Alas, Dear Charlie, I'm Glad I Know Ye
Norman Van Aken / July 2012
First as a mentor, then as an equal, and lastly—and mostly—as a best friend, Norman Van Aken has known Charlie Trotter as few others have. Here he shares some recollections as Trotter sets to close his legendary Chicago restaurant at the end of August.
I woke up from another dream of Charlie. In dreams, as in life, nothing is impossible with Charlie Trotter. The dream, my waking self thinks, was explaining the phenomena of his restaurant, which is to say Charlie himself. Has there ever been an example of a temple of fine cuisine so twined with a single man? If so, one could count them on one hand. And I’d say there’d be damn few other Americans named. No dreaming there.
We met in the summer of 1982. I had just returned to Illinois to live with my wife, Janet, and our baby son, Justin, from Key West, where I had learned to cook for a living. In a stroke of undeserved luck, I had been hired to be the chef of Sinclair’s in Lake Forest. Charlie arrived in my kitchen through the dining room door in his front-of-the-house clothing. He had been hired on as a busboy three months back, and he now wanted a job with us in the kitchen. I turned the very thin, very white, very intense man down. We had no positions and, after all, he had no experience. My sous chef noticed. Charlie came back a week later and asked again. The third time this happened my sous chef said, “Aw, let’s put him in garde-manger. I’ll make sure he’s OK.” And that is how I began to know him. My first impressions were how much he cut and burned himself. He took to hiding his hands from me under the long sleeves of a chef’s jacket that seemed to drape over his frame like a monk’s robe. But my sous chef was Carrie Nahabedian, and she tended his wounds while teaching him to step up, too. Suzy Crofton and Celeste Zeccola also guided the just-out-of-college boy with sisterly care.
At Sinclair’s, we were creating what was being called New American Cuisine. The restaurant was named for and run by Gordon Sinclair, one of Chicago’s greatest late 20th century restaurateurs. He had been made a partner in the endeavor by the financial backer and American giant of commerce Marshall Field IV. This unlikeliest of partners helped spawn a kitchen that decided to run with the ball. Gordon had traveled to California just before we opened, and he brought back menus from Spago and Chez Panisse, as well as Alice Waters’ first cookbook, Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook. I was reading James Beard’s books and added all those into our culinary mix. We dreamt big. After all, Le Français, then hailed as the best restaurant in America by Bon Appétit, was a few miles down the road in Wheeling, inspiring us by its proximity as well as its daring. Back then, there was no Beard Awards, no TV Food Network, no Top Chef—and no Food Arts. So we worked with no established compass to lend direction. We used an inner map. Charlie fell in love with the endless optimism and potential in my kitchen, and that’s why I think he trusted me with his heart.
We stayed in touch as Sinclair’s split in two. I took the southern one, being resurrected from an old Hilton hotel site, and returned to Florida. Carrie remained in Illinois with the team we co-created. Charlie decided to go out to California and attend the California Culinary Academy. Postcards he wrote to me over those years began to accumulate as he explored what now was catapulting his drive toward a kind of cuisine never seen before in our country. He read constantly, and he knew from our kitchen meetings each night, where I explained the food to the waitstaff, that I was a reader, too. He felt he could open up to me in ways he’d not been able to open up to anyone before. The postcards were filled with his account of food, philosophy, music, art, and the pursuit of something that proved to the heavens he cared about being ALIVE! Charlie recognized life as the most amazing gift as well as the most amazing challenge.
Many postcard covers were from the artists he admired: Henry Miller, Charlie Parker, Anaïs Nin, Miles Davis, and Bob Dylan. Some were campy. Some were bawdy. And all of them were crammed with more words than any postcard I’d ever read in my life. He sent me one that asked how it was going with the new place in Jupiter, Florida. He offered to come join in. This time I replied, “Hell, yes!” and he drove his car nonstop from San Francisco in about three days, fueling up with what I could see from the litter on the floor of his mud-spattered Saab was a lake of caffeine and a carton of Lindt chocolate bars.
At Sinclair’s American Grill, Charlie emerged as a man in much more possession of his capabilities. He helped me launch that restaurant, and then it was my turn to leave. I had to get back to Key West. My heart ached for the place again, and I scored a job at a place called Louie’s Backyard. Soon Charlie joined me there, too. It was the last place he worked with me as his chef. But the letters, postcards, and packages of saved clipped-out articles never stopped.
He wrote: “I drove across the country twice reading On the Road. I used to read 50 pages and then tear them out and leave them on a train or after eating apple pie in a diner.”
He left the pages in hopes they would reach some other person, a gift to the world. And now he leaves us Charlie Trotter’s as a memory and a testament to what a person can achieve if he gives nothing less than his all.