The Life and Death of Charlie Trotter: What Made Him Tick?

The Life and Death of Charlie Trotter: What Made Him Tick?
Trotter put Chicago on the road to fine dining elevating the city's image beyond pizza and hot dogs

Just over a year ago, the gastronomic wonder, Charlie Trotter closed his iconic restaurant of the same name because, as he explained it, "Life's too short." Trotter's prophetic comment takes on a new irony with his death yesterday at age 54.

There is no question that this man, probably more than any other, put Chicago on the culinary map around the world with his innovative ideas, attention to the smallest of details and amazing cuisine--all decades ahead of their time.

Before the Food Network, Master Chef, Cake Boss, The Chew and all the other food-driven shows that proliferate the airways, there was Charlie--another of Chicago's very own. Trotter was born and spent most of his life in the Chicago area, graduating from New Trier High School in Winnetka, before heading to the University of Wisconsin where he earned a degree in Political Science.

His interest in food, which was honed in college, took him to Europe after graduation where he checked out the fine dining scene.  Trotter got his first taste as a cook working under famed chef Gordon Sinclair at Sinclair's popular North Shore restaurant, Sinclair's, in the 1980's.

In 1987, Trotter along with his father Bob, opened his namesake restaurant at 816 W. Armitage. Almost overnight it became the place to go, not only for Chicagoans but for anyone from around the world who wanted the best.

Trotter was known as tough and gruff, yet he was charitable and sensitive. He demanded the best from himself and his team. Whether he picked the best or trained his team members to be the best, there is no way to know. One only knows that his staff was legendary. One wonders if Chicago's culinary scene and status would be anywhere near what it is today without him.

Would Grant Achatz, of Chicago's award-winning Alinea and Next, be who he is today if he hadn't worked for Trotter?  Same goes for Graham Elliott who stood the heat in Trotter's kitchen where reportedly he was driven to tears by the chef's demands. The legions of chefs who passed through Trotter's kitchen before becoming famous on their own is unprecedented. The list includes Bill Kim (Urban Belly, Belly Q), Rick Tramonto, Gale Gand, Mindy Segal (Hot Chocolate) and Homaro Cantu (Moto, iNG) to name a few.

So why would Trotter remove himself from a world that he loved, saying in a 2012 AP interview shortly before he closed his restaurant, "I completely love what I do. I pinch myself every day going 'I make a living doing this. This is unbelievable.' " He also said, "The minute I started working in a restaurant formally as a cook or on the road to becoming a chef was like the greatest day of my life."

That is the question, now we may never know the answer.

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