Her (Lady Morgan) subject that hot July evening was Careme, and a novel French cult: gastronomy...Careme's recipes were on everybody's lips because food was the thing to talk about in France in 1829. This was the first age of gastronomy... and the age when for the first time a chef became a celebrity. (Cooking for Kings the Life of Antonin Careme the First Celebrity Chef/Ian Kelly)
Several years ago, a friend of mine dined at Charlie Trotter's. He raved about the food, wine, and service. He said he would never go back. To him, the owner and lone cook of a small diner, it was a once in a lifetime experience.
It reminded me of a story about Fernand Point, another "celebrity" chef. In the 1920s Point went to dine at Maxims, a famous Paris restaurant. Though young, he was already becoming famous. He was terrified to enter such famous restaurant. He was so nervous he paced outside for a long time before entering.
Fernand Point, like Charlie Trotter, died too young in 1955. He was 58. Point left behind a legacy and a legend.
In Chicago, Charlie Trotter will leave his own legacy and legend. Charlie Trotter died yesterday, too young, at age 54.
There are parallels to Point's and Trotter's lives and careers. Both men were excruciating perfectionists. Both, through innovation, changed the course of fine dining. Both men trained some of the finest chefs of their and the next generation. Both chefs operated restaurants that claimed landmark status. Point's, La Pyramide and Trotters, Charlie Trotters.
Fernand Point created nouvelle cuisine. Point's disciples who trained in his kitchens, brought it to the world in the 1960s-70s. Charlie Trotter and his generation took it and the fine dining experience to the next and higher level. Trotters disciples are running kitchens of their own.
To Point and Trotter, the best was never good enough. There was always better.
Point and Trotter were also generous to a fault, in their own respective ways. Point was known for his personal generosity on a day to day basis. Trotter was a philanthropist and assisted many charities.
Trotter and Point were men of principle. Point closed his restaurant during World War II because he did not want to serve meals to occupying German officers. Trotter stopped serving fois gras, though he disagreed with any government ban and had nothing good to say about animal rights activists.
A critic of one of Charlie Trotter's first cook books claimed the recipes were difficult to impossible to replicate. Many of Fernand Point's recipes were even worse, as they were cryptic notes, more reminders to himself.
Fernand Point and Charlie Trotter were constantly in pursuit of excellence. Consistent excellence that can be replicated on a daily basis. That pursuit was the key to their success as chefs, restaurateurs, and human beings. Many books have been written about excellence or its pursuit.
One need only study the successes of Fernand Point or Charlie Trotter to succeed in the chase.
Excellence is not a concept, it is a way of life, a philosophy of living, a day to day pursuit to be the very best. There is a direct line of the pursuit of excellence in the food world. From Careme, to Escoffier, to Point, to Bocuse and Roubuchon, and to the great young chefs of the late 20th century like Charlie Trotter, Thomas Keller, and others.
Charlie Trotter and Fernand Point were the innovators of their generations. They mentored, nurtured, and sent their acolytes out into the world. They changed the way people think about food and dining.
In their pursuit of excellence they became renowned. Fernand Point died in 1955 at age 58. To this day he is fondly remembered.
Sixty years from now Charlie Trotter will be fondly remembered.
Legends never really die.
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