INSIDE TROTTER'S KITCHEN: PART 2

Charlie Trotter's pressure cooker

As the restaurant prepares to close after 25 years as a Chicago fine-dining institution, chefs who worked there recall a high-stakes push to create flawless dishes that exceeded all expectations

Everyone knows Charlie Trotter as the chef of Charlie Trotter's. It's his name, his restaurant, and he's the boss. But that title “chef” has many meanings, and Trotter has embodied just about all of them during his 25 years at Charlie Trotter's.

For instance, there are cooks who have worked there during the past 15 years who make this statement: “I never saw him cook.” By then his notion of “chef” had changed, and he was doing his creative culinary work “100 percent upstairs,” he says, pointing to his noggin. But soon after the restaurant opened in August 1987 and he was a gangly ex-gymnast on the cusp of turning 28 — and before the restaurant's staffing caught up with its volume of diners — Trotter did pretty much everything there was to do in the kitchen.

He even set up a system to keep himself energized from his 6 a.m. arrival onward.

“I would make four very, very strong cappuccino drinks, and I'd put them in different places, so first thing in the morning I would receive the fish, and I'd have coffee at the back door,” Trotter says. “I would receive produce, and then I'd run over to the pastry department, and I made all the bread, I made all the ice creams and sorbets, and so I'd have coffee waiting there. The thing was, I would plant these things so I wouldn't have to carry coffee with me.”

Recalls Rick Tramonto, who worked as a daytime sous chef at Trotter's for a year in 1989: “He was in there every morning, doing dishes, doing pots, and it was a very different time.”

How different? A black Labrador retriever would tag along with Trotter.

“He'd just lay down in front of the pass,” says Tramonto, now cooking at Restaurant R'evolution in New Orleans. “(The restaurant) had these high, high standards and these high disciplines, but at the end of the day there was a dog in the kitchen.”

By 1993, when Tramonto's then-wife Gale Gand was a Trotter's pastry chef, she says it was unusual for Trotter to be doing the actual cooking.

“Occasionally, if the line got behind, he would try to jump behind line to cook, which was like everybody's nightmare,” Gand recalls. “What you did not want was you did not want Charlie on the line, because he made it worse, and he didn't get it. He's not an accelerated line cook. He's a great chef.”

Gand makes a key distinction. Many name chefs do not cook on the line. Some expedite, which means relaying each order to the kitchen and making sure it gets out to the dining room at the right time and in the right condition. Some aren't in the kitchen at all, having delegated those responsibilities to their chef de cuisine, sous chefs or other team leaders.

Trotter always has been known as a hands-on manager, but as his business grew in culinary ambition and overall scope, and as the restaurant garnered accolades as one of the country's and, eventually, world's best, he found himself taking a broader view.

“My role definitely changed little by little,” Trotter says. “I think for the first two years I never stepped one foot off the hot line. I was one of the guys on the line cooking in a station and expediting at the same time. And as we got busier, I realized I needed to have a different perspective. I guess I went from, if you will, first violinist to conductor. You're the conductor, you're not really playing the instrument, but on the other hand you see the whole orchestra, and you have total control over everything.”

Trotter had a vision of what he wanted — a superlative restaurant that matched a bold, creative American approach to cooking with a grand European level of hospitality — and he expected it to be executed with unflinching precision.

Mark Signorio, who started as a server in Trotter's second month and would go on to oversee several high-profile projects during his 20 years there, remembers the chef assembling his team in the front of the restaurant and inviting them “to go on this journey with him.”

“The level of expectation was always there right from day one,” says Geoff Felsenthal, the chef whom Trotter lured from San Francisco to help him open the restaurant. “He goes, ‘This is the level we want to be at, and this is how we are going to get there. We're going to work hard; we are going to come in every day and do the best we can and hire the best we can and get the best-quality product in here.' I don't think he's ever deviated from his original vision. Maybe just intensified it.”

Trotter's early dishes and a la carte menus weren't as elaborate as the tasting menus to follow. The opening-night menu included such relatively straightforward courses as grilled swordfish with crayfish mayonnaise, and roast chicken and braised cabbage with wild rice-garlic flan. But his overall philosophy wavered little over the years. The menu would change daily, as would the ingredients.

For most of its years Trotter's kitchen didn't have a walk-in refrigerator; the kitchen aimed to use up what it had every night and to get fresh product every day. Felsenthal recalls the parade of farmers and other small-scale purveyors who would appear daily at the back door bearing beautiful, fresh, unusual varieties of vegetables, herbs, seafood and other items not often found in restaurants at that time.

Says current Zealous executive chef/owner Michael Taus, who started his 18-month stint in Trotter's kitchen in 1989, “Nobody was doing farm-to-table like he was at that level.”

Building in so much product turnover is a more expensive way of doing business than buying in bulk from mega-suppliers, but in those early years Trotter generally let his father, Bob, worry about the books from his basement office while he attempted to achieve his dream of excellence. (Bob Trotter died in 1993.)

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