Charlie Trotter in His Prime: A Feature From September 1997

After 10 years at Charlie Trotter’s, the chef was acclaimed as one of the world’s greats—but even that wasn’t enough.

Charlie Trotter in 1997 Charles Cherney/Chicago Tribune

It’s the usual group of excited diners in the handsome two-tiered restaurant on Armitage Avenue. Here is one now, marveling over a tiny braised turnip stuffed with morels and topped with seared big-eye tuna swimming in a snap-pea purée with fiddlehead ferns. But, ah—there’s a problem.

Consternation clouds the gentleman’s face. He peers closer; his hand shuttles uneasily between his folk and his knife. To use the knife and cut directly down, attacking the tower from the top, would surely ruin the construction: A ground-level assault, inserting a fork near the turnip base, risks the entire edifice. How, then, is he to secure the tuna and scoop up the snap-pea purée with its microdots of 50-year-old balsamic vinegar? One thing is clear: the gentleman is no George Rubenstein.

Make that the late George Rubenstein, the opera patron and lumber magnate who died in December at the age of 84. With his passing, Charlie Trotter, 37, lost his greatest acolyte. In the nine years that Charlie had been serving food n his eponymous restaurant on Armitage. George ate there more than 250 times. And never ate the same dish twice. And never once saw a menu! On New Year’s Eve, when George maintained a scrupulous vigil at home, Charlie Trotter’s delivered dinner with decoded diagrams so the food could be properly assembled.

George gone? It is as if Johnson had lost his Boswell. As if Pope Julius had died on Michelangelo.

Perhaps the next George Rubenstein Lurks tonight in the dining room. At the “ten” table upstairs a group of tough female lawyers have already gone gooey-eyed and are making soft yelps of pleasure. At table 86 Dr. Jeff Bragman from California is back for his third evening in a row. Dr. Bragman, here on one of his dining excursions, is family. Ray Harris, a financial executive for Morgan Stanley, Dean Witter, Discover & Company, is nodding contentedly over the African pompano with macadamia nut crust, bok choy, and a spicy coconut emulsion. A New York-Chicago commuter, Ray was hunting for a late-night bistro to grab a solo bite. Charlie’s staff kept the kitchen open, and Ray has been back 100 times.

But George—George was one of a kind. He represented Charlie’s dream to run a restaurant where food evolved eternally toward perfection. A paperless restaurant with no menu where diners would merely check in and entrust themselves to the artistry of the chef.

And what artistry it is! What mysteries of metamorphosis take place! Indeed, such is the alchemy that at times it is difficult to tell that food is being served Offerings arrive on nests of plates and napkins. Not one nest of plates, not two, but three! The dishwasher here must be the size of the Amoco Building. And try to find the food identify! Here is an entire blue-cheese soufflé in the shape of a thimble. The Hudson Valley foie gns comes topped with sweet-and-sour cauliflower diced so fine a baby could swallow it. Forget your 16-ounce rib eye. Start thinking in grams. Make that micrograms, Charlie is a miniaturist. His work requites a magnifying glass to appreciate. One can only imagine the monastic quiet, the hushed calm that prevails behind the kitchen’s soundproof double doors.

 

“Six and two on 64!”

“Yes, chef!”

“Four squabs and a vegan!”

“Four squabs!”

“Come on, faster. Faster! We need to get the hot line in the game!”

Picture, if you will, a combat sub under attack. Picture the intensity of a hospital emergency room and throw in the acrobatics of the Cirque du Soleil. Then add razor-sharp knives and red-hot grills and scorching fire from vats of railing broth. Picture 18 men and women in chef’s toques bent double over stoves and countertops, brows furrowed, hands flying.

“Four and two on 18!”

“Yes, chef!”

“Seven and one for 12.”

“Seven and one!”

“Faster. Faster on the line! We’re losing momentum!”

At the grill, David snatches squab and, with surgical precision, spoons puddle of asparagus sauce. In pastry, face screwed in concentration, Tamara slices tiny chocolate slivers as if they were microchips. Michelle, the pastry chef, sails by with an armload of sourdough rolls, narrowly missing Guillermo, Charlie’s number two, who is inspecting a mackerel morsel for tonight’s amuse. The mackerel is maybe the size of your thumb. The cube has been meticulously set on a bed of braised baby leeks and julienned red and white radish and camps in a Lake of lobster stock.

“Overcooked,” declares Guillermo, thrusting it back. “Mackerel must always be medium rare.”

You will not find overcooked mackerel in this culinary shrine. You are as likely to find a plate with a smear.

Any decent restaurant wipes the rim of a plate before presenting it. Here the plate is practically sandblasted. First the line chef runs a cloth around it. Then Guillermo gives it a wipe. Charlie himself takes cloth to china. And a waiter gives it another wipe. The kitchen here is so clean you could do surgery on floor. Every 15 minutes a chef runs around with a mop. Another follows with a broom. A crumb sets charlie’s teeth on edge. The garbage bags—hidden, of course—are deliberately small. There are no bulging cans with piles of lettuce and uneaten soufflé in this kithen.

“More sauce! More sesame vinaigrette. Squeeze, squeeze!”

Elizabeth, blond hair tucked beneath her toque, bends to her bottle with fierce purpose.

“More!” cries Charlie. “Squeeze! The emulsion must be translucent!”

“Eight and four!”

“Seven and two for 18!”

“Yes, chef!”

 

A mere hour earlier and all is quet. It is 5:30 and the staff have gathered in the downstairs dining room for the nightly meeting. They sit in silence—busboys, sommeliers, waiters, runners. With the lights dimmed and a single spotlight illuminating the floral display on the credenzea, an air of cathedral solemnity hangs in the room. Charlie, a diminutive presence, appears in the doorway. His expression, as usual, manages to be both pixyish and intense. He tightens the string on his apron. It is the signal to begin.

“Herb?”

“It started out slow,” reports Herb, a waiter, of the previous evening. “There wasn’t much happening. But by desserts they were blown away.”

Charlie nods. “Paul?”

“The energy in the room was great. People were impressed by the wine by the glass.”

“Christian?”

“I’d have to agree with Paul. I had this very quiet ten. But they eventually did a 360. The guy wrote a note on the voucher. Really gushy, all about the staff, the valet, the tour. They were blown away!”

Charlie nods. “Brian?”

“Lots of questions at table 22. The guy was an avid collector. He raved about the wine list.” Brian is the assistant sommelier.

“Erwin?”

“Raves for the asparagus soup.”

Listen to the incantations, the testaments, the echo of affirmations. Ignore, if you will, the starched shirts and perfect bow ties. Ignore the tell-tale aligning of silver. These are not busboys and waiters and runners tonight. They are True Believers, adepts on hand to escort the culinary pilgrims on their trip to the holy land. Because that is Charlie Trotter’s mission, to arouse and inspire, to convert the uninitiated, to awaken the senses and rekindle the soul.

“I have a goal so lofty it’s almost embarrassing to talk about,” says Charlie. “And that’s to be the best restaurant in the world. But I want the amateur diner to enjoy the food as much as the connoisseur. There are eternal truths to be recognized, just as there are eternal harmonies in a Beethoven sonata. Ultimately, I want to prepare food that will be recognized equally in Tokyo, London, and Paris. I am after that universality, that transcendence.”

To be sure, there is the occasional apostate grouch. The previous evening a group of mildly antagonistic, apparently juiced “frat boys” had drawn nervous whispers among the waiters. The frat boys had smirked and talked too loud. A trace of scorn had infected their revelry. Good riddance, you say? Then you don’t know Charlie. Alerted to the miscreants, he intercepted the group and the door and jawed with the ringleader. Made nice. Signed a menu. And they left…converted. “I bonded with him,” Charlie modestly explains. “Unfortunately, sometimes you have to do that.”

Oh, not just with the rare loutish rubes. Every six weeks or so a diner mails an angry note. Why an entire menu based on fava beans? The wait between courses dragged. The sommelier clucked when the group passed on wine. Another chef might construe these gripes as the price of doing business. Not chef Trotter. In his distinctive scrawl he responds to every complainant. Very distressed. Not the experience we intended. Please return as our guests. Stubborn diners who still refuse are likely to receive a full or partial refund of the entire evening’s expense. Sometimes a bottle of wine is sent.

What’s the man trying to do? Win over the world?

 

If so, he’s doing a pretty good job. His is one of only a handful of U.S. restaurants to receive both five Mobil stars and five AAA diamonds. For the third year in a row Charlie missed the prestigious James Beard Foundation’s top chef honor, but all bets are on for next year. GQ’s highly regarded restaurant critic, Alan Richman, recenently named New York’s Le Bernadin the nation’s greatest restaurant—but quickly noted that Charlie Trotter’s could easily have gotten the nod. “The most innovative restaurant in America,” Richman tagged it. Readers of Wine Spectator recently voted Charlie the best chef in America. As Charlie Trotter’s celebrated its tenth anniversary this August, only a handful of restaurants competed with a similar master at the helm: the French Laundry in Napa Valley, maybe, Le Bec-Fin in Philadelphia, and New York’s Lespinasse plus the newly crowned Jean Georges. Internationally Charlie is one of America’s most visible stars, one of the elite whose restaurants are cited by Relais & Châteaux. In fact, he has just returned from a trip to Sweden where he judged a cooking competition hosted by the Restaurangakademie.

“How was Sweden?” inquires Christian at the staff meeting.

Charlie nods. Sweden—well, Sweden was pretty terrific. He was there, as everyone assembled knows, as the vegetable judge. He was at the U.S. ambassador’s house. A great guy; went to law school with Bill. Twenty chefs in one Château. Charlie escorted the ambasador’s wife to dinner. The ambassador, unbelievably, had no French wines, so an obliging collector had to pour an ’86 Châteauneuf-du-Pape from his own cellar. Nice people, the Swedes. Very genuine. Very low-key, little attitude. Charlie, who is renowned for his outbursts of temper and fanatic drive, can appreciate the laid-back Scandinavians. “Of course, I did have to yell at a couple of chefs,” he says with a smile.

Titters in the room. Just the way Charlie yelled at the poor chef in his film debut in My Best Friend’s Wedding. But now Charlie tightens his apron. Enough about Sweden. On to this evening. “Mitchell?”

Mitchell, the director of operations, rattles of tonight’s highlights from memory. The crab sits over a watercress infusion and is wrapped around enoki mushroom ravioli with leeks, ramps, and fennel. The turnip this evening is stuffed with tiny zucchini. Strike the scallop. It’s oven-dried strawberries tonight and no the raspberries. There’s a lobser infusion—

“Emulsion,” corrects Charlie.

“Right.”

“OK, have we checked the bathrooms? Lights? Vacuumed?”

Nods around the room. It’s like NASA at launch time.

“Then let’s rock and roll,” says Charlie.

 

Like any other top restaurant, this one has its ebb and flow. The day begins early for the Trotter troops who tap their nationwide network of 95 foragers and purveyors for herbs and vegetables. If it’s not fresh, you won’t see it on Charlie’s menu. Fish arrive by air freight from Hawaii or Maine—line caught, naturally, with no corrupting nets and ice, and “day boat,” which means boats go out and come back in on the same day. Farm-raised venison—who knows what a deer in the wild might munch?—comes in at three. Most of the staff, meanwhile, toil all day in the kitchen, doing the fine dice and skimming fat off vats of broth. The staff dinner is at 4:30; the valet arrives to sweep the sidewalk at five; the meeting follows. And then, on to the ovens! Whereupon relative calm inevitably gives way to that window of frenzy when any restaurant must earn its stripes—Rush Hour! Knives flash, orders shoot up, chefs race by one another in manic ballet. At the grill David’s hands are a blur, his feet a super-speed polka.

Charlie modulates the noise. Too quiet and there’s no intensity; too loud and he can’t be heard. But now—there’s a problem. A request for a custard dessert has come in and there is no custard. Charlie’s face goes ballistic.

“Michelle, come over to my office!”

Michelle, the pastry chef, is no slouch. With a staff of four she has her own fiefdom here. She understudied at the great L.A. restaurant Campanile. Now she makes her way through the kitchen like a child summoned to the teacher’s desk. She arrives at Charlie’s “office,” dead center in the kitchen, with her eyes barely raised. “Yes, chef?”

“Where’s the custard?”

“Mitchell said we could skip the custard.”

“‘Mitchell said we could skip the custard.’” Charlie squints; his eyes are like lasers. “Michelle, whose name is at the bottom of your paycheck every week?”

Michelle ducks her head. “Yours.”

“That’s right. Not Mitchell’s—mine! Now get the custards ready.”

“Yes, chef!”

There are nervous coughs at the kitchen table. Tucked between the waiters’ ordering station and the garde-manger, this setting for four, booked months in advance, offers adventurous diners a peek behind the scenes. It’s a chance to see the Wizard—behind his curtain. But the Wizard tonight acts more like the Wicked Witch of the West. Awkward glances pass among the four diners. Is this how a great kitchen is run? Shouldn’t the chef, well, restrain himself in front of company? Perhaps the kitchen should be, uh, out of bounds. Apparently not, because now the dining room doors swing open and who should appear but Dona-Lee, Charlie’s mom—with a tour in tow! Having helped bankroll the restaurant’s start-up ten years ago, she is showing off what her son has wrought.

It’s a kitchen like no other kitchen, she explains. Witness the custom-make French Bonnet stoves, solid brass hinges so strong you can jump on the door (this is demonstrated, though not by Charlie’s mom). Here are the portable induction cooktops that work on electromagnetic fields. Unbelievably, there is no heat on the surface. (Stunned visitors are invited to lay their hands on the surface while water boils!) Note the locked cabinets where the chefs keep their knives. Note the absence of a meat freezer—that’s right, fish so fresh it’s still in rigor mortis, goes the Trotter patter. And here, of course, is the kitchen table itself, which the Chicago Health Department tried to close down two years ago. It was deemed unhygienic, a possible source of germs. Well, her son put a stop to that, says Dona-Lee with a smile. He threatened to leave Chicago. It was Charlie, after all, who was one of the first chefs to bring the kitchen table to U.S. restaurants.

The tour is ushered out and Mom reappears with a gift for Charlie. It’s May first and she has just returned from a Ken-tucky Derby party, brandishing a souvenir. It’s an apron with WIN, PLACE, and SHOW stitched in psychedelic rhinestones. Charlie holds it up and allows a smile. “I thought you’d like it.” He puts it on and just as quickly hands it back. Thanks, Mom, but it’s no time for fun. The kitchen is no place for jokes. There are diners to be served! Dr. Bragman wants more wine! There’s a ten-course vegetarian menu to be prepared! The guests are paying good money for the Charlie Trotter experience. They must not be disappointed!

 

But is this restaurant for you? you ask. Where does Charlie figure in your meal plan?

If you’re one of those diners with a favorite dish, forget it. You swooned over last month’s halibut with the turnip infusion? Put it out of your mind. The halibut is history. The very idea of a “signature” dish is an insult to Charlie. Might as well ask Leonardo to draw another Mona Lisa. In other words, don’t make the trek to Armitage if you think in categories. And don’t come around if your idea of haute cuisine is a lump of perfectly cooked protein in a fabulous deglazed sauce. That centerpiece of French haute cuisine leave Charlie yawning. Save your money, in fact, if you’re looking for sauces at a Charlie is into broths. Very light, wispy vegetable infusions. True, you might find a nice butter-rich sauce over a cube of pompano. But butter and cream are not exactly staples here. Nor, to be candid, are meats. It’s not that Charlie is a health nut. No, there is simply not enough Charlie can do with a piece of meat. But vegetables—ah, vegetables are another matter. And, oh, yes—skip the entire experience if you like normal portions. Even the desserts are tiny little things. And speaking of desserts, don’t come around expecting a wheeled cheese cart laden with biscuits, grapes and smelly stuff from France.

“We don’t believe in a cheese cart.”

And something else Charlie doesn’t believe in: big, showy wines. True, he maintains an awesome cellar with world-class burgundy and Rhone wines and a 45-page wine list. In storage there is a 30,000-bottle inventory. Charlie’s sommelier, Joseph Spellman, won Wine Spectator’s Grand Award in 1993 and carries the rank of master sommelier. Indeed, he has just returned triumphant from Pads, having won the prestigious 1997 Grand Prix Sopexa international competition. He is, quite simply, the best sommelier of French wines in the world. But the waitstaff cringes when word arrives that table 44 has just ordered a “gigantic” red. Don’t they know that it will overwhelm the delicate flavor tones of the food? Another restaurant might thrill at the nice profit on the ’83 Pomerol. Not here. Erwin, the expediter, is dispatched to tactfully propose a more modest red or, ah, an alteration in the menu.

Naturally there are those who flinch at the seeming pretension of the place. “Flavor tones"? What about food? What is one to make of a dish that is described on the menu as “ragout of morel mushrooms, diver scallops, ramps, fava beans and haricots verts with mushroom emulsion and cardamom carrot juice"? It takes longer to say than to eat. Isn’t it all a bit … precious? In one press release the restaurant decor is touted as “Viennese Secessionist.” Has somebody lost perspective here?

Most diners, it should be noted, leave the restaurant dizzy with praise. It is a food art show. It is a showpiece for Charlie’s genius. A high-wire act where the chef never trips. Sensual and yet cerebral. It is an experience to think about, an evening to talk about. And it is not, by some standards, wildly expensive. Of the dining menus, the vegetable menu costs $70 per person, the Grand Menu goes for $90, both without wine. You can book the kitchen table at $150 on weekends, and $125 on weekdays.

“If you had to buy a comparable meal in France,” notes Charlie, “it would cost four times as as much.”

 

Charlie should know. He spent the part of a year touring the great kitchens of Europe. This was after earning a degree in political science at the University of Wisconsin. His biography, in fact, is at first glance bewildering. Unlike most top chefs, he has very little formal training. He didn’t apprentice at a three-star Michelin eater. He didn’t grow up with the smell of fresh yeast and simmering stocks every morning. He grew up in Wilmette, the son of an IBM executive and a housewife. “He says I did well-balanced meals,” says Dona Lee. “Coming from him, that’s not a compliment.”

She searches her memory bank for the telltale sign of her son’s precocity. There were the Mad Hatter Meatballs from the Good Housekeeping cookbook that he made with his younger sister but then … nothing. As a lad, Charlie was too embroiled in other pursuits. Devoting himself to gymnastics. Shooting wacky action-packed home movies that starred his fellow trampolinists falling off the family roof. Her first clue to Charlie’s new passion was when he came home from college one weekend and whipped up a spinach soufflé and poached salmon.

“I mean, that’s not typical college food, is it?” she asks.

Charlie opened his restaurant when he was 27 and in the Gallic tradition named it for himself. Many of the current staff have been with him since the start. Reginald waited in line by the alley table to apply to wash dishes that hot August morning; now he is an assistant sous-chef. Mark Signorio, who started as a waiter, is Charlie’s manager of development. The restaurant itself, naturally, has evolved. When it opened, it offered a normal bill of fare—which is to say choices. Seven years ago, Charlie switched entirely to a tasting menu. To those who grouse—"Suppose I’m not in the mood for oxtail ravioli?"—Charlie retorts, “When you go to Orchestra Hall, do you request Mozart?” Suppose a diner asks for say, chicken? This question is raised at the Cliff Dwellers, where 80 club members gathered on a recent spring evening to hear Charlie talk and to eat what he cooks.

“First,” explains Charlie, “we suggest the poussin. We tell them we have a delicious poussin. If they still insist on chicken, we send someone running to another restaurant. We baste the chicken in oil and rub it with lemon and herbs an braise it and roast it and serve it.”

So, you see, Charlie is no elitist though his accommodations do have their limits. In 1995 amid much fanfare he took his act to Las Vegas and opened restaurant in the MGM Grand. And it was a flop. Turned out—big surprise—that high rollers had minimal interest in fiddlehead ferns and terrine of salsify. In their haste to bet, they were inclined to hurry the courses. Oh, well. Charlie did OK financially since MGM had to buy him out of his contract.

His other talked-about enterprise, a vegetarian restaurant in Chicago, still hasn’t happened. Maybe Charlie is just too busy He does have a family—his second wife, Lynn, and their six-year-old son, Dylan. Charlie is at the restaurant every night it is open. The rest of the time he’s staging “out-of-house events.” His is a frequent presence at the James Beard House in New York City which Charlie likens to the “Carnegie Hall of Culinary Arts.” He has staged dinners there consisting entirely of organ meats or potato courses. Last month, along with famed chefs Emeril Lagasse (the man who rescued Commander’s Palace in New Orleans) and Norman Van Van Aken (now in Florida, he once ran Gordon Sinclair’s Lake Forest restaurant, where Charlie apprenticed), Charlie cohosted a gala birthday bash for one of the country’s great unheralded chefs, Raji Jallepalli of Memphis. He booked the boardroom and feted a dozen chums, among them the legendary Barry Wine of New York’s Quilted Giraffe. Responding to one of many toasts, a visibly moved Raji in turn toasted Charlie, calling him one of the “most loving, generous people I’ve ever met.” Then the table talk resumed, with grunts of pleasure the parade of courses and rare wines sent in by the noted collectors. Inevitably there was also talk of Charlie’s unofficial “over-the-top” European counterpart, the outrageous Marc Veyrat of Lac d’Annecy in France, where most foodies present had made at least one pilgrimage. Snapshots were passed around as Veyrat’s various feats were extolled: his 20-course dinners; predawn treks into the surrounding hills for herbs; his desserts carved in replicas of his furniture; his breakfasts that the rival feasts of Henry VII.

Veyrat is also, by general consensus, $7 million in debt, which may be where the comparison with Charlie ends. Charlie is a strict believer in the bottom line.

“It’s most important to generate revenue,” he tells the crowd at the Cliff Dwellers. “This is a very important topic. To run a restaurant like ours costs money. You’ve got to pay staff, buy new silver, redecorate. You’ve got to find ways to live beyond your means.”

Charlie has found several ways and one is the restaurant. Figure the math yourself. Most times the restaurant operates near capacity. That’s two seats of, say, 75 covers. Figure no one gets out for less than $125 and that’s $20,000-plus a night. The kitchen table alone has been estimated to bring in $400,000 a year (no wonder Charlie made the health authorities blink). Sure, the topnotch staff is well rewarded, but turnips and fiddlehead ferns come cheap. The place is labor intensive. Besides, Charlie owns the building. And he bought the building next door, where he has opened a top-of-the-line test kitchen. Soon it will be the locus of his cooking classes and what Charlie hopes will be a regular cooking show on PBS. It’s also where he’ll train executive chefs for Aramark.

Aramark—formerly ARA—is a $6-billion world leader in catered services, from ballparks and schools to executive chefs. This May, Charlie and Aramark announced a new partnership. “It’s the Big Guy and the Little Guy,” Charlie told 400 guests assembled at the Amoco Building for the giant National Restaurant Association show. Whereupon he stripped off his chef’s whites and donned a suit jacket. Suddenly it was Charlie the capitalist. “I’m also a firm believer in the business side,” he informed the guests. “I believe in focusing on details.”

He then entertained the assembled with the grim tale of his recent visit to an acclaimed Boston eatery. Seems there was a fellow in shirtsleeves reading a book on the steps out front. Seems the fellow was the restaurant valet. Charlie was appalled. “I’ll show you how to do your job,” he lectured the layabout, and gave him a verbal thrashing about manners, attitude, and the “eternal truths of service.”

Charlie has his own valets sweep the sidewalk, the street, and the alley next to the restaurant. His chefs run around with brooms and counter wipes. How you hold a broom, he likes to say, is as important as how you drizzle a sauce. And how you market yourself; he might add. With his restaurant as standard-bearer, he has launched a variety of projects. Peek into the kitchen now, just as Rush Hour ebbs, and you’ll catch Guillermo shaking a bottle and tasting the contents with his finger. Like a chemist, he adds a touch more soy sauce, a dash of ginger, more grape-seed oil. Shakes and tastes. Michelle—custard under control—has taken a break to offer Charlie a blob of dough she has been mixing and poking. They are experimenting with products that could one day be co-brand ventures with Sara Lee. Already Charlie sells his patented citrus-cured smoked salmon in high-end groceries. This fall his Gourmet Cooking for Dummes appears in bookstores.

But don’t let that book give you ideas. If you think gourmet cooking is for dummies, then you should have a look at Charlie’s own cookbooks. They sell for $50 a pop and are exquisitely handsome volumes with startling full-page color photos of every dish. They’re so lavish, in fact, that no cookbook publisher wanted to publish them, so Charlie bankrolled the first with his own money. The third, just released, is Charlie Trotter’s Seafood.

True, the cookbooks have not received unanimous praise. A particularly dubious review in Saveur described his latest as an insult to readers. Nobody could possibly duplicate these recipes at home, griped the reviewer. Ah, but Saveur’s critic missed the point “These were never intended as simple cuisine for home cooks,” Charlie told the audience at the Cliff Dwellers. “Their purpose is to capture what we’re about. To document the restaurant experience.” Listen closely and you can hear the anguish in Charlie’s voice. Night after night he creates his masterpieces. Tiny towers go up with their intricate palette of flavors. The architecture of tastes is perfection itself. The lake of lemongrass mates sublimely with the wine, a fruity Sancerre with just a back tone of acid. And yet—one swallow and the experience is but a memory. His art is so ephemeral. Posterity will never appreciate the day-boat swordfish atop the gratinée of leek-infused artichoke. George Rubenstein is gone and he took the evidence of Charlie’s genius with him. A great choreographer has his notations and videos; Charlie makes do with his cookbooks. They are his documentation.

So imagine, if you will, the drive and fortitude it takes every night. Join Charlie in his “office” as he alternately sips Champagne and cappuccino while inspecting the plate before him. Its crisp potato tuile is topped with barely seared tuna, while inside nestles a surprise confit of fennel. The puddle of pea purée, studded with tiny morels, glistens green as newly mowed grass. Charlie runs a cloth around the plate and passes it quickly to the waiter to be delivered into the dining room. He cannot bring himself to gaze on his masterpiece again.

There is a piece of his soul in that tuile.

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