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Team Trotter

Barbara Revsine - May 2014

Following in the footsteps of a master, a coterie of Charlie Trotter’s alums have carried the lessons they learned about food, service, what a restaurant should be, and an all-encompassing striving for excellence into their own restaurants in Chicago and beyond.

For over 25 years, Charlie Trotter and his talented staff flexed their creative muscle. Ingredients changed, menus morphed, dishes evolved, and Trotter’s eternal quest for better and best became part of his staff’s DNA. Sadly, since Trotter’s passing last November, the days are gone when giving his Armitage Avenue address to a taxi driver elicited the response, “Oh, you’re going to Charlie’s.” But his legacy lives on in the chefs who worked with him. In addition to the following chefs, all currently working in the Chicago area, the roster of top-tier alumni includes Rick Tramonto (Restaurant R’evolution in the Royal Sonesta Hotel, New Orleans), David Myers (Comme Ça, Los Angeles), Michael Rotondo (Parallel 37 in The Ritz-Carlton San Francisco), and David LeFevre (MB Post, Los Angeles).

Guillermo Tellez: 1988–2005
Guillermo Tellez started working at Charlie Trotter’s as a line cook the year after it opened, gradually working his way up the kitchen ladder. During his tenure, he was involved in all of Trotter’s projects, from the carry-out shop in Lincoln Park to the restaurants in Los Cabos, Las Vegas, and the aborted project in New York City. Tellez says he “wore a lot of hats” for Charlie and—in the process—learned a lot about food and running a restaurant.

Back in Chicago after a several year hiatus, Tellez is working with the brothers Alfredo, Patricio, and Felipe Sandoval as a chef/partner of Mercadito Hospitality. The group’s newest venture is Tippling Hall in River North. As the name implies, the new spot, complete with a license to serve liquor until 5 a.m. on weekends, will pay homage to all the rituals associated with drinking, beginning with an extensive tap system and oversized beer steins. Typical of the food, which will be available into the wee hours, is a duck empanada served with a guava puree.

Michael Taus: 1988–1989
After closing Zealous, his long-running hit in River North, Taus worked as a consultant at Coppervine and is planning to open a new restaurant of his own. Taus says the food at Coppervine is the “simplest” he’s ever done. The menu gives new twists to satisfying classics, such as fried chicken served with Sriracha-mayo, braised short ribs with goat’s milk cheese polenta, or Maine lobster mac and cheese.

Taus credits Charlie with inspiring his ongoing concern for every aspect of a guest’s experience. At Coppervine, the focus is on pairing food with wine, beer, and cocktails. Suggestions are listed for every dish, and while some guests order one of those options, others query the well-schooled staff for additional pairings. Dessert listings expand the concept by including a recommended coffee, while dessert wines reverse the order with suggestions for a compatible dessert.

Matthias Merges: 1989–1991 and 1997–2010
With Yusho (innovative Asian) and Billy Sunday (craft cocktails and Sunday supper) running smoothly, Merges opened A10 in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood last November. Named for the main highway connecting Genoa, Italy, with the French border, the restaurant features food influenced by both countries. Commenting on his lengthy tenure at Trotter’s, much of the second round as chef de cuisine, Merges says Charlie’s philosophy affects everything he does.

According to Charlie via Merges, restaurants are places where people gather to share a great experience. So it’s no surprise that many of the dishes at A10 are designed to be shared, a category that includes the signature wood-fired snails. The snails are purged with herbs, cooked in court bouillon, shelled, and partnered with roasted pearl onions and carrots in a sauce made with a demi-glace of chicken bones and veal stock. Cooked en casserole with a crust of rosemary-scented biscuit dough, the dish is as shareable as it is delicious.

Next up for Merges is a second location for Yusho in Hyde Park, which opens this summer.

Bill Kim: 1992–1996 and 2003–2004
Building on the success of Urban Belly, his first restaurant, Bill Kim has opened Belly Q in an adjoining space. The game plan includes a top-quality line of all-natural Asian sauces—an echo, perhaps, of the line of sauces and vinaigrettes that Charlie established.

Kim’s menus are playfully irreverent, featuring dishes that show his mastery of traditional Asian cooking techniques with a fresh take that appeals to today’s American palates. Consider, for example, his duck breast. The smoky flavor of Sichuan peppercorns—used in combination with kosher salt for curing and with a mix of tea, rice, sugar, and flour for smoking—permeates the duck, which is partnered with Chinese-style steamed buns and broccoli dressed with a Vietnamese nuoc cham sauce that melds with fish sauce, lemongrass, lime juice, and brown sugar.

Gale Gand: 1993
When Charlie asked Gale Gand to join his staff, he knew she and Rick Tramonto were already involved in negotiations for Trio. Looking back, Gale says there were two things about working for Charlie that left a lasting impression. The most important was the emphasis on teamwork. And then there was Charlie’s support for his staff’s creativity. If you had a good idea, she remembers, he helped you develop it, guided by the belief that the accomplishments of one member of the team benefited everyone.

Gale describes her latest project as a family-friendly, urban, no-reservations kind of restaurant that serves dinner Tuesdays through Saturdays and brunch on Sundays. With a name like SpritzBurger, burgers are a given, although the restaurant’s signature dish is actually a double club sandwich, and the lavender fried chicken is reputedly destined for stardom. Desserts include home-style classics like root beer floats with molasses ice cream or chocolate cake with marshmallow filling. And since multiple projects are the norm for Gale, she also has a new cookbook: Gale Gand’s Lunch.

Mindy Segal: 1993–1994
Despite her short tenure and the 18- to 19-hour workdays it entailed, Mindy Segal, chef/owner of HotChocolate in Bucktown, says working for Charlie Trotter was a wonderful experience. Like her fellow alums, she cites Charlie’s support for his staff and his insistence on excellence as major factors in her eventual success.

Segal remembers working on a dessert that paired a cannoli filled with honey/lavender ice cream and a pear poached in Gewürztraminer. At Charlie’s suggestion, she wound up juicing some of the pears and then using the juices as a poaching liquid for the others, a change that not only intensified the flavor of the pears but could also be used with a variety of fruits. It was, as Segal points out, a moment that was “pure Charlie.”

Next up for Segal is a 6,000-square-foot commissary, cafe, and full-service bakery specializing in breads and cookies.

Paul Virant: 1996
When the opportunity to work at Charlie Trotter’s presented itself in the summer of 1996, Paul Virant didn’t hesitate. Ask him to describe the job, and he’ll say he was a tournant, moving from station to station, filling in wherever needed. His tenure was brief, but given the nature of his job, he managed to squeeze a lot of experiences into a short amount of time.

Virant found Charlie’s interest in creating herb-infused oils especially inspiring, in part because they extended the growing season. At Vie, the restaurant he opened in suburban Western Springs in 2004, canned and preserved fruits and vegetables quickly became one of the restaurant’s hallmarks, just as it did at Perennial Virant, where he has been chef/partner since 2011. Virant’s cookbook, The Preservation Kitchen: The Craft of Making and Cooking with Pickles, Preserves, and Aigre-Doux, was published in spring 2012.

Giuseppe Tentori: 1998–2007
Giuseppe Tentori joined the Boka group after leaving Charlie Trotter’s, heading up the kitchen first at Boka and then at GT Fish & Oyster. GT Prime, a meat-driven restaurant with a large seafood component, is slated to open in the fall.

At GT Fish & Oyster, Tentori gives familiar classics a creative spin. In lieu of the traditional roux, he thickens his signature clam chowder with cornstarch, a change that produces a noticeably lighter broth. One whiff of the chowder reveals another switch, this time from salt pork to bacon. In another break with tradition, Tentori does oyster po’ boy sliders served on soft, Hawaiian-style rolls. Designed to be eaten in two or three bites, the sliders are paired with kimchi and topped with a fried oyster, a dab of sesame aïoli, and toasted peanuts.

Graham Elliot: 1998–2000 and 2001–2003
For Graham Elliot, working at Charlie Trotter’s was an emotional “roller-coaster ride” that produced more stories than he can ever recount. Picking out the most important “lesson learned,” he says, is much easier.

Graham remembers Charlie encouraging his chefs to develop their own “voice,” and to be their own toughest critic. Reproducing a set recipe, even a very good recipe, was definitely second best to cooking spontaneously and indulging your creativity.

When he left Trotter’s, Elliot took the mindset with him. Both his persona and his signature dishes are imbued with an unmistakable touch of whimsy that connects the smallish white-rimmed glasses he routinely wears to the foielipop, truffle popcorn, and stroganoff he serves at Graham Elliot Bistro.

Homaro Cantu: 1999–2003
Anxious to experience everything there was at Charlie Trotter’s, Homaro Cantu worked in the kitchen, in the front of the house, and as a member of the wine team. He observed and absorbed everything he could, but of all the things he learned, none was more important than the continuing quest for something new and different.

Dinner at Moto or iNG, Cantu’s restaurants in Fulton Market, is all about innovation, firsts, and flavor. The website describes the food as “post-modern gastronomy” and Cantu as equal parts chef and inventor. Trying to describe even a single dish in a sentence or two is a challenge. Better to focus, instead, on Cantu’s efforts to grow as much as possible on-site in his lower level “Motofarm,” or his avant-garde use of what he calls the “miracle berry,” a natural substance that makes sour food sweeter. Alchemy aside, Cantu knows his way around a kitchen. He did, after all, work for Charlie.

Curtis Duffy: 2000–2003
Curtis Duffy went to work at Charlie Trotter’s because he wanted to be surrounded by the best in the business. It was, he says, a period of tremendous personal and professional growth. Grace, Duffy’s first independent venture, garnered accolades from the moment it opened in December 2012. Options are limited to a choice of either the “flora” or the “fauna” prix-fixe, both identically priced. With the decision made, diners can relax and enjoy the repast, secure in the knowledge that Duffy’s enthusiasm, expertise, and passionate pursuit of perfection guarantee a memorable experience.

Jeffrey Mauro: 2000–2002
Looking back, Jeffrey Mauro says, “Everything I learned while I worked as a line cook at Charlie Trotter’s is part of who I am now.” Who he is now is chef/partner at Jam, one of the city’s best known breakfast/lunch/brunch spots, and a partner with Cantu at Berrista, an all-day cafe opening soon in the Old Irving Park neighborhood.

Credit Charlie with nurturing Mauro’s concern for detail, down to the pink peppercorns that add the finishing touch to the malted custard French toast with macerated cherries and a lime leaf cream, the latter an acidic counterpoint to the sweetness of the cherries. And following Mauro’s lead, credit Charlie again for stoking a passionate concern for quality, from the Anson Mills stone cut oats for the oatmeal made with 5 Vulture Ale to the artisanal mortadella and coppa partnered with stracchino cheese and an olive tapenade for the Italian sandwich.

Gregory Ellis: 2004–2006
Gregory Ellis worked every station during his tenure as a line cook at Charlie Trotter’s. What impressed him most, in the end, was the quality of the ingredients, and when he left to open his own restaurant, Charlie’s standards went with him.

At 2 Sparrows, Ellis does breakfast, lunch, brunch, and a monthly dinner in conjunction with an artisanal distillery or brewery. Familiar favorites are routinely given a creative twist. His signature doughnut is made with maple syrup and bacon, his couscous with artichokes, pine nuts, white anchovies, and fresh herbs. Ellis pairs a red wine aïoli with a BLT made with grilled salmon, and at a recent dinner, he partnered a basil-infused water with seared diver scallops, crispy pig’s feet, crab, and preserved lemon.

Barbara Revsine is a Chicago-based freelance food writer.