Charlie Trotter— chef extraordinaire, impresario and global innovator—died last week at 54. He was a general in the American culinary revolution, opening his Lincoln Park restaurant at a time when Chicago palates had just barely graduated from canned vegetables and frozen seafood.
But to me, he will always be the slaving perfectionist in my ‘hood who elevated dining to a spiritual experience.
He was an artist.
He created a world that we desperately wanted to inhabit, even if only for a four-hour degustation.
That was his genius.
I met him early on—Charlie opened his restaurant a few blocks from home and I made it my go-to destination for events big and small. Much of my food and wine education can be traced to those dinners—and I avidly followed Charlie’s career.
Like all great artists, he surrounded himself with those who shared—and executed—his vision. Larry Stone—his bow-tied master sommelier—was the consistent calm force in the dining room, the perfect counter-point to the sometimes mercurial chef.
(Newly enamored of the diversity and complexity of wine, I peppered Larry at every opportunity with detailed questions. Through it all—from terroir to the high points of white burgundies—he remained ever-gracious, ever-generous with his exquisitely detailed knowledge. Which of course kept me coming back for more.)
Charlie never formally trained as a chef. Instead, he traveled, tasted his way through restaurants and apprenticed himself to some masters (his is often the example I cite when a talented expert bemoans their lack of degree or certification).
Perhaps that’s what fueled him to defy conventional wisdom in the restaurant business: Charlie refused to stock hard liquor (with its hefty profit margins) because it interfered with the taste and experience of his food.
Critics loved to document his famously off-color kitchen tirades (this before Gordon Ramsay brought them to your living room). But I’ve always believed it wasn’t about ego (well, it mostly wasn’t—all great artists need some ego to perform so publicly). He had a crystal clear vision and he only entrusted it to those willing to go the distance with him. It was this attribute—not his culinary fame—that kept the talented in his kitchen.
But he remained a real person too. A husband and father. A neighborhood guy who participated in the block. A mentor who gave back in the form of three-times weekly dinners for city high-school students and culinary scholarships to promising future chefs.
Being a great artist—and living your art in the public eye—is damned hard. Charlie had his foibles, as do we all. But at his core he was a good man, pursuing a singular vision with deep caring about his art and those around him.
We are all artists. Our stage may be smaller than Charlie Trotter’s, but I would like to think his passing inspires a few deep questions: Are we doing all we can to share our art? Are we inspiring those who come behind us? If we were gone tomorrow, would our legacy please us?
Thank you for a brilliant life of service, Chef. The honor was ours.
p.s. I love this picture because that is my memory of him—huddled over a dish, fussing to make sure only perfection left the kitchen