Almost 10 years after his death, Chef Charlie Trotter’s name still looms large. After all, Trotter restaurant alumni like Grant Achatz, Curtis Duffy, Mindy Segal, and Bill Kim are still around receiving Michelin stars, topping the “Best of” lists, and picking up James Beard awards and nominations — all while evoking his name for when reaching a new milestone.
Charlie Trotter is one of the reasons Chicago became the culinary powerhouse and travel destination it is today. But at what cost?
That’s the question Love, Charlie: The Rise and Fall of Chef Charlie Trotter, a film by Rebecca Halpern, an Illinois native and Northwestern alum, hopes to answer in the 97-minute documentary on the star chef’s life. It’s available to buy or rent on streaming services like Amazon and Apple.
“My philosophy has always been, if it weren’t for employees and if it weren’t for the customers the restaurant business would be the greatest business in the world,” Trotter says in the film’s opening scene. “And basically I hate people.”
The film begins with Charlie as Chuck, a North Shore native who bopped around life until he decided he wanted to become a chef. Once that decision was made, everything else faded into the background. The man saw himself as a restaurateur, and so he became one.
Trotter, a self-taught chef, is credited with many of today’s popular food trends: the use of micro-greens, plant-based meals, and elevating food photography in his cookbooks to “food porn” status. He was obsessed with being the best across the board — food, ambiance, service, wine, and presentation all mattered to him.
Repeat client Ray Harris, featured in the film, estimates he ate at Charlie Trotter’s restaurant 424 times. That’s over 4,000 courses and no repeat meals thanks to Trotter’s demand that fresh, seasonal ingredients be used. This led to meals being made on the fly depending on what was on-hand that day. Trotter’s early formula for success was showing up, giving gratitude for the opportunities he was given, then completely mastering his work. He didn’t drink and often left late-night shifts to go running at 2 a.m. No one was as hard on Trotter as he could be on himself. And instead of finding a healthier way to express his stress or self-criticism, he let it leak out around him and used it as an excuse for treating others poorly. His behavior left his staff wondering if they were friends or foes (Achatz among them).
At the height of Trotter’s prime, Chicago’s Black and Hispanic populations were more than 50% of the city’s population. But despite this diversity, his words were less than a praise of the city’s ethnic food scene.
“Ten years ago being a vegetarian in America was probably a grim flight,” Trotter says in an archived clip. “You either had to go to ethnic restaurants or health food restaurants and that food is not really delicious.”
Back then, Trotter was credited with putting a spotlight on vegetables as mains — despite many ethnic foods built around plant-based meals. Today there is an active online community calling attention to white, wealthy men who built food empires by appropriating meals from their international travels, while lambasting the immigrant food entrepreneurs who diluted their ethnic cuisines to appease the palettes of Western in order to survive. Based on their description, Trotter falls into this category.
Trotter’s laser focus was his strength, then his demise. His inability to see beyond his description of perfection kept him from reimagining his food, his dining experience, and himself. He refused to share or show his vulnerability to the world. The film reveals how close friends were left in the dark about his ailing health. He had suffered mini-strokes and an aneurysm that left him weak, confused, and acting belligerent — but it was only on his near-death bed that his odd behavior was connected to health issues. “You can’t do the same thing forever or you go insane,” Trotter tells the camera, later adding “There is no room for error.”
Trotter’s pursuit for perfection gave him success, but it didn’t give him peace — nor did it last. Perfection cost him everything, including his life. Trotter’s legacy is a cautionary tale on what happens when no room is given for mistakes. It creates the illusion that perfection is success, when success is paved by failures that teach growth.
Love, Charlie haunts all of the people in the film, including the viewer, by asking if it was worth it. Trotter seems to answer that question in the last frame when his handwriting shows up on screen and reads: “Be bold, action has genius. Begin it, begin it now.”