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Steinberg: Time to stick a fork in Charlie Trotter?

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Updated: October 3, 2013 6:12AM

There are two types of chefs. There is what I think of as the “Sarah Stegner Chef,” so named after my first glance of Stegner, in a tall white toque, standing dignified in her kitchen at the Ritz-Carlton, arranging the artisanal cheeses she championed, quiet as beauty, still as a river, entirely focused on those gorgeous orbs of fromage, as if they were land mines she was defusing.

And then there’s the “Charlie Trotter Chef” — think of the chefs in Bugs Bunny cartoons, snarling, screaming, flailing, an inflamed, overcooked ego in chef’s whites. Those chefs do well on the Food Network. They become stars. The reality, however.

“He’s gone off . . . it’s weird,” said an associate of Trotter, who knows him well.

On Thursday, Trotter had some kind of ugly encounter with a group of high school students participating in After School Matters. Trotter allowed them to use his now shuttered namesake restaurant at 814 W. Armitage as a gallery to display their photographs, but became offended, it was reported, when the instructor supervising the students refused to order them to sweep floors and plunge toilets. Trotter also made inappropriate comments to a female student, suggesting she get a Charlie Trotter tattoo.

So has Trotter gone around the bend?

“He is . . . a . . . difficult person,” said the associate, who didn’t want to be named so as to not endanger their relationship. “He comes across like, ‘Once you get to know me, I’m a good guy, a funny guy, but everybody hates me, I don’t know why.’ ”

I do, Charlie, so let me explain it to you.

People hate egomaniacs. They see the self-regard flowing like wine and naturally want to stop it up. When you closed your restaurant — one year ago; time drags when you’re doing nothing, huh? — with maximum drama, it was a curtain-clutching death scene worthy of “Tristan und Isolde,” complete massive, three-part hagiography in the Tribune. The observation I bit back — why rain on the man’s victory lap? — was: Closing your restaurant was self-immolation, tossing your whole staff out of work in a recession, and why? New chefs were rising, being lauded in the Chicago scene.

Attention was straying from the only chef worthy of attention: Charlie Trotter. If other restaurants are going to be praised, then you were just going to close yours down, take your ball and go home. You said you were going to read philosophy, which made me laugh. I almost sent you the passages of Seneca where he tells us to welcome loss, because someday life will snatch back every single thing it gave to us, and so the smaller deprivations before then are reminders and practice. But I figured it would be lost on you.

He took his ball but wouldn’t go home. There he was, stomping around the auction of his restaurant’s effects, shutting the thing down a third of the way through. A man with any grace wouldn’t even have been in the room. If you’re going to close, then close.

And Trotter’s still there, rattling around your empty, shuttered restaurant, terrorizing schoolchildren. It’s a scene from a tragedy.

OK, Charlie, you and I are about the same age. And at this point, you’re saying: “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich, like I am?” To which I’ll retort, “If you’re so rich, why aren’t you smart?” It’s never too late.

You might want to use this embarrassing public spectacle as a wake-up call; if not, there are more down the road. Trust me on that one. If you can control yourself, do it.

A little humility might help. I asked your friend: Would you call Charlie a humble man?

“No, not humble,” the friend said. “He knows he’s not a humble person. At the end of his run his perception was, ‘Where did the respect go? I was the one who brought Chicago fine dining, gave it its reputation.’ He kinda started a lot of it, and at the end he felt, ‘What the hell, where did the love go?’ ”

It goes where everything goes, Charlie. Into the Bonfire of Time. Everything ends.

It’s a shame you never read that philosophy, because it may have helped you now. “A generation of men is like a generation of leaves,” Homer writes. We have spring, shine greenly for a summer. It feels like forever. Then autumn comes, Charlie, and we wither, even great chefs like you, and fall off the tree or, in your case, jump — there’s a drawback of being rich, you forget that there’s a purpose to work beyond making money. Work is joy, if you’re lucky. You may have forgotten that.

But never too late to remember. When Sarah Stegner tired of the Ritz, she quietly re-invented herself and opened the excellent Prairie Grass with husband Rohit Nambiar and partner George Bumbaris. Time to reinvent yourself, too, Charlie, if you can. Grab a spoon, stop talking and start cooking. The respect you seek is waiting for you there.


Twitter: @NeilSteinberg

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