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.
Such a lovely tribute to Charlie Trotter. I don’t know about him though…he was so young when he opened his own restaurant and I love farm-to-table food concept.
He really was young. And with very little experience and no official training in the culinary arts! He was unique.
Thanks Mimi for this intimate personal story. On what station is the documentary airing?
It was such a nice experience. I saw it on Apple TV.
Thanks Mimi. You are a font of new ideas for me.
How incredibly nice of him to do that for you and Emma — it’s nice to hear about this side of him, as all I’ve heard before was the negative. I’ll have to check out the documentary.
It was so nice and meant so much. He had no idea. Or maybe he really did. The documentary is really good. Very revealing.
I’m so very glad you and Emma had a favorable (make that incredible) experience with Charlie Trotter. And very glad you shared us.
Aww thank you. It was incredible, and I’m glad Emma appreciated it as well!
What a wonderful experience Mimi! It goes to show you how little we really know about celebrities as real people beyond the image, how one-sided the press can be in that regard. You got a glimpse of his kindness, and that counts as a lot to me.
He was really tuned in to children, so maybe it was Emma that inspired him to give us his time. His family still runs a childrens charity, if I’m not mistaken. But whatever it was, it was amazing, and appreciated.
Definitely one for the memory!
Nice post, thanks for sharing
My parents used to eat there often. I have the cookbook, too. And my mom was a guest in his kitchen after they bid on something in a charity auction. I think she has the same picture but with her instead of your two gorgeous faces. She was obsessed with him!
Oh that’s so cool. Have you ever cooked out of this cookbook?! It kept me from buying any more of his books. Crazy hard and way too complicated for a home cook.
What a wonderful experience!! For all the times we have dined in Chicago, we’ve yet to try his restaurant….though maybe Bill has!
We also went to Frontera, and got a picture with Rick Bayless! Emma also got a photo with the cutest waiter who she threatened she’d run away with!!! I wish we had had the time to also go to Alinea.
Not familiar with this chef which is surprising as Gene and I made many trips to Chicago living just 4 hours away. His restaurant never made “the list” but we loved to stay at the Residence Inn where I could cook – we would walk to the local gourmet/grocery stores and make our own “special meal” – where was the restaurant? Magnificant Mile?
No, it was a brownstone townhouse slightly out of chicago, if I remember correctly. I’ll look it up. Armitage Street? Sounds like you stayed in a fun area! We also went to Frontera on that trip. So good.
I’ve heard of him but that’s all. Sounds like a tv chef here who was a judge on masterchef. Didn’t pay his workers properly so got into big trouble and got kicked off the show. They treated you well tho at the restaurant by the sound of it.
Yes, he had a good side to him and we certainly got to see it. But even people who worked for him and hated it, admitted to the benefits of that experience.
Wow! “Intense and maniacal” is such a word picture! I am not familiar with this famous chef, and I think I’d enjoy the documentary. I’m a bit fascinated with the complicated personalities of individuals with great talent. It must have been an incredible thrill for you and your daughter to have one-on-one time with him, but I’m thinking he must also have known of your deep interest and admiration. What a lovely memory you’ve shared, Mimi.
Thanks, Debra. I’m fascinated by those people as well. I certainly couldn’t be married to someone like that! He didn’t know anything about us, I had just put on the reservation form that it was Emma’s birthday. So the fact that it was extra special to me was just icing on an amazing cake.
I’m glad you saw the human side of him, and not his chef’s persona. I know exactly how you feel about your encounter as I had a similar experience in Edinburgh.
That’s great. I guess chefs know they have fans, and I’ve gotten a few other photos, but this really was extra special.
Charlie Trotter once cooked a meal with a friend that owned a wonderful restaurant around the corner from where I live for a benefit dinner. I never forget that evening decades ago . Unfortunately the restaurant has changed hands many times since and it has never been that good,
Oh lucky you! That must have been incredible.
What a fun memory! I didn’t know much about Charlie Trotter before this post, but it sounds like he follows many of the same characteristics of other famous chefs/personalities. It’s great that seeing that book brings back such good memories – that’s what food is all about!!
I think similar to intense musicians and artist, don’t you think? Really driven people.
Chef Mimi, this was a great story. Famous chefs are typically complicated in their nature-Maybe it’s the art and passion of what they do. the memory of the conversation Charlie Trotter had with your daughter was amazing. Love this post.
Thank you Velva! The pep talk that my daughter didn’t need, but never hurts! I love that he immediately thought to do that with her. It was a great night. And the food!!!
Such a fascinating story and life well-lived. I want to see that documentary now too!
It’s really fascinating. I hope you get a chance.
I need to see this documentary now. And how wonderful that he spent so much time with you and your daughter (love the group picture!).
It was so wonderful!
Such a wonderful experience!
It’s almost impossible to be a chef on that level, and not be maniacal. It comes with the territory, and up to a certain point, it’s part of the fun! :)
A maniacal genius, indeed. But he had his soft spots.
What an amazing story! What incredible treatment you were given! We’re very lucky in Chicago to have incredible restaurants, but I’ve never heard of this kind of experience. No wonder you treasure it!
Yes! I’ve gotten photos with chefs, but that’s it. Of course, it could have been about the birthday, but it wasn’t mine. Who knows? I just have these great memories, as does my daughter. She also got a cute pic with Rick Bayless!
Thanks for sharing your unforgettable memory of meeting this Chef! I went to Chicago a few times between 1989 and 1992, but never had the chance to visit his restaurant!
Thanks. It was so memorable!
Interesting figure. Make me want to check out that documentary. A good reminder that humans beings are indeed complex. Very few people (read: no one) is entirely a hero or a villain. That said, I wouldn’t want to have worked for him, lol!
Such a great post, Mimi. I didn’t know anything about his life. Such a lovely experience to have had with your daughter at his restaurant. :-) ~Valentina
It was really incredible. A once in the lifetime thing.
As someone said, it’s not necessarily the food that leaves a lasting impression but it’s how the experience makes you feel. You and your daughter were made to feel special that night.
Exactly. It was so memorable.