Charlie Trotter Has Died and the Theories Are All Heartbreaking

The great chef’s life and career had a Shakespearean arc.

Photo: Alex Garcia/Chicago Tribune

Charlie Trotter—Chicago’s most famous, revered, groundbreaking, and feared chef—has died at 54. Multiple sources report that he was found unconscious this morning in his Lincoln Park home by his son, Dylan, and died soon after at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. It’s difficult to imagine the horrors his family is going through right now, and no amount of sympathy can possibly help.

We could rehash the usual stories about Trotter’s tantrums and talents, people he humiliated, or awards he won at his eponymous restaurant. But in the end, what we have here is a tragic story about an unconventional man.

The obvious whispers at the moment—suicide? drugs?—sound horribly crass, but we’ve been conditioned to imagine the worst when a heretofore healthy celebrity is discovered unresponsive in his home. Especially when the star in question’s only recent newsworthiness has revolved around the bizarre and distressing contretemps of a seemingly unstable individual.

The angels in us mourn the passing of a supremely gifted chef.

But no matter how hard we try to quash them, the devils in us, ever desirous of a juicy story, play out a relentless theoretical narrative of Trotter’s life that goes something like this:

Eccentric, creative North Shore kid starts cooking, realizes he’s a natural.

Kid unleashes his imagination and fearlessly follows his muse—an exacting, curious voice that leads him everywhere, takes him to the top of the field, and makes him world-famous.

At some point he gets so good, the muse starts following him.

Everyone else starts following him.

Few of those followers share his drive, his talent, or his personality, and he punishes them for their shortcomings.

Those who share his drive and talent get punished too, because they represent the greatest threat to his crown.

The world doesn’t understand his genius but accepts it. His meteoric success protects him from the harsh judgment of the public, much of which is willing to overlook his behavior as the by-product of a formidable perfectionist.

The world changes.

His students change with it. Many surpass him. Not necessarily in technique or exactitude, but in capturing the spirit of food that speaks to diners.

His exactitude hardens into bitterness. He lashes out, publicly and privately.

No longer the king, he finds a world that has turned against him. His name, once synonymous with brilliance, now represents the stubborn intolerance of a dinosaur that didn’t realize he was extinct.

He realizes the 25th anniversary of his eponymous restaurant represents the perfect cover to shutter it and walk away, pride intact.

In the following year, run-ins with auctioneers, reporters, and students strip raw his eccentricity, which may have been something else—something far darker—all along.

The outbursts are no longer perceived as the price of genius, but rather the frustrations of a bitter man who cannot handle a life outside the spotlight.

He dies on a Tuesday morning and trends on Twitter all afternoon. Everyone, from his dedicated protégés to those who publicly badmouthed him, now lament his passing, while whispering to one another about cause of death.

My last meal at Charlie Trotter’s was an odd experience. He had recently announced that the restaurant was closing and the food and mood were looser than they had been in years.

Trotter himself was frenzied, popping up all over the room to crack jokes and photobomb group pictures. Everyone around me seemed to be having a great time. This was unusual; the room’s vibe over the years—for diners and staffers alike—was more one of hushed reverence than exuberance. I remarked to my wife that it was the first time I had seen Trotter in a good mood, assuming that he was no longer feeling the impossible weight of competition and was enjoying a life that was finally something like the rest of ours. I realize now I had no idea what was going through his head.

True or not, Charlie Trotter’s story has the kind of arc that people love to call Shakespearean. Partially because most of us live quiet, normal lives and don’t know what else to call it when others triumph and suffer at levels far beyond anything we understand.

More details will come out in the following weeks, and perhaps we will learn that Trotter’s death is not shadowy, but rather a simple cardiac arrest following years of working harder than any human should. But it’s much more Shakespearean to imagine that the same mysterious edge that made Charlie Trotter a genius also ended up killing him.

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8 months ago
Posted by mamabrie

My husband went out for a routine jog almost 5 years ago and died of cardiac arrest a block from our house. He was 48 and left 4 children behind. I know firsthand the heartache Mr. Trotter's family is feeling. We all have our demons but the fact remains he was a true culinary genius. My sincere condolences go out to his family.

8 months ago
Posted by msdean

Wow - this article seems really harsh. I had the pleasure of being a neighbor on Dayton and of visiting the restaurant a number of times. One of my most memorable was with my friend Patti Ledbetter (of Houston's fame - who sadly died last year) when we both realized that Charlie did not serve hard liquor at the bar. Much to our dismay, he was right - the food tasted better with the tastebuds not being spoiled with hard liquor. Mr Trotter was an amazing, talented Chef. My sincere condolences go out to his family and friends.

8 months ago
Posted by Jardon

Completely unnecessary. It's not even been a day and this critical and terrible piece could have waited, if at all been shown.

Jeff Ruby was my favorite writer at Chicago Magazine and now don't really get why I liked him in the first place.

Rest in Peace, Charlie Trotter.

8 months ago
Posted by Jardin

Critical? Jardon, go have a glass of wine.

Jeff Ruby is still my favorite writer at Chicago Magazine and now I really get why I liked him in the first place.

8 months ago
Posted by Northshore

Shame on you Jeff Ruby and Chicago Magazine.

8 months ago
Posted by Ingrid

The best article I have read on Charlie Trotter passing. Well done Jeff Ruby.

8 months ago
Posted by Auggie

This article is completely tasteless and tacky. Furthermore, it's full of speculation and disrespectful to the family.

8 months ago
Posted by I figured it was suicide

[[The obvious whispers at the moment—suicide? drugs?—sound horribly crass.]]

No, they don't.

A sudden death at a relatively young age, and after his odd behavior with those students, leads us directly to questions of suicide and/or drugs.

It's national news and until the coroner issues a cause of death ruling people are going speculate.

8 months ago
Posted by goldberg

I love this piece, Jeff Ruby. I think you nailed it on the head. I met Charlie Trotter at a PR Event showcasing the fancy new condo's at the Palmolive Building. He and Rochelle were there catering/signing his book. I managed to chat with him briefly, have him personally sign my book, and sneak a bite of his insanely amazing appetizers upon his encouragement. I thought he was cool as hell and totally understand your point of view. Good tribute.

8 months ago
Posted by Amg

You obviously know nothing about food. And don't care to know. That's actually fine. But please don't engage your sophomoric opinions in things you know nothing of. Cuisine. And passion for excellence. But. You know you're a trib writer. You have to make a living. Making a fake controversy over an absolute gentleman who has just died. Good move! Maybe you'll get a promotion

8 months ago
Posted by Euclidave

A refreshingly honest voice, both self reflective and unmasked, from Jeff Ruby discussing a brilliant, self-absorbed and difficult soul in Charlie Trotter. And in there lies the duality of man. A tortured artist whose folly of demons masqueraded as perfection. A master both stuck in and forgotten by time. When revealed, the wizard behind the curtain is just a pathetic man no bigger than those he thrived on belittling. His spiral demise a ubiquitous cliche for any felled star. How does one not wonder out loud 'how,' 'why'? Perhaps to understand what made him tick, we must also understand what made him stop ticking -- not for the sake of tabloid curiosity, but on a cellular level as curious creatures.

8 months ago
Posted by noraannemarie

I didn't really know much about the legends of Charlie Trotter (probably blasphemous in Chicago...). Of course have heard the name but didn't really know all the stories about his personalities. All the people who are calling this piece shameful, etc. are intriguing to me. This man was clearly a sort of genius and certainly an artist. The most gifted and talented among us often struggle with psychological issues--those demons can be both blessing and curse. People are going to speculate about his death no matter what, this article takes an interesting perspective linking the two things he was known for-his genius and his eccentricity. It's not disrespectful. What is so horrible if he did have some sort of mental illness? It's disrespectful to the mentally ill to consider that an insult. Many of us lead turbulent but ultimately successful and even happy lives. My thoughts go to the family and my heart goes out to him... whatever the cause of death, he appears to have struggled with his demons. Even in (perhaps especially in) passing I'm sure he'll remain a Chicago legend respected for his craft.

8 months ago
Posted by noray

I didn't really know much about the legends of Charlie Trotter (probably blasphemous in Chicago...). Of course have heard the name but didn't really know all the stories about his personalities. All the people who are calling this piece shameful, etc. are intriguing to me. This man was clearly a sort of genius and certainly an artist. The most gifted and talented among us often struggle with psychological issues--those demons can be both blessing and curse. People are going to speculate about his death no matter what, this article takes an interesting perspective linking the two things he was known for-his genius and his eccentricity. It's not disrespectful. What is so horrible if he did have some sort of mental illness? It's disrespectful to the mentally ill to consider that an insult. Many of us lead turbulent but ultimately successful and even happy lives. My thoughts go to the family and my heart goes out to him... whatever the cause of death, he appears to have struggled with his demons. Even in (perhaps especially in) passing I'm sure he'll remain a Chicago legend respected for his craft.

8 months ago
Posted by noray

I didn't really know much about the legends of Charlie Trotter (probably blasphemous in Chicago...). Of course have heard the name but didn't really know all the stories about his personalities. All the people who are calling this piece shameful, etc. are intriguing to me. This man was clearly a sort of genius and certainly an artist. The most gifted and talented among us often struggle with psychological issues--those demons can be both blessing and curse. People are going to speculate about his death no matter what, this article takes an interesting perspective linking the two things he was known for-his genius and his eccentricity. It's not disrespectful. What is so horrible if he did have some sort of mental illness? It's disrespectful to the mentally ill to consider that an insult. Many of us lead turbulent but ultimately successful and even happy lives. My thoughts go to the family and my heart goes out to him... whatever the cause of death, he appears to have struggled with his demons. Even in (perhaps especially in) passing I'm sure he'll remain a Chicago legend respected for his craft.

8 months ago
Posted by rosel

it sucks. unexpected death at a young age. it happens. until i hear otherwise, i would assume natural causes. it usually is. in the last two years, people I know in their 40s who were not known to be sick have died of pulmonary embolism, small bowel infarct, and gastrointestinal hemorrhage.

8 months ago
Posted by rememberingwhen

Way back when Charlie's passion for creativity and food were in their infancy, he would test out his creations on the wide circle of his North Shore parent's friends. His kid brother was a friend of my daughter,...they were perhaps freshman in high school. The little brother asked my daughter to assist him in the kitchen and in serving the dinner his brother was concocting. Both were required to dress as a waitstaff in any high end restaurant. The Trotters were a nice family w/many friends, and the evening progressed with a overly long cocktail hour. Daughter reported home that Charlie barely a kid himself) was quite frustrated in the kitchen as the courses were ready, guests were not. When they finally took their seats, most could hardly appreciate nor show much intrest in the dishes put before them. This was several years before his star was born in Chicago.
I am so very sad for all the Trotters and the loss of their gifted son.

8 months ago
Posted by O.R.

I hope his family won't see this article. This is anything but comfort for his family.You could say all those things so much nicer and keep the same idea. Make me so sad not for who write this, for the one who approve to publish it. :(
R.I.P.

8 months ago
Posted by Pizzeria-Aroma

is the timing in poor taste? perhaps but even that is up for argument.either way this is a wonderfully written piece.

8 months ago
Posted by ECSmith

We live in a 24-hour news cycle, and this publication felt compelled to be part of the "buzz" of a man's death. When someone famous dies, it's news, but sadly, the way that news is presented has become extremely tabloid-esque. Chicago magazine didn't break the news of Mr. Trotter's death, but this article was a hasty attempt to write a thoughtful obit on the day he died. It all felt a bit premature. The problem is that it's difficult to truly reflect on something when we don't even know what happened. Sure, people will speculate, but it's up to the professionals—the "reporters"—to get the facts right and not add to the speculation. It's disappointing when a magazine that I respect doesn't live up to that standard, but so few publications do anymore. Next time, Chicago magazine, don't feel so pressured to be a part of the breaking news. Instead, take a few days to reflect and do what you do best. Sometimes it's better to the be the last to the story instead of one of the first.

8 months ago
Posted by paul

Disgusting, that is what Jeff Ruby is! What a disgrace to this magazine to write such an article about a true pioneer in Chicago. All Ruby does is eat food made by chefs and is obviously jealous of their talents. Please fire this hack asap.

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