these very carrots are grown.
If the carrots capture life on Exterior Farm, then Fergus is about death. The Ossabaw Island pig is prepared two ways. The first bite wraps lardo around puffed rice — the fat is seared with a blowtorch so it acts as a shrink-wrap around the rice. This meaty amuse is followed by a slice of pork. The plating is simple, a single slice of meat hidden by a wilted mustard leaf. A dollop of lardo pudding sits next to it, adorned with an edible flower. The flesh of the young pig doesn’t need much more than a trip over the flame to make it delicious, and the restraint in the composition is Baltzley’s final way of paying respect to the beast he raised and killed.
And then there’s the perpetual stew. A single pot is kept over the fire, fed with herbs and served over seasonal ingredients, in this case beets and goat. The rose-colored stock is thin, slightly sweet and instills a desire to taste it again in a few months when the flavors deepen. This certainly isn’t the food Baltzley was cooking — heavy on foams and gels — when I interviewed him in 2011.
After our meal, guests trickle into the Indiana night uttering words like “nostalgic” and “significant.” I stay to share whiskey out of mason jars with the crew, hoping to glimpse a sense of relief from the chef who worked for two years to get to this moment. There was none, just a laundry list of chores: branches to clear from the recent storms and fried chicken to prepare for the next day’s party. Maybe he would get some sleep, a rare occurrence on a farm that demands 14-hour workdays. “All we want here is to make a difference. To shed some light. To change people’s views,” he says as mosquitos chew on my legs. The words echo on the drive back to Chicago. The next morning, the meal, which, despite the cliché, truly connected the farm to the table, weighs on me like a vivid dream. As my leg starts to itch, I realize the very real memories about my visit to TMIP will linger long past the bites.
This article originally appeared on Zagat on July 7, 2014