By now the happenstance way in which Charlie Trotter found his calling is the stuff of local lore: Twenty years ago, after graduating from the University of Wisconsin and taking a journey through kitchens and restaurants around the world, a 27-year-old kid from Wilmette opened a restaurant in Lincoln Park—and it was good. So good, in fact, that the kid rose, swiftly, to national acclaim as one of the country's best chefs. "I didn't have a big plan," Trotter recalls toady. "I just wanted to do something and pour my heart into it."
Today, Charlie Trotter's, the 96-seat jewel that made Chicago a center of dining innovation, remains the showcase for a growing culinary empire that will soon include two more restaurants, one in Chicago and one in Las Vegas. But Trotter's influence radiates far beyond 816 West Armitage Avenue: He has set the pace for the rest of the city's fine-dining establishments and mentored a legion of chefs who have spread his exacting approach to food throughout the world. What's more, he takes seriously his role as a member of the Chicago community, giving to it—and its children—a level of time, money, and attention that goes beyond the call.
It's fair to say that throughout his career there have been few trends in dining that Trotter did not anticipate. When he opened in 1987, Trotter created a restaurant following the French model, but one that was resolutely American. He experimented with Asian ingredients and mostly eliminated butter and cream from his cooking. In 1990, Trotter threw out his à la carte selections to offer just two $95 tasting menus—and one was all vegetables. An early advocate of organic produce and chef-driven boutique farming, Trotter helped invent "microgreens," those tiny leaves seen today on plates everywhere.
Ultimately, though, what elevates Trotter beyond the sometimes esoteric realms of four-star dining is his devotion to Chicago. Each year he contributes a handful of private dinners to charitable causes; opens his kitchen to more than 200 individuals who have donated money in exchange for the privilege of working at Trotter's for a night; and hosts his own events to benefit the Charlie Trotter Culinary Education Foundation. This year, the foundation, which awards scholarships to aspiring chefs, passed the $1-million mark.
Trotter, 48, says that of all his charitable work he is most proud of the restaurant's Excellence Program. Three nights a week, 20 students, mainly from Chicago public high schools, arrive at the restaurant and sit down to a lavish, two-and-a-half-hour multicourse meal as his guests. "It's a chance to show off what excellence is all about," says Trotter, himself the father of a high schooler. "Young people just need a lightning bolt here, a lightning bolt there. My greatest thrill is to watch these beautiful young men and women have this experience. It's all worth it for that."