I just watched the documentary, Love, Charlie, about Charlie Trotter, highly revered chef-owner of Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago, the restaurant he opened in 1987.
My younger daughter and I ate at Charlie Trotter’s in 2004 when we visited Chicago for her 18th birthday. Our experience was perfect, but more than perfect, because it became personal and poignant.
Since that time, I have heard stories about what kind of man Chuck Trotter was as a human being, as a boss, as a chef. A self-described tyrant with a hair-trigger temper, he was intense and passionate and mercurial. Unfortunately, his treatment of staff was secondary to his food. He was sued for not paying overtime, but his take was that if, in order to do a job, a worker had to come in 4 hours early, that was his/her problem. He lost the lawsuit.
But the complicated man was also a philanthropist. In fact, he was awarded the Humanitarian of the Year award in 2005 by the International Association of Culinary Professionals and in 2012 from the James Beard Association. There were other awards as well, but unfortunately Trotter’s humanitarianism was overshadowed by his darker side.
At a young age, he and his first wife visited many restaurants in Europe with the plan to open their own. And they took notes. Their ideal restaurant was decidedly one in which not only the food was important, but so was the wine and dining experience. And that’s how it started. Together they opened Charlie Trotter’s, with innovative farm-to-table food, in an unexpected part of Chicago. (He’s also credited as the first chef to use micro greens.)
Charlie Trotters was immediately a hit, in spite of his lack of culinary education. Chicago needed this restaurant. The menus changed daily, eventually evolving into degustation menus only, including the first one for vegetarians. Let’s just say that work in the kitchen with the “surprise” menus on a daily basis, was very hard for kitchen staff.
When my daughter and I showed up for our reservation, we were warmly greeted, given a glass of champagne and mock tail, and seated at the best table. At the top of the degustation menus – mine for seafood and hers the vegetarian one – was written, “Happy 18th Birthday Emma!”
The food and wine pairings were incredible. It was very modern food for 18 years ago, but perfect bites, like an incredible meal in one single bite. And it went on and on through many courses. What an experience. Turns out, we weren’t done with our Charlie Trotter adventure.
After our dinner, our waiter asked if we wanted to meet the man himself. I about fainted. He chaperoned us into the busy kitchen where, by the way, I saw my first chef’s table, which is a trend chef Trotter is credited with starting. He allowed photos, which was very kind. This is my favorite:
Before I knew it, Chef Trotter had pulled my daughter aside and was giving her a “pep” talk about going to college and choosing a career. It went on for quite a while! I wanted to interrupt and tell him that she had graduated summa cum laude, but hey, it never hurts to hear good advice from a non-parent!
Then he showed us his wine cellar, and the area attached to the restaurant where he did cooking shows. And then we got a goodie bag. No, I’m not kidding. This book was included. To this day, I occasionally look at it, and then close it. One must be way more accomplished than I to attempt those recipes!
So the man was intense and maniacal, although I think you have to be in order to be a successful restaurant chef and owner. In the documentary, chef Grant Achatz, chef-owner of the famed Alinea in Chicago, with 3 Michelin stars, makes an appearance. He worked in the kitchen under Chuck Trotter, and boy does he have a lot to say about it. But he also claims he’d never end up where he did, which is uber successful, without his sometimes fearful tenure with chef Trotter.
But I want to end this post with a positive comment. In spite of Chuck Trotter perhaps truly hating people, which he states at the beginning of the documentary, what he did for my daughter and me on that night 18 years ago, was so generous and thoughtful. Perhaps it was more about my daughter’s presence than mine, which I say because he mentored young people, and some of his philanthropic work was geared towards kids.
I don’t know how I heard of Charlie Trotter – the man and his restaurant – but he had rock-star status to me, and my daughter was fairly sophisticated at that point and was well aware of the reputation of the Michelin-starred restaurant at which we were dining that night. I think if I were famous, I wouldn’t be quite as patient and kind to “fans” as Chef Trotter had been to us. Because of that we had a once-in-a-lifetime experience, which meant so much. I hope he knew that.