More so than any top chef in town, Charlie Trotter was a local hero.
Trotter, who died Tuesday morning at age 54, was the most influential Chicago chef of his day. Other giants came before him: Jean Banchet, whose Le Francais restaurant in Wheeling was once hailed as America’s best restaurant, and the late Jovan Trboyevic, who created such downtown icons as Le Perroquet and the still-extant Les Nomades.
But most of Chicago’s top chefs were, and are, people from other cities, other lands, who made their successes here. Charlie was home-grown, a North Shore kid who went to New Trier High School, who attended college in Wisconsin and who launched his culinary career in Chicago. And apart from a few short dalliances with other locations — a couple of Las Vegas projects and one in Los Cabos, Mexico, none lasting long — Chicago is the only place Charlie cooked.
The self-taught chef opened Charlie Trotter’s in 1987, and it soon became the darling of the fine-dining set. The chef’s intense creativity and never-repeat-a-dish dictum made Trotter’s the most talked-about restaurant in Chicago, and his fame spread quickly throughout the country and beyond.
The converted town home at 816 W. Armitage Ave. was the center of the Trotter universe, where he and his crew dreamed up the daily menus, where he taped his cooking shows, where he created his many cookbooks. In an age in which celebrity chefs spend more time in front of a camera than in front of a stove, it was unusual to see Trotter straying far from home.
As his fame grew, the 60 seats at Trotter’s restaurant were in high demand. But, far from considering expansion, Trotter talked frankly about keeping his customer base at a comfortable minimum. He spoke of “firing customers,” serving fewer meals one year than the year before, all in the interest of delivering the optimum dining experience.
He refurbished the sidewalk in front of his restaurant at his own expense, believing the city would never make it as nice as he wanted it to be. He viewed his side projects — the cookbooks, the television work, the private events — as opportunities to put more money into the restaurant.
Chefs from all over the world and international visitors found their way to the little town house on Armitage. Trotter hosted special dinners with such international culinary stars as Australia’s Tetsuya Wakuda and Switzerland’s Fredy Giradet. At Trotter’s 20th anniversary celebrations (there were several), the culinary luminaries in attendance included Ferran Adria (Spain), Heston Blumenthal (Great Britain) and Pierre Herme (France).
Some of the practices he established at his restaurant are so commonplace today it’s easy to forget they were once innovations. He was a fanatic about sourcing, looking for the absolute best product wherever he could find it, and his dinners could be as dazzling for their provenance as for the dishes themselves. Charlie Trotter’s served quinoa when it was such a rare ingredient that I felt it necessary, when writing a review, to explain to readers that it was a grain.
Trotter once bragged to me about getting onto the client list of a particularly exclusive East Coast fisherman. It took more than two years of wheedling — and this when Trotter was a very famous chef, and purveyors were lining up to get his business — but he was convinced that this product would make his restaurant better, and so he persisted.
He was the first fine-dining chef in Chicago to offer all-vegetarian menus, prepared with the same care and creativity of his “regular” menus. Indeed, as good as the meat and fish menus were, the vegetarian menus were often revelations. Charlie Trotter’s was the first Chicago restaurant to restrict diners to set menus (three or four each day), abandoning a la carte dining entirely. He eschewed cream and butter in sauces, emphasizing vegetable-based sauces that, in his view, didn’t mask flavor the way heavier sauces did. (These days, just about everybody cooks like this, but Trotter, again, was a trail-blazer.) Believing that too much alcohol interfered with the appreciation of food, he banned hard liquor from the bar.
He invited ridicule with his tiny portions (though dinner never lacked for calories) and his belief that guests should leave his restaurant feeling energized, not lethargic (he referred to that weighed-down feeling as “a food hangover,” and he hated the very idea of it). His prices — $100 for the 12-course degustation, and that was 20 years ago — caused people to gasp. Which bothered him not in the least. If anything, diverging from the mainstream convinced Trotter that he was doing something right.
And though it’s assumed that the molecular gastronomy movement left Trotter behind, PolyScience, the company that makes immersion circulators and all manner of high-tech gastronomic tools, reported that the first circulator it ever sold went to the kitchen at Charlie Trotter’s.
Trotter couldn’t have been an easy person to work for; he was a demanding perfectionist and easily riled. I was witness to exactly one of Trotter’s rages: I was dining at the in-kitchen table (at the restaurant’s peak, the most in-demand table in town), and the kitchen staff had made a very, very bad mistake, sending out three plates to a table of four diners. Of course, the server returned the three dishes to the kitchen, and, with a vocabulary that would raise the eyebrows on a drill sergeant, Trotter furiously demanded that all four plates be remade, at once.
And they were. And calm returned to the kitchen. And the point is, Charlie Trotter was absolutely right.