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Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012 10:43 pm

So long, Charlie

Chef Charlie Trotter prepares an ahi tuna hot dog, with all the “fixins,” in a kitchen at his restaurant in Chicago.
PHOTO BY ALEX GARCIA/MCT

If you aren’t interested in gastronomy, you probably haven’t heard of Charlie Trotter. If you are, you know that Trotter exploded onto the dining scene 25 years ago. His Chicago restaurant, Charlie Trotter’s, soon became one of the top – many said the top – dining destinations in America, known for groundbreaking cuisine as well as Chef Trotter’s driven, obsessive personality. And if you’re a chef or other food professional who’s had any association with Trotter, you’re sure to have opinions about him ranging anywhere from love to loathing.

Almost entirely self-taught, Trotter was just 27 when he opened his eponymous restaurant. After finishing a political science degree, Trotter traveled throughout Europe, dining only in fine restaurants. Returning to Chicago, he worked in a now-defunct restaurant for just a year before opening Charlie Trotter’s.

Trotter offered a degustation menu (tasting menu): multiple small courses chosen by the chef. Such menus were common in Europe; Trotter is credited with having started the custom here. It’s now routine in fine-dining restaurants. Initially Trotter’s tasting menus were optional; soon they were the only option.

And what menus they were. Though each course was small, no more than a few bites, multiple preparations were involved. Those bites might be Casco Bay Codfish with Autumn Vegetables, Caramelized Shallots, Herb and Tomato Sauces (note the plural), Basil Oil and Saffron; or Roasted Muscovy Duck with Candied Kumquats, Monkfish Liver Mousse, and Thyme-infused Duck Consummé.

Then Trotter added vegetable degustations, raising vegetable cookery to new heights. The vegetable menu cost a bit less than the “Grand Degustation,” but the courses were equally complex and innovative, such as “A Study in Legumes with Collard Greens, Rutabaga and Anise.” “Alice Waters may have discovered vegetables, but Trotter was the first… who cooked them beautifully,” said GQ restaurant critic Alan Richman.

But as Trotter garnered praise and awards for his cuisine, he was becoming equally famous as an obsessive control freak with an oft-displayed nasty temper. It was a reputation he didn’t dispute – and even encouraged, telling the Chicago Tribune, “When you come to work at Charlie Trotter’s, you basically give up your life to the pursuit of perfection. It’s so extreme, it might be perverse.” In a 1996 Chicago Magazine piece about the 50 meanest people in Chicago, Trotter was #2 (Michael Jordan got the top spot). Trotter’s response: “I’m never satisfied with second place.”

Many of Trotter’s kitchen staff couldn’t take it. Chef/owner of Champaign’s Bacaro, Thad Morrow, walked out after three days. Even those who stayed had a love/hate relationship with their boss: “I wanted to quit every day I worked there,” renowned chef Graham Elliot told the New York Times.

Eventually Trotter’s cuisine began seeming laughingly over-the-top to many. Esquire magazine commented that such dishes as Black Striped Bass with Fingerling Potatoes, Brandade, Roasted Blood Sausage, Olive Oil Poached Tomatoes & Red Wine-Wild Mushroom-Foie Gras Sauce “just sounds like something you hit with your car.”

This ahi tuna hot dog was prepared by Charlie Trotter at his restaurant in Chicago.
PHOTO BY ALEX GARCIA/MCT


Then there was the foie gras flap. In 2002 Trotter quit serving foie gras for humanitarian reasons and was influential in the Chicago City Council briefly banning it in 2006. But the city’s move – and Trotter’s role in it – was controversial. “I’ll listen to what he says about bird care when I hear he’s nicer to his line cooks,” said radio food commentator Clark Wolf. And Trotter was less than humane in published comments about chefs who disagreed with him, especially the slightly hefty Rick Tramonto whose restaurant, Tru, was ranked as highly as Trotter’s: “Tramonto’s not the smartest guy on the block….We ought to have Rick’s liver for a little treat. It’s certainly fat enough.”

I ate several times at Charlie Trotter’s over the years. It was always enjoyable, and the dishes were fantastic – in every sense of the word. But it wasn’t fun. The innovative and complex dishes with unusual ingredients and/or combinations often seemed more an intellectual exercise than dinner. The starkly elegant décor with bare walls and subtle lighting, the impeccable service, and both staff’s and patrons’ lowered voices delivered a clear message: This was a serious restaurant; diners were there to focus on and admire the food and, by extension, its creator.

The dinner at Trotter’s that most stands out to me wasn’t primarily memorable for the food, although a framed menu of it hangs in my kitchen. My husband and I were invited there by a friend from Napa, Calif., whose wine had just been put on Trotter’s list. The sommelier (wine steward) spent a lot of time talking with us, and we basked in the attention. But the diners at the next table got even more special treatment from their servers. The central figure was a swarthy fellow in a black shirt, black tie, black trousers and cream jacket. He looked like a gangster. He even talked like a gangster with a broad inflection and nasal twang.

It was Emeril Lagasse. The New Orleans chef was becoming well-known; we’d heard of him. But Emeril’s superstar status was yet to come. This was October, 1993; the Food Network wouldn’t begin broadcasting until the next month. Before long, our friend was telling Emeril about his wines, and we chatted back and forth throughout dinner.

But the night’s most memorable moment came when the sommelier asked if we’d like a kitchen tour, and whisked us past the other diners into the kitchen. As we entered, a loud voice erupted a few feet away. It was Trotter, leaning over the pass-through, his nose mere inches away from that of a terrified line cook. “F–– him and f–– you,” he screamed. “I’m smarter than him and I’m better than him, and if you don’t think so, you can f––– leave!!”

We froze, not sure where to look or what to do. Trotter continued his tirade and the sommelier, tightly smiling, waved us into another area of the kitchen. But despite our discomfort, Trotter’s temper was so legendary that we actually felt privileged to have witnessed it. When we saw Trotter’s cameo appearance in the 1997 film My Best Friend’s Wedding in which he screams “I will kill your whole family if you don’t get this right! I need this perfect!” to another line cook, we smiled knowingly: “Yup, that’s Charlie all right.”

But there’s more to Trotter than haute cuisine and temper tantrums. He’s written 14 cookbooks, ranging from gorgeously photographed “food porn” tomes detailing his complex creations, to the home-cook friendly Gourmet Cooking for Dummies and the companion volume to his PBS Kitchen Sessions series. And three times weekly, 50 weeks a year, he hosts a group of underprivileged Chicago teenagers at the restaurant who experience Trotter’s elaborate tasting menu, tour the kitchen and listen to motivational speakers – often Trotter himself.

Although Trotter and his restaurant are still reputedly at the top of their game, their star is waning, even as several former employees’ own restaurants garner awards and the national spotlight. Trotter’s attempts to open satellite establishments in New York, Las Vegas and elsewhere failed. In March last year, a “devastating” article appeared in the New York Times: “Charlie Trotter, a Leader Left Behind.” “Mr. Trotter hardly seems to figure in the national food conversation anymore,” it said (although Trotter is apparently important enough for it to be the leading story on the Dining section’s front page). Last November Michelin’s first Chicago guide gave Trotter’s only two stars, while former staffer Grant Achatz’ Alinea received the maximum three.

Earlier this month, Trotter announced that he would close his restaurant in August to pursue a master’s degree in philosophy and political theory.

“I’d be lying if I said I don’t feel sad,” Graham Elliot says in the NYT article. “To see him getting two stars instead of three, and not getting any articles or anything, it makes you feel bad – like seeing your dad lose his job.”

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

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