I remember the first time I ever saw Charlie Trotter. He made me laugh.
In 1997's "My Best Friend's Wedding," starring Julia Roberts, Dermot Mulroney, and Cameron Diaz, the scene opens on a bustling restaurant kitchen. Panning around the kitchen, cooks painstakingly put together intricate designs of meat and vegetables on artfully decorated plates, while servers hoisted impossibly large trays filled with the finished plates and scurry in and out of the kitchen. The camera focuses in on a single ticket, one of hundreds lined up for preparation. And the notation: VIP.
The camera fades into a scene of a carefully layered, intricately nuanced beef dish....I wish I were more of a foodie and knew what it was...layering slice by perfectly symmetrical slice, the shaking hands of a specialty cook building this special dish, all the time, being watched by the gimlet eyes of the Owner/Chef. The gimlet eyed Owner/Chef bellows to the shaking employee
"I will kill your whole family if you don't get this right!"
That was Charlie Trotter playing the chef , and the scene was filmed at Charlie Trotter’s, which was located at 816 West Armitage Avenue at North Halsted Street, just south of DePaul University, until he closed it in August 2012.
He became a foodie's icon with his daily tasting menus: the Grand Menu, the Vegetable Menu and the Kitchen Table all highlighted the finest seasonal ingredients, in light, delicate broths, fresh organic vegetables, and free-range meats, delicately and intricately designed petite courses with each course laying the foundation for the next. He was known for presenting such unknown Midwestern delicacies as Indiana bobwhite quail, petite greens from Farmer Jones, heirloom tomatoes from Illinois, North Dakota buffalo.
Before Charlie Trotter, I had never heard of Hawaiian gindai.
From what I understood, the bellowing chef wasn't that far off from Trotter's own persona, mocking his perfectionist tendencies in the kitchen, and his zeal to get it right. His website says that Trotter never went to culinary school (actually, he graduated from the University of Wisconsin), and was completely self taught. His first cooking job was at a restaurant in the North Shore area of Chicago called Sinclair's (of the famous Gordon Sinclair). From there, he catered parties, and eventually, opened Charlie Trotter's in 1987. He said of his cooking philosophy:
"I do not want guests walking out of the restaurant feeling as if they over-indulged because of excessive cream, butter, and alcohol. I want them to feel stimulated and alert, knowing that they will be able to look forward to breakfast the following morning. Food doesn't have to be rich to taste good."
That same perfectionism provided accolades the world over. Trotter 's eponymous Forbes Five Star restaurant won 11 James Beard Foundation awards, including 'Outstanding Restaurant' (2000) and 'Outstanding Chef' (1999) and 'Humanitarian of The Year" (2012). Wine Spectator named the restaurant 'The Best Restaurant in the World for Wine & Food' (1998) and 'America's Best Restaurant' (2000).
But there was a deeply generous, philanthropic side to Trotter, as he paid his knowledge forward, to those who wouldn't otherwise have opportunities in this world. This side of Trotter, I knew personally. His Charlie Trotter Culinary Education Foundation invited groups of public high school students into his restaurant as part of his Excellence Program 2 to 3 times per week. After eating a meal, the students were told how the food was prepared and the motivations of those preparing it.
I was fortunate to be a part of two charities that received a very special gift certificate to auction at our benefits. Dinner for Four in Charlie Trotter's kitchen. He would seat guests and do a demonstration of his cooking techniques. The lucky four would then eat the demonstration items. Lucky them.
When he stepped away from his restaurant, ostensibly to study for a Master's degree and travel the world, the world lost track of him, except for increasingly bizarre reports about his behavior. Was he drunk, drugged, or what? The only time he ended up in the newspaper was on August 30 of this year, after he allegedly threw a group of teenage photography students out of his restaurant after having given them permission to use his restaurant space as a gallery.
When news of his untimely death at 54 came today, I felt very sad. This was a talented, complicated, brilliant man. A complex man, who gave the world fresh food made simply, elegantly and beautifully. Say what you will personally, but the world will miss his instruction.
May you find peace in the valley, Charlie Trotter.
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