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Charlie Trotter redefined fine dining, dies at 54

First Published Nov 05 2013 12:36PM      Last Updated Nov 05 2013 09:01 pm

Chicago • With a culinary style he likened to improvisational jazz, Charlie Trotter changed the way Americans view fine dining, pushing himself, his staff, his food and even his diners to limits rarely seen in an American restaurant. Yet it was his reluctance to move beyond those limits that may have defined the last years of his life.

Trotter, 54, died Tuesday, a year after closing his namesake Chicago restaurant that was credited with putting his city at the vanguard of the food world and training dozens of the nation’s top chefs, including Grant Achatz and Graham Elliot.

Paramedics were called around 10 a.m. to Trotter’s Lincoln Park home, where they found him unresponsive. An ambulance crew transported Trotter to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where he was declared dead after unsuccessful attempts to revive him, Chicago Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford said. An autopsy was planned for Wednesday.



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."

 

 

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AT A GLANCE

Five things to remember about acclaimed Chicago chef Charlie Trotter, who died Tuesday:

1. He wasn’t always interested in food and didn’t got to culinary school.

Culinary arts didn’t pique chef Charlie Trotter’s interest until college, when his roommate would prepare different courses for friends. Trotter was self-taught. After he graduated from college Trotter traveled the U.S. and Europe to dine at fine restaurants. His first job was as a cook at the Chicago-area restaurant Sinclair’s, owned by famed chef Gordon Sinclair.

2. Trotter was groundbreaking.

He is credited as being one of the first chefs in the U.S. to prepare and serve multicourse meals. He also was on the forefront of using organic food, naturally produced meats and seasonal philosophies of cooking.

3. He closed his restaurant last year to go back to school.

Trotter closed his famed Chicago namesake restaurant Charlie Trotter’s last August after 25 years. He said he was going back to college to enroll in a master’s degree program in philosophy.

4. His kitchen was a training ground for the famous.

Dozens of the nation’s top chefs, including Graham Elliott and Grant Achatz, worked under Trotter.

5. He really loved being a chef

Trotter talked to The Associated Press in August 2012 before he closed his restaurant saying, “I completely love what I do. I pinch myself every day going ‘I make a living doing this. This is unbelievable.’ “ He also said, “The minute I started working in a restaurant formally as a cook or on the road to becoming a chef was like the greatest day of my life.”

—The Associated Press