The smell of smoke curls in through the window of the dining room, which is actually the enclosed patio of Coonamessett Farm in East Falmouth, Massachusetts. Smoke and goat shit: those are the prominent scents welcoming diners to what might be the most progressive culinary experience available on Cape Cod.
Chef Brandon Baltzley and his co-chef-slash-wife-slash-baby-mama Laura Higgins-Baltzley are in the kitchen preparing dinner at their 18-seat seat restaurant. Tonight's dinner will probably never be eaten again; the menu evolves over the course of the Baltzleys' three-day workweek (Monday through Wednesday during summer; Thursday through Saturday currently) based on that week's farmers market finds. A smoked trout mousse served with pieces of grilled turnip and rose hips on Monday will transform into a slightly different dish by Wednesday, going from fluffy to custard-like and earning an additional garnish of sliced radish. The following week, the dish will be gone, replaced by tomato tartare with duck yolk and lobster oil or grilled turnips with one-year-old cabbage and blueberry.
While the $70-a-head menu changes weekly, the dining room is generally filled with a predictable mix of affluent East Coast weekenders and retirees debating whether they should winter in Costa Rica or Spain—a group used to eating fried shrimp by the pound and a lobster roll a day. It's not the crowd Baltzley wants, but it's the one he has—with an expendable income to boot—and he is determined to show them that Cape Cod cuisine can be more than clam shacks and oyster bars.
His commitment comes at a price.
"I think people are very confused about what we do until they come and they eat," Brandon says. "We're trying to do some weird mashup of New England food with Nordic philosophy, and that translates to native food… It's regional American cuisine that is tied to the ingredients and embraces our own techniques."
This is the fourth meal I've eaten at one of Baltzley's restaurants, served in three different states over the span of three years. But TMIP, CRUX, and The Buffalo Jump—his newest venture—all have one thing in common: they echo the chef's dedication to capturing a sense of place wherever he is cooking. (Goat shit excluded).
Each of Baltzley's stints seems shorter than the last. TMIP, his first farm-to-table experience—on a farm in Michigan City, IN—lasted less than a week before getting shut down by the health department. Apparently, it's unsanitary to slaughter rabbits in your front yard and then serve them for dinner. (Full disclosure: An article I wrote led to the health department's swift descent upon TMIP). By that point, Baltzley had already earned a less-than-sterling reputation thanks to dramatically flaming out at Tribute in Chicago days before it opened, leaving the restaurant to check himself back into rehab. Needless to say, the quick and public closing of his first solo project left another mark.
But the father of a six-month-old is ready to shed his bad-boy reputation once and for all and lay down roots on Cape Cod, where his wife was born and raised. The couple lives with Higgins-Baltzley's parents, on the same farm that grows much of the produce and foraged ingredients served at The Buffalo Jump. The pop-up runs three times a week during peak tourist season.
Higgins-Baltzley's career began on Cape Cod, at longstanding Moonakis Café. From there, she attended culinary school at Culinary Institute of America in Napa, worked at award-winning Le Quartier Francais in Franschhoek, South Africa, and then moved to Chicago, where worked as the sous chef at Trenchermen, and also met Baltzley. Baltzley's career has been less linear. The Florida native spent five years cooking in New York before moving to Chicago to work at Grant Achatz's Alinea, only to slip back into the drug and alcohol-fueled lifestyle he thought he left in New York. He spent two weeks at Alinea, one month at Schwa, another month at the no-longer-in-existence Mado, and then there was the Tribute fiasco. The experiences led to a book, Nine Lives: A Chef's Journey from Chaos to Control. These days, he apologizes to anyone who says they read it.
The duo's culinary prowess comes together at The Buffalo Jump: Higgins-Baltzley's calm composure and no-bullshit attitude combined with Baltzley's relentless creativity and fiery passion (she keeps a careful count of how many Buds her husband has after service, shooting him a threatening glare when he opens his third). Their concept reads like something that belongs in Bushwick or Portland; the less-than-progressive Cape Cod crowd is slower to warm up. His comments in a February 2016 article published in the Boston Globe didn't help: "It kind of amazes me—and worries me—that someone hasn't done something special on the Cape before. Everyone's so concerned about making money, and obviously that's an important factor in business, but there's no soul in anything here."
At the time, the husband-and-wife team had taken over the kitchen at Phusion Grille, renamed it The 41-70 after the waterside restaurant's latitude and longitude, and overhauled the menu with dishes such as fish with fry bread and clam chowder made with, gasp, fresh clams and potatoes. It was their first attempt at changing the face of Cape Cod cuisine. It failed. Within four months, the owner returned the space back to its burger-slinging ways.
The 41-70's spirit remains at The Buffalo Jump, although in a much more makeshift package. Here, the three-man team—including sous chef Patrick Borucki— acts as chefs, servers and even dishwashers for the eight-course dinner. The restaurant's small size means they can't use traditional vendors, such as the local dairy that requires a $500 minimum order. Instead, they rely on small suppliers, such as Peck O' Dirt and Pariah Dog Farm, for each week's supply of potatoes, fresh berries, foraged flowers, summer squash, heirloom tomatoes, husk cherries, and more. The Buffalo Jump rarely serves meat, but the abundance of seafood on its menu presents its own problems.
The town of Mashpee has strict catch limits in the waters of Waquiot Bay. For example, harvesting their own oysters is completely prohibited, even if they are harvested sustainably, and commercial fishermen are mostly limited to deeper waters that produce brinier scallops and clams. Oysters and mussels are, for the most part, farmed. This makes it challenging to get the quality of clams they like for dishes such as their signature stuffed quahogs.
The most baffling challenge the Baltzleys face is that when they approached their fishmonger requesting whole fish, he responded by saying he couldn't provide it. Since no one in the region orders whole fish, fish are broken down almost immediately after they are caught, even before orders are taken—primed for frying, blackening, or smothering in lemon butter. Most cooks in the area, as Baltzley learned at The 41-70, don't even know how to butcher a whole fish. Eventually, his fishmonger had to pick up whole fish from a different supplier in Boston and bring it back to the Cape. Digest that one for a minute.
Despite the odds stacked against it—inconsistent suppliers, lack of qualified staff, and confused clientele (many of whom see Baltzley as that drugged-out egomaniac who posed shirtless for a profile in Details with a knife in one hand, bouillon strainer in the other, goat head tattooed across his stomach)—The Buffalo Jump has been one of Balztley's most successful projects. If he can get past all the challenges, the food will speak for itself: nods to fine dining, such as the smoked oysters inspired by chef Andrew Brochu; dishes with rustic undertones, such as "tree tart" with birch-glazed beets, spruce-infused milk curd, and marigold in an eastern red cedar crust; and tributes to Native American cooking in the form of a red mole topped with a sunny side up duck egg and cocoa nibs, served with grilled bread.
Maybe one day, Baltzley will earn his own place in the American culinary canon—assuming Cape Cod will let him.
The Buffalo Jump recently extended its run at Coonamessett until late November, but as tourist season comes to an end and the charm of coastal cottages fades with the falling leaves, reservations for the 18-seat restaurant are scant. If it survives the winter, the pop-up will return next spring, giving Cape Cod a taste of its natural bounty—from wild arugula to quahog clams—sans a single lobster roll.