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Charlie Trotter is Alive and Well

By the time Chicago’s iconic chef died in 2013 following a period of erratic behavior, his legacy seemed tarnished. But a fresh look at Trotter three decades after his restaurant opened reveals an overlooked truth: He left a lasting imprint on the city’s dining scene.

PHOTOGRAPH: E. Jason Wambsgans/CHICAGO TRIBUNE

The brownstone that once housed Chicago’s most influential restaurant is a ghostly presence on Armitage Avenue, its crimson awnings still intact but its windows dark—a fading monument to past glory.

For a vital quarter century, Charlie Trotter helmed his namesake establishment—which would have turned 30 this year—as well as Chicago’s culinary transformation. On his watch, and largely through the sheer force of his will, the city became a gastronomic capital.

And yet, as time passes since Trotter’s unexpected death from a stroke in November 2013—just over a year after the restaurant closed—what most Chicagoans talk about, if they talk about Trotter at all, is the disarray of his final years. It was a period marked by failed business opportunities in New York and London, ugly lawsuits, rumors of heavy drinking, episodes of mercurial behavior that included his angrily kicking a group of school kids out of his former restaurant, and an emerging consensus that the chef had been eclipsed by a new avant-garde. A 2011 article in The New York Times was headlined “Charlie Trotter, a Leader Left Behind.”

I never knew this city with Charlie Trotter’s in it. I moved here a few weeks before the chef died. The only food of his I’ve ever tasted is the smoked salmon from his grocery line, which I buy when it’s on sale at Whole Foods. But in the course of my job as this magazine’s associate dining editor, I’ve talked at length to almost every prominent chef in the city, and through those conversations I’ve come to an unassailable conclusion: Trotter’s legacy still looms large. In fact, the more I dine out in Chicago, the more I believe that much of what we take for granted at the top restaurants can be traced to Trotter. The blurring of culinary borders, the fanaticism about sourcing ingredients, the cookbooks for sale by the host stand, the cooks themselves on display in front of diners eager for a peek at a famous chef—Trotter was dabbling in all of that when more than a few of today’s most celebrated toques were still in grade school.

To be sure, not all of the chefs I’ve talked to sing his praises, but most of them echo what Smyth and the Loyalist’s John Shields, who worked for Trotter, recently told me: “This is what you have to realize about Charlie: Everything that’s trendy now, he did it first.”

 

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I. Smashing the Eurocentric mold

When it came to fine dining during Chicago’s pre-Trotter era, restaurants stayed in their culinary lanes. Most of the major local players when Trotter’s opened in August 1987 followed the French, or at least Eurocentric, model—Le Français, Ambria, Spiaggia, Carlos’. In the monolithic haute dining scene back then, coloring outside the lines was considered risky at best and foolhardy at worst. But from the beginning, Trotter showed determination to do just that.

This magazine’s first review of Charlie Trotter’s, published in January 1988, called the food “original,” noting an Asian influence in certain dishes. “How does one classify smoked sea scallops with sesame mayonnaise and Asian vegetables?” critics Carla and Allen Kelson wrote, expressing a level of surprise that would sound provincial today. For the most part, though, aside from a dalliance with non-Western ingredients, Trotter’s touchstone in those first menus was nouvelle cuisine, a stripped-down, less fatty and saucy version of France’s classical cooking. An early à la carte menu at Trotter’s, for example, featured braised fish with baby leek and artichoke stew, rack of lamb with polenta, and an almond torte. But those Asian-inflected scallops were a foretaste of what was to come.

That first Chicago review awarded Trotter’s a promising but not superlative three stars. Diners, however, responded rapturously—that same month, there was already a two-month wait for Saturday night reservations. Trotter was only 28 years old, a North Shore–bred boy who’d decided to pursue cooking after studying political science at the University of Wisconsin. The sum of his kitchen experience prior to opening his own place was a couple of short stints at the swanky Chicago restaurants Sinclair’s and Gordon and a brief apprenticeship in San Francisco.

Opening Trotter’s represented an audacious leap of faith. The converted Armitage Avenue brownstone was costly to renovate, the funds supplied by Trotter’s corporate-exec father. The interior, according to a press release, was inspired by Viennese secessionist architecture, an offshoot of the art nouveau movement—mahogany moldings, cherrywood parquet floors. The concept behind the restaurant was described, somewhat ambiguously, as “discretion.” But ostentation was in evidence, too. The place boasted an immense wine storage system accessed by a ladder—a showy touch that was a stark departure from the traditional French notion of the hidden-away wine cellar.

The dining room in 1992 Photo: ALAN KLEHR

By mid-1988, the restaurant had begun to shed its Francophile skin, or rather dress it in new garb. Trotter was going beyond cribbing Asian ingredients; he was adopting non-French preparations and pairing them with more traditional elements. Take, for example, his ­ginger-scallion pancakes with quail or his escargot with a ginger-soy tomato sauce. He was testing the boundaries of convention.

By 1989, the boundaries were all but gone. Now his dishes, though still rooted in French technique, felt positively exotic even to experienced diners. Where else could you have been eating quinoa—which Trotter served with scallops, fennel, and a wine, mushroom, and foie gras broth—a full 20 years before that grain’s ascendance?

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In a review that prefigured the math and science allusions so many food writers would use to describe mad-wizard Trotter acolytes like Grant Achatz and Homaro Cantu, Chicago critic Dennis Ray Wheaton observed after a 1991 visit: “Some of this food is getting close to edible algebra, with true enjoyment something like solving quadratic equations on your tongue. The difference is that even if you don’t get all the elegance of the equations intellectually, you can still thrill to the beauty and fine flavors as they come.”

Anticipating the rise of molecular gastronomy by at least a decade, Trotter’s food had become intricate, eclectic, and technically challenging. In short, it was like nothing Chicagoans had ever tasted.

 
A menu from Charlie Trotter’s roughly two months after it opened in 1987, and the chef with his first wife, Lisa Ehrlich, that same year Gerald West/CHICAGO TRIBUNE

II. Local, seasonal, farm-to-table

Years before splashing farm names across menus became de rigueur, Trotter was giving his suppliers shout-outs, evincing an obsession with ingredient sourcing that set the stage for today’s farm-to-table ethos. In 1996, he came out with a cookbook called Charlie Trotter’s Vegetables, which name-drops some 50 farms. The more local, the better. It was not uncommon during that period to see teenagers who lived in nearby Cabrini-Green coming to the restaurant to deliver vegetables grown in the small farm plot that had been planted in a vacant lot next to the housing project.

Trotter insisted on establishing intimate relationships even with far-flung suppliers. Trotter alum Bill Kim, who went on to open Urbanbelly and BellyQ, remembers having to keep two cordless phones on him at all times. “One for our seafood supplier on the East Coast, one for the West Coast,” he says, “so if we needed something fast, I could always take the call. And this was in the 1990s. These were big phones.”

In 1989, in part to showcase the produce he was using, Trotter introduced a vegetarian menu, a move that haute cuisine traditionalists considered heretical. Soon after, he began offering a “spontaneous” menu, one dictated by whatever produce happened to be at peak ripeness and flavor at any given moment. Now, in an era of ever-changing seasonal menus and high-end “veg-forward” restaurants, like Bad Hunter and Clever Rabbit, that owe a significant debt to Trotter, it’s hard to fathom how new it all must have seemed.

 

Charlie Trotter’s: A Brief History

Scroll to the right to see more.

1987

The 66-seat restaurant opens in a brownstone on Armitage Avenue. A press release promises “a contemporary approach to cooking” in an ambiance that “suggests a private club.”

1989

In a first for the city, the restaurant adds a four-seat “kitchen table” that gives diners an intimate view of the cooks at work. Kitchenside seating would soon become commonplace.

1989

Trotter’s proposes one of the city’s first dégustation—a.k.a. tasting—menus. It contains eight courses and costs $65. It’s an immediate hit.

1989

In a radical departure from traditional haute cuisine, Trotter’s introduces an optional all-­­­vegetable (though not strictly vegetarian) tasting menu.

1990

Trotter announces that his restaurant will no longer serve distilled spirits—not because his permit was revoked but because he believes the harshness of booze spoils diners’ palates.

1994

Charlie Trotter’s is published. The cookbook features 72 high-concept recipes. The chef will write 13 more cookbooks, plus three books on management.

1995

The kitchen undergoes a $750,000 renovation that entails the removal of the walk-in cooler, which Trotter deemed unnecessary because of the freshness of his ingredients.

1999

Trotter partners with United Airlines. His business- and first-class menus include lobster with a black pepper and vanilla bean vinaigrette.

2003

Front-of-house employees file a class action lawsuit against Trotter’s, claiming unfair tipping. A suit from kitchen workers follows. Both cases will be settled outside of court.

2005

Trotter’s acquires an immersion circulator, which can cook food at precisely calibrated temperatures. The machine is the first of its kind to be designed for a restaurant kitchen.

2005

After years of embracing foie gras, Trotter decides to quit serving it. This prompts members of the Chicago City Council to propose legislation banning it, causing an uproar among chefs.

2010

Michelin publishes its first guide to Chicago. It awards Alinea three stars. Trotter’s gets two. Alinea chef Grant Achatz is later quoted as saying Trotter’s deserved a third.

2012

Trotter’s serves its last meal, a $250 feast prepared by alumni including Bill Kim and Graham Elliot. Trotter tells reporters that he’s planning to go back to school to study philosophy.

2013

Trotter ejects an after-school group from the former restaurant, where he’d agreed to exhibit the students’ art. Organizers claimed he tried to make the kids clean toilets and sweep floors.

2013

Two wine collectors sue Trotter, claiming he sold them a counterfeit bottle of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti for $46,200. The case will still be in litigation at the time of Trotter’s death.

2013

Trotter, 54, is found unconscious at home by his son, Dylan. He is taken to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where he is pronounced dead, the victim of a stroke.

2014

A group of Trotter’s alums, led by the late Homaro Cantu, announce the formation of the Trotter Project, a nonprofit geared toward mentoring young chefs.

III. Dining as theater

In what would become a familiar trope in the city’s culinary scene, Trotter wanted dining at his restaurant to be a kind of immersive spectacle, a living art project. To get his cooks to better understand the intricacies of how it all worked, he insisted that they spend three months working in the front of the house so they could feel the ebb and flow of the dining room, see how patrons interacted with their meals. Matthias Merges, Trotter’s longtime executive chef, says that at staff meetings all the cooks took turns bringing in something that interested them creatively—writing, music, photos. They’d get assignments, too, such as to spend three hours walking around the Art Institute on their days off to see what spoke to them.

Trotter’s formula succeeded. By the mid-1990s, the restaurant was a runaway hit. It had introduced a wildly popular tasting menu—one of the first places in the city to do so—that showcased signature dishes like the Napoleon of foie gras. Most nights the dining room would host around 175 people over the course of two seatings, with every table spending between $350 and $600.

Trotter plowed the revenue into new equipment and dazzling accoutrements: stoves imported from France, a $350,000 demo kitchen. “Charlie would come to me and ask me what I thought the restaurant was missing,” says Merges. “And then he’d be like, ‘OK, spend $90,000 on new china’ or ‘Let’s go to France and do custom porcelain pressings’ or ‘Let’s spend $35,000 on white truffles when they’re in season.’ And then we’d go do it.”

When someone on the kitchen crew expressed an interest in sous vide—the technique, virtually unheard of at the time, of slow-cooking vacuum-sealed food in a carefully controlled warm water bath—Merges talked to the laboratory supply company PolyScience about what would be needed to build a custom-designed system. “And then we were producing prototypes for the first [restaurant] immersion circulator,” Merges says, referring to a machine that’s now commonplace in high-end kitchens.

Trotter invested in these things to expand the horizons of his cooking, to be sure, but he likely also saw in them a theatrical value. In 1989, he began offering the option of reserving the “kitchen table,” which gave patrons the privilege of feasting mere feet from the cooks preparing their meal. Trotter himself would explain some of the dishes and offer insight into how they were made. When the city’s health department threatened to shut down the practice in 1995, citing hygiene concerns, Trotter angrily told the Tribune that he was thinking about leaving town. The city backed down. Today chef’s tables and kitchen-adjacent seating are fixtures of fine-dining establishments all over the city.

 

IV. The branded chef

After Charlie Trotter’s, a lavish coffee-table cookbook with dozens of full-color photos of the restaurant’s elaborate dishes, was published in 1994, an editor at Chicago, Ted Allen (yes, Ted Allen of Chopped fame), wrote a humorous essay about trying to give a dinner party using recipes from it. The experiment ends with Allen throwing in the towel on many of the dishes and ordering pizza. That the recipes were less than doable for the average home cook didn’t seem to hurt the book’s sales a bit. Charlie Trotter’s became a sensation and spawned follow-up volumes on seafood, vegetables, meat, and desserts.

It was a revelation: Fans didn’t care if they couldn’t replicate Trotter’s dishes; they just wanted to imbibe his genius, bask a little in his starlight.

Trotter didn’t waste time capitalizing on the buzz. Soon he was using photos from the books on the evening’s menus, making sure to note that autographed copies were on sale at the host stand. Diners brought their own copies and asked their servers to have Trotter come out and sign them.

Partnerships and licensing agreements followed. In a lucrative move that other big-name chefs would take notice of, Trotter designed menus for United Airlines and for the catering giant Aramark, further disseminating his name. He made plans to launch restaurants in New York, London, and Mexico and to start a business that would let people get his food overnighted to them in vacuum-sealed pouches.

In 1999, he established a charity, Charlie Trotter’s Culinary Education Foundation, and began inviting Chicago-area middle school and high school students to dine free at his restaurant every week—efforts that prompted the International Association of Culinary Professionals to name him Humanitarian of the Year in 2004. (He was similarly anointed by the James Beard Foundation in 2012.)

His ascendancy was nothing short of revolutionary in the pre–Top Chef era. Here was a Chicago culinary personality who—without the ubiquitous television and social media exposure that later chefs would parlay into national stardom—seemed to be everywhere: in New York Times profiles, in food magazines, in bookstores, in grocery store aisles. His name had become a brand.

Like other celebrity chefs would discover, being an ambassador for your brand is hard work. As Trotter’s global profile began to rise, he traveled more, going on book tours and cooking at events and parties across the globe, often in the company of staffers. “We’d work Tuesday through Saturday, then travel Sunday and Monday,” says Kim. “He took me to France and we ate at all these three-star Michelin restaurants. And Charlie made sure you were taken care of—meals, places to stay.”

Trotter’s influence grew alongside his reputation. His decision to stop using foie gras, on ethical grounds, in 2005 prompted the Chicago City Council to introduce legislation banning the ingredient in city restaurants. Other local chefs protested, among them Tru’s Rick Tramonto, who publicly criticized the move. In response, Trotter told a Tribune reporter that Tramonto was “not the smartest guy on the block.”

The feud notwithstanding, Trotter had assumed the mantle of moral arbiter, helping to pave the way for present-day culinary ethicists like Dan Barber and Michael Pollan.

 

V. The kitchen tyrant

Near the height of his fame, Trotter made a memorable cameo in the 1997 Julia Roberts rom-com My Best Friend’s Wedding, essentially playing himself. The camera follows him storming through a restaurant kitchen, harried and enraged, his head looking like it’s about to explode and send his wire-rimmed glasses flying. Well before Gordon Ramsay created an entertainment empire around the public persona of a short-tempered, foulmouthed despot, Trotter is seen telling a cook, “I will kill your whole family if you don’t get this right. I need this to be perfect.”

Trotter was refreshingly unabashed about his perfectionism. A 1995 People profile pointed out that he had hired someone whose sole job was to polish silver using a special kind of cloth. Employees worked long shifts, even by industry standards, starting at 10 a.m. and often going until 4 a.m. Their responsibilities, Shields says, included such unsavory tasks as scrubbing the inside of the restaurant’s dumpster and those of neighboring restaurants in Trotter’s maniacal effort to fend off rats. “You’d just have to jump right in, and you’d be sweating through everything,” Shields says.

Kim says that cooks with big egos didn’t last long in Trotter’s kitchen. The experience of cleaning dumpsters and of doing your own dishes—dishwashers didn’t start work until late afternoon—tended to alienate those types. The place thrived on grinders, the kinds of workers who would put their heads down and toil without complaint until the shift was over.

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Staffers had to be on at all times, because Trotter had the habit of cornering workers and quizzing them. Shields recalls a particularly memorable episode: Trotter buttonholed him in the dining room and gestured out the window to some potted plants, instructing him to go outside, inspect them, and report back. Shields did so, but couldn’t figure out what he was supposed to be looking for. Finally, Trotter pointed out the problem. “On this one pot, you could barely see there was a small price tag sticker still on it. That was what he wanted me to find.”

Trotter thrived on manic energy and tended to whip things into a frenzy around him. When he loved something, his enthusiasm was boundless. When he didn’t, his cruelty was legendary. “When something went wrong, it would turn on a dime, and there was nothing you could do about it,” Merges says. “Once I got something wrong while working on the cold station, and he just took handfuls of the food and started throwing it at me, all over my uniform.”

Being cursed out was normal. So were firings. More than once, Merges was told to let someone go in the middle of service. Merges says he and others tolerated Trotter’s behavior because they believed it simply came with the territory when you were working for the city’s best restaurant: “It’s just part of doing whatever it takes.”

Mario Batali, Trotter, Wolfgang Puck, and Emeril Lagasse in Las Vegas in 2008. Photo: Mark Boster/LOS ANGELES TIMES
 

Others looked at Trotter’s style in a less sympathetic light. Grant Achatz wrote in his memoir, Life, on the Line, about his miserable few months under Trotter’s tutelage. On Achatz’s first day, he witnessed a pastry chef get berated for the improper blanching of a peach. Achatz says it wasn’t long before he felt himself cracking. In 1995, after trying to quit once but being persuaded to stay on, he finally told Trotter he was leaving for good. Achatz says he received the following admonition: “If you do not stay at this restaurant for a full year, you simply will not exist to me. Period. That means don’t ever call me. Don’t ever use me as a reference. Don’t put Charlie Trotter’s on your résumé. As far as I am concerned, if you haven’t worked here a year, you haven’t worked here a day.”

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On more than one occasion, accounts of aggressive behavior were compounded by accusations of bad business practices. In 2003, two class-action lawsuits were filed against Trotter’s: one from back-of-house employees alleging that their pay didn’t adequately compensate them for the 12- to 14-hour days the kitchen crew was asked to work, and another from front-of-house employees charging an unfair distribution of tips. Trotter claimed that he’d been upfront with all new hires about the demands of the job and their pay and suggested that working for little was just how it went for someone starting out. Merges told a Tribune reporter that Trotter, upon being informed that his observation might not carry much weight in court, responded, “[Expletive] them.”

Both lawsuits were ultimately settled out of court. The back-of-house settlement entitled every nonmanagement staffer and former staffer named in it to a payout. Trotter ended up disbursing only $300,000 or so of the agreed sum of $700,000 because a quarter of the 84 beneficiaries returned their checks uncashed, presumably because they didn’t want to be kicked out of the Trotter’s family. (The terms of the settlement of the front-of-house suit were never disclosed.)

The controversies—and the constant demands of overseeing commercial ventures, sponsorships, and promotions—eventually seemed to take their toll on Trotter. Kim left Trotter’s to work on the East Coast but returned for a while in 2004 and found that things in the kitchen had changed. He noticed, for example, that Trotter was present less often, even on busy nights. Kim quit soon after.

Critics noticed the changes, too. A few years after Kim quit, Chicago dining critic Jeff Ruby wrote of having to endure lags between courses that totaled an hour and a half. What many consider the knockout blow came in 2010, when Michelin’s first-ever guide to Chicago awarded Trotter’s only two stars. (Achatz’s Alinea earned three. Achatz says that Trotter, staying true to his word, never once came to dine there.) During a New Year’s Eve party that year, Trotter announced his restaurant would be closing. The tyrant, it seemed, had grown weary.

 
Video: DS Shin

For many of the cooks I spoke to who’d passed through Trotter’s kitchen, the hard feelings have faded. In fact, some, though certainly not all, remember their time at Trotter’s fondly. “We were all a little weird,” says Merges. “It was kind of like an Island of Misfit Toys. Charlie loved underdogs.”

The chef’s temperament aside, many members of the vast Trotter diaspora consider their time working at the restaurant to be the most formative culinary experience of their lives. Some got to see the world for the first time by accompanying Trotter on his numerous overseas jaunts, and all got to be part of something big. At the restaurant’s peak, saying you’d worked at Trotter’s was enough to get you hired pretty much anywhere. Restaurateurs knew you must have a thick skin. And that you could really cook.

Trotter’s perfectionism was contagious, and several of his former protégés say it has deeply informed how they run their own kitchens. “He used to give us these talks about achieving excellence—like ‘You guys are at this level, I need you to be up here’—before service,” says Shields. “And now I find myself doing that in my own kitchen, which is kind of weird, but I can see now why he did it.”

Would Shields go so far as to make an employee locate a stray price tag on a potted plant?

He doesn’t hesitate. “Absolutely.”

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