Trotter was hospitalized in New York City this summer after having a seizure, close family friend and early Trotter mentor Norman Van Aken said Tuesday. Van Aken said he didn't know what caused the seizure.
For decades, Trotter's name was synonymous with cutting-edge cuisine. He earned 10 James Beard Awards, wrote 10 cookbooks and in 1999 hosted his own public television series, "The Kitchen Sessions with Charlie Trotter."
"It was the beginning of the notion that America could have a real haute cuisine on par with Europe," said Anthony Bourdain. "That was what Charlie did."
Yet Trotter never went to culinary school. He grew up in the northern Chicago suburb of Wilmette and majored in political science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. But an inspiring meal several years earlier had planted the desire to cook.
After graduation, he created a de facto apprenticeship, landing his first job at a restaurant in Chicago's North Shore area called Sinclair's, where he worked under now well-known chefs such as Van Aken and Carrie Nahabedian.
From there Trotter moved to restaurants in Florida, San Francisco and France, all the while eating widely and reading cookbooks voraciously. When he returned to the U.S. — and with financial backing from his family — he purchased a Victorian house in Chicago and opened Charlie Trotters in it in 1987.
"His restaurant shaped the world of food," said Dana Cowin, editor-in-chief of Food & Wine magazine. "He was so innovative and focused and intense and really brilliant. When he opened Charlie Trotter he was so original."
Trotter's food was grounded in classical French technique, but blended seamlessly with Asian influences. He believed fervently in the power of simplicity and clean cooking, turning to simple vegetable purees and stocks — rather than heavy sauces — to deliver standup flavor in menus that changed daily.
"He was a part of bringing in unusual ingredients and really scouring the world for ingredients that you never tasted before," said fellow Chicago restaurateur Rick Bayless. "He was really on that forefront of creating the modern tasting menu."
He also was an early advocate of using seasonal and organic ingredients, as well as sustainably raised or caught meat and seafood.
"Charlie was a visionary, an unbelievable chef that brought American cuisine to new heights," Emeril Lagasse, a close friend of Trotter's, said in an email. "We have lost a tremendous human being and an incredible chef and restaurateur."
Trotter was gruff, exacting, demanding and a culinary genius. And for years, the restaurant was considered one of the best in the nation, earning two Michelin stars the first year the guide rated Chicago restaurants.
He also was giving. He created a charitable group that not only awarded culinary scholarships, but also brought disadvantaged children to his restaurant every week to teach them about fine dining.
But in time, the food world caught up with him. And food culture changed, with celebrity often trumping skill. It was a world to which he adapted poorly.
"The last few times I saw him were at a food and wine festivals where people didn't recognize him. People did not acknowledge him for his incredibly important place in history," said Bourdain. "Back in Charlie's day, it was really the merit system. Being a great chef was enough. You didn't have to be lovable."