Chef and general badass Laura Higgins is tougher than you. I say that not as a kind of schoolyard dare, but the same way I would say “It’s raining” if water started to fall from the sky. Higgins is the sous chef at Ribelle in the Brookline neighborhood of Boston. It’s the same restaurant where she most recently ran the kitchen with her partner, chef Brandon Baltzley as exec. The two are heading up a Midwest tour of pop-up dinners called CRUX, and the last time Baltzley took the series on the road in 2012, it was touted as one of the best pop-ups in the nation. It will also serve as the most rockin’ babymoon for the pair of chefs, because Higgins also happens to be about seven months pregnant. Like I said, she’s tougher than you.
I wanted to know how she could work alongside Baltzley, who told me over brunch at Milktooth that he has a vocal all-inclusive policy for workplace hazing common for joining the macho world behind kitchen doors. Higgins’ short version is that, like all sous chefs and line cooks, ultimately the head chef is in charge. And you say, “Yes, Chef.” Higgins advice for getting along with your head chef is simple, “Put your head down and get your work done.”
Baltzley has since left Ribelle to be the head chef of The 41-70 in Woods Hole, just south of Cape Cod, while Higgins plans to stay on the line as long as humanly possible, eventually joining Baltzley at 41-70. She seems to shrug it off when I claim that is nothing less than heroic.
Like a lot of industry professionals, she has noticed that this kind of work ethic is not transferring to the newer classes of chefs as they come out of culinary school. The chef shortage is a two-fold problem, with one problem being the number of warm bodies available, and the other being the attitude of the chefs in those bodies.
“We have such a small, tight-knit crew that we don’t have that problem, but I have seen it a lot [in other kitchens] — the unwillingness to do whatever. I went to culinary school, and even from 5 or 6 years ago, the people coming out have a whole different attitude. They have their head up and they already want to be someone.”
Keeping that kind of weak link out of the kitchen is a matter of the environment, says Higgins, one that she maintains as self-selecting for hard workers. After all, when one of your superiors is tying her apron around a third-trimester baby belly and standing on her feet for a whole shift, it’s hard to call off about your cute little head cold.
“We do a good job with hiring to filter out that bullshit. They filter themselves out pretty quickly, because [Ribelle] is a tough place to work.”
She continues to push herself even while all pregnancy advice books are telling her to pack a hospital bag, joining Baltzley on the CRUX tour through the Rust Belt for the next two and a half weeks. Baltzley is known for successfully pushing the envelope in every kitchen he stops in, like his fermented clam and roasted melon dish he served at Chefs’ Night Off. More importantly for the Indiana dining community, Baltzley’s name recognition helps shine an extra bright light on local talent like Zoe Taylor, Jon Brooks, Three Floyds’ Pat Neibling and of course, Higgins and Ribelle. Back in 2012, Departures magazine called it one of the best pop-up concepts in the world, and ticket sales are proving that it might once again be able to claim the title twice.
The Indianapolis dinners are going to foil each other with a high-brow/low-brow dynamic. For one, think Kool-Aid and for the other, think caviar. Two nights only, then they move on. It’s the hot ticket in town, and you won’t be able to get that meal again without some extensive travel.
But does it set up a sustainable model for establishing chefs? Does it put too much emphasis on the individual chef’s “personal brand,” and does that further shift the community to the “rock star chef” style of self-promotion? Whether or not chefs want to admit it, says Higgins, a personal Instagram is now a necessary part of success along with good knife skills. Modern diners want to see where their food comes from and glimpse the personalities of the chefs preparing it, even if it turns every dinner out into a Portlandia sketch. And while not everyone will travel a thousand miles to see their favorite chef, Indy’s nearly-sold-out dinners prove they’ll definitely come out in droves if they already know the chef and the chef comes to them.
“When we were in Ireland at [Food on the Edge] Food Symposium Dave Kinch (Chef/owner of Manresa) said that young chefs don’t even know the older generations of chefs. I think that has a lot do with the fact that they’re not on social media and they’re not showing off their food five times a day,” says Higgins. The restaurant industry has fallen to the Internet in much the same was as the music industry, except that you can’t eat over the Internet. If older generations of chefs don’t choose to participate, they will be forgotten and their reservations will dry up unless they figure out how to keep drawing in a dining public with fickle attention spans. For better or worse, the same rockstar mentality that is turning student chefs into assholes is the same thing keeping people coming in the door.
What if the only way to keep diners interested is to give dinners the rock show treatment: bring a big, national name to town and pair them with great local talent. No surprise that Baltzley, a former touring drummer, would easily adapt the model to his new career in food. The draw of the pop-up dinner isn’t just good food, but the exclusivity of having a once-in-a-lifetime meal. During a particularly dead January, both dinners are slated to sell out even though they’ve opened up seven more seats for the lowbrow dinner. CRUX may be signaling a sea change for what it means to be a head chef — especially one who doesn’t want to open multiple restaurants to make a comfortable living.
“Restaurants and chefs are going to be more mobile,” says Higgins about the future of food. It’s unlikely that touring will become a fixture of the new trajectory of chefs, but it does present a tantalizing opportunity to bring people in with good old fashioned human interaction in a way that wouldn’t be possible in the pre-Internet era. After all, if I find myself in Boston or Cape Cod, I’m almost guaranteed to seek out the food from chefs I’ve met both in person and on the plate before. I’m definitely going to hit up MilkWood in Louisville after meeting and eating food made by Kevin Ashworth when he came to town. Multiply that number by sixty, then over a few cities, and you’ve got enough buzz to call it a food destination — the new bread and butter of sustaining a restaurant in the Instagram era. Touring is an opportunity to start a conversation about a restaurant in a city that might be a thousand miles away, giving diners a chance to bond with a chef through food and conversation. Multiply a few sold out dinners scattered across two or three weeks, and suddenly the brick-and-mortar concept seems almost limiting to someone with a lot of name recognition.
With only a handful of tickets left, CRUX isn’t just an opportunity to get great food, but it might be a glimpse into the hospitality community’s not-too-distant future. Well that, and a chance to meet at least one total fucking badass. Get tickets and the menu here.