This morning, the world lost a culinary legend with the passing of Charlie Trotter, chef and owner of the world-famous Charlie Trotter’s restaurant Chicago. Charlie left a lasting legacy. He was a pioneer in the world of fine dining, and was one of the first American chefs to create a model for haute cuisine that wasn’t just an import of European food, but instead was intrinsically based on the cuisine of the United States. He was also one of the first American celebrity chefs. Charlie emphasized dining as an emotional and intellectual experience, and considered classic dishes as a starting point for improvisation, rather than rule. He was a passionate advocate for perfection and excellence, to the degree that he wrote several management books about how to take those values from high end food to other disciplines. A host of innovative chefs like Homaro Cantu, Graham Elliot, and Grant Achatz passed through his kitchen and went to create an exciting set of Chicago restaurants. For me, Chicago is one of the most exciting cities in the world to go to dinner, and that is part of Charlie’s legacy.
I was fortunate to be one of the chefs passing through his kitchen – albeit for a single dinner. My team and I had the rare privilege to cook alongside Charlie to celebrate his restaurant’s 25th anniversary, shortly before its closing last year. We spent several days with Charlie and his staff, and we experienced his gregarious (and sometimes outrageous) personality and incomparable hospitality first-hand. From the moment of our arrival, it was clear that Charlie knew just how to make a guest feel welcome. When our car pulled up to the entrance of Trotter’s, his entire staff – chefs, servers, hosts and all – lined the sidewalk in military formation, as if prepared for the arrival of a foreign dignitary. Once inside, Charlie was quick to put everyone at ease. He enjoyed singling out his chefs and servers, one by one, by interrupting their task at hand and inquiring, for all to hear, “If you were on a desert island and could only bring one book to read, which would it be?” Newer employees answered nervously, realizing the question was a test, and having clearly been put on the spot for Charlie’s amusement. Experienced Trotter’s team members responded with the correct answer, “Yours, Chef!” It was his way of breaking the invisible tension that divides the diners and service team in traditional fine dining, putting the whole room at ease.
Charlie’s memory will live on in the hundreds and thousands who dined at his restaurant, read his books, or knew him from television. He made an immeasurable impact on the world of fine dining, and we will miss him deeply.