The culinary world lost one of its greatest pioneers this week. Chef Charlie Trotter passed away on November 5. In honor of such an iconic toque, we wanted to take the time to reflect on Trotter’s memorable life.
Trotter was the man who put Chicago on the fine-dining map. An experience at his eponymous restaurant was considered a gastronomic rite of passage. And believe it or not, he was self-taught. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Trotter decided to travel throughout the U.S. and Europe, eating at the top restaurants to see how the best did things.
The chef changed the way foodies looked at the Windy City when he opened his Lincoln Park restaurant in August 1987 with his father, Bob, by his side. At just 27 years old, he became Chicago’s original celebrity chef, earning his first Five-Star award (from Mobil Travel Guide) in 1996, which he kept until Charlie Trotter’s closed its doors in August 2012.
He was the first in the country to incorporate the chef’s table, which has now become a common addition to many fine-dining restaurants. Trotter wanted those select diners to be in the center of the action — even if it meant sweating in the hot kitchen.
In September 2011, I was lucky enough to experience dinner at the chef’s table. It was by chance; we walked in and the maître d’ said she had a proposition for us. I thought she was going to tell us to come back later. But it was just the opposite — someone canceled at the last minute, leaving the small four-seat chef’s table open. The legend was present in the kitchen and wished me a happy birthday before insisting I help make dessert for my table. Four hours and 17 courses later, I had earned my culinary badge. Not everyone can say they ate at Charlie Trotter’s — let alone at the chef’s table.
I’ve dined at a lot of fantastic restaurants, but that meal at Charlie Trotter’s holds a special place in my heart. It even inspired me to create a restaurant bucket list. It wasn’t just the food that was great (don’t get me wrong, it was amazing); it was the service, the atmosphere, the hard work and dedication seen on the young chefs’ faces, and the way they looked up to chef Trotter when he walked into the kitchen that prove memorable.
He was admired by chefs, young and old. Some of the best are products of his kitchen: Grant Achatz of Alinea, Graham Elliot Bowles of Graham Elliot, Curtis Duffy of Grace, Homaro Cantu of Moto are all Charlie Trotter’s alumni.
Trotter was known for being driven and a bit mercurial, but he was also a generous man. Aside from the dozens of culinary accolades, he received several awards for his philanthropic achievements. In 1999, he created the Charlie Trotter’s Culinary Education Foundation, for which he was named one of five “heroes” honored by Colin Powell’s charity, America’s Promise Alliance. And in 2012, the chef was named Humanitarian of the Year by the James Beard Foundation.
He has influenced chefs and foodies all over the world. In fact, if you have the chance to stay at The Inn at Little Washington, you can book the Charlie Trotter suite. You can taste the creations of his protégés at Alinea, Graham Elliot and Moto. You can even whip up a recipe from one of his 14 cookbooks. So, while he may have passed away, the legend of Charlie Trotter lives on.
Photo Courtesy of Charlie Trotter