Charlie Trotter, Chicago's revolutionary chef, helped push others to great success

Charlie Trotter died at age 54. He is seen here with his wife on August 30, 2012. (Chris Walker/Chicago Tribune)

Before there was “Top Chef,” “MasterChef” or “Iron Chef,” before chefs were multimedia celebrities who could monetize their volcanic personalities, before “farm-to-table” and “American cuisine” were routinely applied to high-end restaurants, there was Charlie Trotter, whose self-named Lincoln Park restaurant became one of Chicago's premier cultural institutions almost immediately after its 1987 opening.

Charlie Trotter's was an international destination and a pioneer in creating a bold, distinctly American form of haute cuisine, and its chef-owner was an inspirational and notoriously mercurial figure, qualities that the people who worked for him — including many chefs who have achieved great success on their own — did not find mutually exclusive.

Trotter closed his restaurant in August 2012 after 25 years, and now the chef himself is gone, found unconscious Tuesday morning in his Lincoln Park home by his son Dylan, Naha chef Carrie Nahabedian said Trotter's wife, Rochelle, had told her.

Nahabedian, a close Trotter friend, said that an ambulance was called to Trotter's home in the 1800 block of North Dayton Street at 10:45 a.m. and that the 54-year-old chef was not breathing. He was taken to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 11:48 a.m.

“My baby's gone,” Nahabedian said Rochelle told her.

An autopsy is scheduled for Wednesday, but a Cook County medical examiner's spokesman said that Trotter's death did not appear suspicious and indicated that he had a history of seizures and strokes.

Rochelle Trotter released a statement Tuesday evening:

“We are incredibly shocked and deeply saddened by the unexpected loss of Charlie at our home in Lincoln Park. He was much loved, and words can not describe how much he will be missed. Charlie was a trailblazer and introduced people to a new way of dining when he opened Charlie Trotter's. His impact upon American cuisine and the culinary world at large will always be remembered. We thank you so much for your kind words, love and support. We appreciate the respect for our privacy as we work through this difficult time. Details for the memorial service will be forthcoming.”

Trotter had just returned from Wyoming, where he was the keynote speaker Sunday night at the Jackson Hole Culinary Conference, hosted by Central Wyoming College.

Susan Thulin, director of the college, said Trotter arrived Sunday and left early Monday and spoke about excellence, “empowering your employees, being passionate about what you're doing … and working so hard they have to hire two people to replace you.”

Richard Ofstein, a former Chicagoan, who attended the Jackson Hole conference said that after Trotter dodged a previous question about what his favorite recipe was, he asked him what his last meal would be. Ofstein, a radiologist, noticed that his left hand was shaking as he held the microphone but didn't think more about it.

“I said, ‘From one Chicagoan to another, what would be your last meal?' And he answered, ‘A 1900 Chateau Margaux,'” a vintage bottle of wine worth between $9,000 and $16,000.

Family friends said doctors had recommended that Trotter not fly to Wyoming. Larry Stone, Trotter's longtime sommelier and friend, said the chef told him about a brain aneurysm, and had been told by doctors that he should not be flying, should not be at high altitudes and should not exert himself because of the resulting pressure on his brain.

“It was a time bomb, and he felt that he didn't have a lot of time left,” said Stone, who now works with the Quintessa winery in Napa Valley. “It was inoperable, and it was not something that could be repaired; it was deep inside the brain. ... It was obvious he had problems and he had some seizures. It's a condition that had worsened in the last few years but it was something he had for quite a while.”

But Trotter was not the type of person to ask for sympathy, Stone said.

“He said when your time comes, it comes; he didn't dwell on it,” Stone said. “I don't think it made him very happy to know that he had a condition that would incapacitate him in some way. ... He never wanted anything to interfere with his craft.”

Lauren Marks, a Trotter neighbor, said that she used to see him fairly regularly when he would walk his dogs but that he had been “rather reclusive lately.”

“It's a sad thing; it's shocking,” said Marks, who saw the emergency vehicles gathered outside in the morning. “With Charlie you never knew what was going to happen on any given day. ... He was an interesting man.”

Trotter also was a larger-than-life figure to many who worked for him, including such notable chefs as Graham Elliot, (Graham Elliot, “MasterChef”), Matthias Merges (Yusho, the just-opening A10), Giuseppe Tentori (GT Fish & Oyster, Boka), Curtis Duffy (Grace), Mindy Segal (Mindy's Hot Chocolate), Homaro Cantu (Moto, iNG), Bill Kim (Urban Belly, Belly Q), Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand (formerly of Tru) and, after a brief, turbulent stint in his kitchen, Grant Achatz (Alinea, Next).

As news of Trotter's death spread quickly Tuesday afternoon, he was mourned by a stunned culinary community.