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Charlie Trotter

Julie Mautner - September 2000

Food Arts presents the September 2000 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Chicago chef Charlie Trotter in recognition of his irrepressible propensity for doing everything better than he has to do. After winning the Outstanding Chef Award from The James Beard Foundation in 1999, Trotter returned this year to claim not one but three Beard Awards, including "Best Restaurant in America." (The others were for his most recent book and TV series.)

In the time it takes other chefs to publish a cookbook or two, Trotter has produced 10 titles. While others make time for personal travel, he'll treat his crew to a trip. He crafts three elaborate tasting menus each evening, changing some courses daily and the entire menu every three weeks. Complex record-keeping tracks who has eaten what, so no customer in his quiet cream-and-burgundy dining room with just under 100 seats gets the same dish twice.

Trotter, 41 this month, came to cooking relatively late. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin in political science, he took a cross-country bike trip that ended in Berkeley, California, at the door of Chez Panisse. Following this seminal stint, he went to Europe and methodically set out to eat at every Michelin-starred restaurant, grand cafe, and bistro his backpacker's budget would allow. Returning to the States he did the same thing. It was an intense period of work, study, and travel, during which he cooked for Norman Van Aken, Bradley Ogden, and Gordon Sinclair.

Back home in Chicago, with funding from his father and lots of help from family, he opened Charlie Trotter's in a 1908 brownstone in the Lincoln Park neighborhood in 1987 (and has since expanded into the brownstone next door). Trotter was among the first to see the magic of marrying French techniques with American ingredients, while allowing Asian flavors into the mix. Within months, the Chicago Tribune sent over a four-star review.

Annual, frenetic trips to Europe keep him in touch with industry friends and fuel his competitive urges. He's the kind of chef who will eat a four-star, 10-course meal, then cap it off by walking 30 or 40 blocks to sample someone's new dessert menu. His relatively small kitchen—decked out with its custom Bonnet stove, refrigerated marble counters, and one dishwasher designated "Riedel glassware only"—cost close to $1 million, and a major expansion (more space for prep and pastry) is in the works.

When Trotter is not in the kitchen—or at home with wife Lynn and son Dylan—chances are he's doing something charitable. "Charlie is one of Chicago's treasures," proclaims fellow restaurateur Rich Melman. These days, the chef is working on the soon to open Trotter's To Go, 26 new episodes of The Kitchen Sessions with Charlie Trotter, and his usual plateful of consulting projects.

"Every day at the restaurant is a journey," he says. "We consider the day a success if we can answer yes to a simple question: 'Have we improved today?'"