Baltzley Walks Out of Pensiero

Brandon Baltzley, not at Pensiero any more.
Brandon Baltzley, not at Pensiero any more. Photo: courtesy Pensiero Ristorante

Well, here’s a shocker: Brandon Baltzley, chef who’s had far more written about his life than about any food he’s made, and Pensiero, the Evanston Italian restaurant which has had no fewer than five head chefs in less than a year and a half, have come to a parting of the ways. Joining Baltzley going out the door is sous chef Kevin McMullen; and surely any intention of Pensiero hosting the Apicius dinner canceled and rescheduled earlier this month has gone out the window, too. Baltzley laid out his reasons in a blog post; we’re sure owner Michael Pure, who hasn’t been shy about badmouthing his ex-chefs on past occasions, will weigh in soon enough too. Anyway, the relevant parts of the blog post:

I’d like to say that all parties involved in re-establishing the institution of Pensiero, a restaurant that has been standing for 20 years and semi-recently under new ownership, were on the same page for success. But the reality of the situation reared its ugly head just after we announced our positions publicly.

Not very long after the world caught wind that Pensiero now had decent cooks in the back of house, the core values vanished and a new one emerged in the ownership. Suddenly the hunger for press lead [sic] management to fill up on all the wrong stuff: dumbing down the food, dictating the menu, and cutting costs at the expense of sanity, which peaked at having to cater the owner’s family B’nai Mitzvah, that equated to the annual salary of a line cook.

Priorities: gone. Vision: skewed. Communication: hopeless. Sanity: lost. At the end of the day, we simply refuse to cook food dictated by someone without credentials. If that makes us elitists, so be it. But we’ll be damned if it makes us bad cooks.

After my departure, they will be onto their sixth chef in 14 months. I know I’m not perfect, but seeing my mistakes chronicled in the public eye made me face reality, own up, and make the hard changes. Perhaps this “press” will do the same for Pensiero.

And to the staff we left behind, good luck.

It seems obvious that Pensiero is a deeply troubled situation for any chef, but we don’t exactly get a vibe from this youa culpa that suggests a lot of understanding of the fairly conservative Evanston market, either. Gary Fine, a Northwestern professor who posts at LTHForum, has observed that much of Pensiero’s menu has traditionally been pegged to Northwestern’s limits for reimbursement of meals. It’s not that you can’t blow past those limits— obviously a little place called Trio did for many years, to name one— but you have to establish your food’s bona fides first.

When Henry Adaniya brought Grant Achatz in to make molecular cuisine at Trio, he was able to take the gamble because of the reputation that his restaurant already had from star chefs such as Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand and Shawn McClain. Pensiero’s revolving door doesn’t have anything like that cachet, and Baltzley’s post suggests that he had a vision which didn’t gibe with, not just owner Michael Pure (who doesn’t seem to gibe with anybody), but the restaurant’s audience, which was looking for solid Italian food more than genius.

If nothing else, this all shows not to believe everything you see in video press releases. Who knows what will be next for either of the parties in this split, although one notes that ironically it all comes just a day before the opening of another new Italian restaurant, Filini’s— helmed by Christian Fantoni, who was hired from New York and then quickly fired at Pensiero, three chefs ago.

Baltzley Walks Out of Pensiero