Sad Good-Bye: Charlie Trotter

Bryan Miller - December 2013

Chicago—When Charlie Trotter’s eponymous restaurant debuted in 1987, it was a culinary rose in the largely arid flower bed of meat-and-potatoes Chicago. He was just 28.

“Chicago didn’t really know how to dine until Charlie Trotter opened his doors,” Gale Gand, a celebrated pastry chef and founding partner of Tru, remarked within hours of her colleague’s sudden death on November 5.

With his small oval spectacles and academic mien that belied a Vesuvius-grade temper—even friends concede he could cross the line between discipline and derision—Trotter was anything but a jocular, well, “good-time Charlie,” at least when at the kitchen battle stations. He once amended the adage “the customer is always right” by proclaiming, “The customer is rarely right.” He maintained it was his job to show them the way to sublimity. At the same time, he was extraordinarily generous with his time and money, supporting culinary programs for inner city kids—he invited groups to his restaurant several days a week to blow their minds with haute cuisine—and other local causes.

Trotter’s handbook of culinary innovations has many pages. For better or worse, he’s the guy who popularized the so-called tasting menu: up to a dozen or more courses, some the size of postage stamps, many of breathtaking beauty. He drafted vegetables to the major leagues, even creating meals around them. He was fanatic about sourcing all of his provender. Dining room service was beyond exacting. And he introduced, almost by accident, the in-kitchen dining table. Inextricably linked to his hometown of Chicago, Trotter, unlike so many of his all-star contemporaries, never quite succeeded in franchising himself around the globe. He played the obligatory Vegas gigs, but the 2008 financial crisis cashiered those; then there was a resort in Mexico that had a truncated run, as well as a couple of big almosts, one in New York City’s Time Warner Center, the other in Chicago’s Elysian Hotel (now the Waldorf Astoria Chicago).

Yes, he won every award out there. His in-house editorial team churned out more than a dozen cookbooks, some so complicated that you’d need Trotter at your side to pull off the recipes. He also had a popular PBS series, The Kitchen Sessions with Charlie Trotter.

Perhaps his legacy is the countless cooks who stumbled through his gauntlet, then parlayed the punitive experience into notable success, Grant Achatz and Graham Elliot among them. “We have lost a great chef, mentor, and friend,” remarked Thomas Keller. “He was an inspiration to us all.”

“We are all shocked and saddened to lose a friend and such a talented, warm-hearted, and honest man, so young,” said Daniel Boulud. “He was a true American chef and restaurateur with a European vision, inspiring and educating a whole new generation of chefs. He will be greatly missed, but never forgotten.”