Charlie Trotter redefined fine dining, dies at 54
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."
Meanwhile, chefs such as Achatz — of award-winning Chicago restaurants Alinea and Next — became so avant-garde, Trotter’s menus seem almost dated. And the very organic and seasonal philosophies he’d spearheaded had become commonplace.
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
In 2012 — and in keeping with his reputation for bold, unexpected moves — Trotter closed his iconic 120-seat restaurant. His plan? Return to college to study philosophy.
"The one thing it will do for me is let me wipe a certain slate clean. And while I’m studying and reading and applying myself to something else, if I decide to come back to the restaurant world, I think I’m going to bring a different perspective," he told The Associated Press in an interview last year.
"My hope is to really learn how to think very differently on the whole thing," he said.
Van Aken said it was a shame the public rarely saw other sides of Trotter’s personality — the wit that drove him to share video clips of W.C. Fields, his reenactments of scenes from "The Godfather," his love of Miles Davis.
In a behind-the-scenes look for the AP three days before closing night, the Charlie Trotter’s staff held a typically detail-laden pre-dinner meeting, discussing specifics down to the exact dates when diners last ate at the restaurant and reminders about when to use certain wine glasses.
Dishes from the final week of menus included poached white asparagus with charred broccolini, manchego cheese and red pepper essence and root beer leaf ice cream with vanilla cremeaux and birch syrup-infused meringue.
Some might have thought the move from the restaurant world was too risky. Not Trotter.
"What’s the worst that could happen? Life’s too short. You may be on this planet for 80 years at best or who knows, but you can’t just pedal around and do the same thing forever," he told the AP in 2012.
AP Food Editor J.M. Hirsch is based in Concord, N.H.