Charlie Trotter pioneered that style of fine dining now beloved by foodies from Brooklyn to the Bay Area: an intense progression of small, seasonal, multi-course dishes with perfectly balanced but explosive flavors matched against expert wine pairings; the use of offal and other “nose-to-tail” butchering methods; integration of French technique with Asian spicing; the use of savory ingredients in dessert courses; the replacement of cream and butter with lighter vegetable-based purées and emulsions. Named best in the world by Wine Spectator magazine in 1998, just as the Bulls were completing their championship run, Trotter’s eponymous restaurant brought him worldwide fame and a Jordan-like status in Chicago, and by the time of his premature death in 2013, aged 54, he had multiple cookbooks and a television show to his name.
Yet within the world of celebrity chefs Trotter was considered an enigma. A political science major from the University of Wisconsin with no formal culinary training, he was known to quote Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard and screen avant-garde movies for staff before dinner service. He named his son after Bob Dylan and spent time in the acid-laced Madison of the early 1980s, but once complained about the demise of American formality: “People no longer dress up on airplanes.”
That last remark was made to me personally, and the following reflections are informed by my experience getting to know Trotter, both inside and outside his restaurant, over the last three years of his life. On my first visit to the brownstone at 816 W. Armitage, I found Trotter’s food to be light, ethereal and floral; it kept me stimulated and alert, with the build up and release of creative tension characteristic of great symphonies. It hit me in the head before the stomach— the world’s most expensive brain food, I joked.
It has become commonplace to think of chefs as more than kitchen technicians; they are bubbly personalities, from the girl next door (Rachael Ray) to the jocular Italian with orange Crocs (Mario Batali); mad scientists armed with liquid nitrogen and other toys (Grant Achatz, Heston Blumenthal); travel writers and ambassadors of globalization (Anthony Bourdain); impressionist artists (Pierre Gagnaire); farm-to-table naturalists (Alice Waters); postmodern nationalists (René Redzepi). None of these roles entirely captures Trotter.
He certainly had a reputation as a Gordon Ramsay-style kitchen disciplinarian, lampooned in his fiery “mad chef” cameo in the 1997 movie My Best Friend’s Wedding. I don’t believe he was tyrannical in the sense of loving power for its own sake. But he ruled his restaurant by imposing exacting standards. Hospitality was predicated upon submission. Customers were not always right. Stories abound of Trotter emerging from the kitchen to confront customers who had failed to finish everything on their plate. With every morsel contributing to the form, leaving something uneaten was the ultimate philistinism.
What became clear to me over time was that if there was discipline it was for a purpose. The entire restaurant had a hushed feel, with no artwork or music: focus had to stay on the food. Staff were impeccably dressed and sometimes even forced to wear special shoe guards to avoid tracking dirt; wine was served on glistening Riedel crystal stemware. Trotter’s mission was to construct a temple of sensory elevation, and a temple must be kept pure.
Like any sage, Trotter cultivated disciples, in his own memorable way. After several visits, managers must have alerted him that a young academic was frequenting his restaurant; I was stunned when the chef emerged from the kitchen and sat down at my table. With envious diners looking on, he sized me up: “I’ve been told you’re a Ph.D. student.”
“Yes, I study political theory.”
“Then what are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be off somewhere reading Nietzsche with a glass of cheap red wine?”
“Well, the truth is, chef, I find your food intellectually satisfying.”
He chuckled, as if to say you don’t have to tell me that. After some small talk Trotter stood up: “I want to get you something. But it’s at my house a few blocks away. Hold tight.” Ten minutes later he reemerged clutching the Charles Bukowski volume Notes of a Dirty Old Man. He plopped it next to my plate, the tattered book strikingly juxtaposed against the pristine white tablecloth. “You’ve heard of Bukowski, right?”
“Yeah, though I’m not too familiar with his writing.”
“Well I’ve got an idea: I want you to come work a dinner service in my kitchen. It’s an experience I usually auction off for charity, but you can do it for free.”
Nervous excitement ensued. “Really? But I don’t have any experience, I barely do any serious home cooking.”
“Don’t worry,” he assured me. “You’re smart, that’s what matters. I do have one request though. I want you to take a look at the Bukowski. Here, I’ll loan you my copy.”
I was flabbergasted: How could Bukowski’s sordid tales of life in underworld Los Angeles prepare me for dinner service in one of the world’s most renowned kitchens? A few weeks later, I reported for duty at 3 p.m., half expecting a literature exam. But Trotter was all business on this busy Saturday. “Clean yourself up,” he barked, as I struggled to properly tie my apron. Assigned to a sous chef, I was placed on the hot line, where I almost started a stove fire. Instead of demotion I was handed even more responsibility. Somehow I survived, staying until 3 a.m. to help with the scrub-down. It was twelve hours of extreme physical exertion—blaring heat, no chance to sit. But it was exhilarating to witness the precise choreography of the young, sophisticated staff. One especially graceful wine steward, with a background in ballet and Chinese opera, had been hired right out of academia. “You can work here too if you want, Gordon,” she insisted. “Charlie looks for qualities they don’t teach in culinary school.” I began to wonder if the whole evening had been a job interview.
In truth, one night in the apron was more than enough. But I returned a number of times as a diner, with Trotter often directing the conversation to philosophy or literature before I ever had the chance to ask him about the food being served. These visits became a kind of pilgrimage; I realized that the man was just as interesting as his cuisine.
Charlie Trotter was raised in the affluent Chicago suburb of Winnetka, attending the prestigious New Trier High School. At age 27 he opened the restaurant with capital from his father Bob; in a historically bluecollar profession in which even talented chefs must work for others, Charlie thus had the decided advantage of working for himself. Bob also instilled in his son an appreciation for jazz, and Charlie came to see cooking as an improvisational art, a sequence of “Kitchen Sessions,” as he called his PBS television show. Like the jazz greats Miles Davis and Charlie Parker (for whom he was named), Trotter was intent on proving that an improvisational aesthetic can still be structured and responsive to form. He therefore had no signature dishes like Thomas Keller’s “oysters and pearls.” The investment banker Ray Harris, Trotter’s most loyal devotee, famously dined at the restaurant over 400 times and was never served the same dish twice.
This demanding aesthetic was difficult to translate into commercial empire. A 1994 venture at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas shuttered in part because Trotter resisted pressures to dumb down his cuisine—“a little more steak please.” Indeed, in a carnivore nation, vegetables became the stars of Trotter’s craft. Alan Richman, the GQ food critic, once credited Trotter for proving vegetables can taste good and be beautiful. It has become a cliché for chefs to tout their commitment to “artisanal,” “organic” and “farm-to-table” cooking; but there was nothing clichéd about Trotter’s eight-course vegetable tasting menus, which I often preferred to his meat-based menus. Serving them on glistening china in breathtaking visual preparations, Trotter had a knack for making vegetables luxurious and decadent without jeopardizing their essential earthiness. I enjoyed dishes such as “miso tortellini with red cabbage, turnip confit and ponzu” and “salad of Bibb lettuce with candied peanut, sesame and heart of palm ice cream.” A raw vegan menu was even available every night on request. These practices were borne less of a political commitment to “sustainability” or a nutritional commitment to healthy living than of an aesthetic commitment to vegetables as a frontier in the quest for purity. That quest meant Trotter had no tolerance for adjusting his cuisine to the constraints of localism. Tasmanian ocean trout was procured at great expense, he explained, simply because the waters off Tasmania are the cleanest in the world.
Despite these innovations, Trotter struggled to confront the rise of “molecular gastronomy”—the style of cooking mastered by Grant Achatz, a former Trotter line cook whose acclaimed restaurant Alinea (located only a few blocks away) became Trotter’s main rival. Molecular gastronomy is a postmodern, deconstructive art, with engineering techniques being used to manipulate ingredients into untold textures and temperatures. Beauty is found in the realization that chocolates and spring peas maintain the same chemistry regardless of how they have been fabricated. Once molecular patterns have been discovered they can be perfected, reproduced and even trademarked (in the case of packaged food companies whose test kitchens employ many techniques perfected at Alinea). Trotter, by contrast, was more of a modernist: while intensely creative, he respected the basic forms of nouvelle French cuisine which had governed fine dining for much of the late twentieth century. He venerated Fernand Point, author of the modernist bible Ma Gastronomie. Thus Trotter’s resistance to molecular gastronomy as “nonsense on stilts” (he banned liquid nitrogen in his kitchen) was the defining aesthetic judgment of his career. He stubbornly maintained the integrity of his form despite the risk of being left behind.
Trotter did have a libertarian side that relished marketplace validation. Regarding the ethics of charging people $300 for food and wine, he insisted his restaurant was one of the few luxury experiences accessible to ordinary people, if only once in their lifetime (“no more expensive than a good plumber”). But Trotter was also charitable. Through his “Excellence Program” he would invite Chicago public school students to the restaurant free of charge to enjoy the same eight-course meal offered to customers. He also regularly fed homeless people. Trotter likely could have satisfied the homeless with warm soup; his insistence on serving them a Michelin-star meal underscores that his philanthropy had sensory objectives.
In a world where Yelp and Twitter offer a never-ending array of subjective valuations, and in a field that would seem to be the home of subjective valuation—who can say whether strawberry ice cream is better than raspberry?—Trotter doggedly upheld the idea of objective value. He was a master craftsman who searched for knowledge.
Outside the kitchen I experienced firsthand what Plato would have called Trotter’s philosophical eros, his passion for objective truth. A year or so before his death, Trotter announced his intention to close the restaurant and pursue a graduate degree in philosophy. He asked me for advice. On a cold February morning I met him at the parking lot of the University of Chicago campus for what became a five-hour tour. “Can people be arrested for bad architecture?” he quipped as we passed the brutalist Regenstein Library. Yet as the campus’s beautiful gothic core emerged, Trotter quieted down, as if awed by the immense splendor of a temple outranking his own. Meeting with several faculty I was struck by the shy, almost nervous demeanor of a man who could be so intimidating. “I have no agenda” Trotter insisted, “I just want to pursue the life of the mind.” But Trotter had a learning disability, a serious case of dyslexia. He never masked this dyslexia, often crediting it for helping him see food in a different light. But graduate school would be a different challenge. Professor Nathan Tarcov reminded Trotter that Allan Bloom, the great Plato translator, was also dyslexic; as Malcolm Gladwell has recently suggested, it can force one to read closely. But I think Trotter knew that he was not Allan Bloom, nor Nathan Tarcov his host, nor even Gordon Arlen, his graduate student tour guide. There was no easy path from the temple at 816 W. Armitage to the temple on the quad.
As we returned to the parking lot, Trotter insisted on dropping me off in his Jaguar; with dinner service only a few hours away, his confidence began to reemerge. That evening, at 2 a.m., I received a voice message: “Hey Gordon, it’s Charlie. Look, what you did for me today was amazing. Why don’t you come over to my house this Sunday? We can play pool, maybe have a bite to eat.”
Sure enough, that Sunday I trudged over to Trotter’s Lincoln Park townhouse for an intimate gathering. Trotter took me around the entire house, even to his bedroom. He lay back against his gregarious wife Rochelle, a pastor’s daughter from Chicago’s West Side and herself an accomplished culinarian and television personality, as she told a story about their experience cooking for Arab royalty. Dinner was delivered from Trotter’s To Go, the chef’s more home-style take-out emporium. We sat at the kitchen counter, with Trotter standing up in perfect posture, as I’m told he often ate. I studied his hands in motion as he carefully prepared for me a simple plate of duck breast, salmon and veggies. Afterwards he presented a goodie bag of amazing foodstuffs, including artisanal canned tuna from Spain (“open it in a few months and it will rock your world”).
Before leaving I reciprocated by presenting Trotter with a copy of an anthology called The History of Political Philosophy. “It’s difficult reading,” I warned, “but it might help you determine which thinkers to explore more fully.” He clutched the book firmly to his body, his face betraying genuine emotion, and placed it on his bedroom shelf. “This means the world to me,” he said, “though it will take a year for me to read.” The gift seemed to symbolize a rite of passage to the contemplative life he so desired.
Fourteen months after our last contact, Trotter was found unresponsive in the same bedroom that housed the anthology. In the months since, Rochelle Trotter has announced plans for an “institute of learning”—the Charlie Trotter Center for Excellence—to provide lectures and seminars for at-risk youth interested in the culinary field. A centerpiece of this project will be a “floating library,” perhaps tied to an institution like the James Beard Foundation, to house Trotter’s voluminous collection of 1,400 cookbooks and 600 fiction and nonfiction titles. The legacy of a chef who created so much sensual pleasure in his time will be preserved, at least in part, through his dusty collection of Bukowski novels and Plato dialogues.
There is no doubt that Trotter became frustrated with the increasingly faddish nature of a culinary landscape held hostage to the ever-changing preferences of foodies. “Everybody’s always looking for the next big thing,” he once told me. But I wonder whether this anxiety opened out into a reflection on the ephemeral nature of the craft itself. Food leaves no indelible mark; nobody will ever again share in the experience of his cuisine as it was served. Perhaps Trotter realized that. Perhaps his longing for the contemplative life was, in the end, a longing for something more durable.
Image credits: Lee Jones; Charlie Trotter in My Best Friend’s Wedding; Matthew Hine