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Charlie Trotter Calls it Quits

David Ross

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Charlie Trotter is closing his eponymous Chicago restaurant later this year. The story was announced in the media over the past week, including this piece in the New York Times. I never dined in the restaurant, although I did encounter Chef Trotter at a few culinary gatherings and I have two of his cookbooks. I never attempted the recipes in the books, but the gorgeous photos of the food set a new benchmark at the time they came out for food presentation and culinary photography.

Any thoughts on the impressions that Chef Trotter left on the Chicago dining scene?

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Few people today realize what the Chicago dining scene was like, pre-Trotter. My wife and I do, having been influential dining critics for Chicago magazine when it was the city's primary source of unbiased dining information. With as many as over a million monthly readers, we were fortunate enough to cover a 20-year period that ran between truly basic ethnic Mom 'n' Pops places, the ending of haute cuisine (most bogus, some, such as the first Maxim's de Paris, were genuine), and the advent of la nouvelle cuisine , which reached its apex at Le Perroquet.

Charlie — who began his career going kitchen-door-to-kitchen-door learning in some of the country's greatest restaurants, the field-testing his team by cooking gratis, superb multi-course dinners in the kitchens of family friends' North Shore homes, before opening his own place (half the size of the current one) seemed to surf just ahead of the cresting organic-food, locavore, and fusion fads. He shared with his guests meals by guest chefs from around the country, perhaps around the world.

A visit to his Chicago restaurant (he had short-lived ventures elsewhere) was always an intellectual challenge and a stunning exhibition of quality equipment and intense concentration. He seemingly was always trying to reinvent the wheel, and often came up with interesting variants. A meal at Trotter's was like visiting a culinary museum (largely founded on French disciplines and techniques) that required eating all the exhibits, many of which provided gastronomic discovery (like a single plate combining wild hare and domestic rabbit).

At Trotter\

An early goal, which to my knowledge he adhered, was never to serve the same dish to a particular diner on two occasions.

His food ideas — his was one of the first restaurants to feature, then mandate, dégustations — broadly influenced influencing many of the city's most creative chefs, several of whom worked at one time or another in his kitchen. He often enjoyed a full-service meal in a private dining room in his restaurant complex with more than a dozen local high-school students, exposing them to the possibilities of entering the profession at whatever levels they were capable. He was extraordinarily benevolent to local and national charities.

His restaurant was one of the first to experiment with putting its servers on salary — after all, they are professionals, he reasoned — and when pooled tips didn't add up to his expectations, he made up the difference out of pocket.

Did Charlie Trotter influence the current, local dining scene? I sure as hell hope so!

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According to the NYT article:

Mr. Trotter, who notified his staff members and the patrons of a New Year’s Eve event ($295 per person) on Saturday, said he wanted to travel, attend graduate school in philosophy and political theory and, perhaps, eventually return to open a new restaurant.

“I can do this forever, and it’s most gratifying,” Mr. Trotter, 52, said in an interview on Sunday. “That said, there are so many other things to do in life. Twenty-five years in this line of work is fantastic. It’s just time to step back, breathe deeply and do something different.”



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Allen sums up Trotter's influence well. To illustrate one of his excellent points...

His food ideas — his was one of the first restaurants to feature, then mandate, dégustations — broadly influenced influencing many of the city's most creative chefs, several of whom worked at one time or another in his kitchen.

Those who have worked there include:

Grant Achatz: Alinea, Next

Homaro Cantu: Moto, Ing

Michael Carlson: Schwa

John Des Rosiers: Inovasi

Curtis Duffy: Ex-Avenues, Grace (opening summer)

Graham Elliot: Graham Elliot, Grahamwich

Bill Kim: Urban Belly, Bellyshack

Matthias Merges: Yusho

David Posey: Blackbird

Mindy Segal: Hot Chocolate

Michael Taus: Zealous

Giuseppe Tentori: Boka, GT Fish & Oyster

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