Charlie Trotter, celebrity chef who ‘changed the rules,’ dies at 54
BY MIKE THOMAS Staff Reporter November 5, 2013 12:10PM
Chef Charlie Trotter in the dining room of his restaurant at 816 W. Armitage Friday, Dec. 30, 2011. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times
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In August last year, as he prepared to close his eponymous fine-dining bastion in Lincoln Park after 25 years of booming business and international plaudits, chef Charlie Trotter talked of taking an extended break to pursue other interests such as travel and a master’s degree.
Doing the same thing for too long wasn’t healthy, Mr. Trotter added, because “Life’s too short.”
Late Tuesday morning, those words rang hauntingly true.
After being rushed to Northwestern Memorial Hospital from his home on the North Side, Mr. Trotter died at 54. The cause was undetermined, but police said there appeared to be no signs of foul play. According to the Cook County medical examiner’s office, it appears he died of natural causes.
During his long reign as Chicago’s top chef and one of America’s most celebrated restaurateurs, the self-taught Mr. Trotter offered multicourse tasting menus and artfully plated cuisine that put his hometown on the international culinary map and inspired legions of chefs-in-training — including Alinea’s Grant Achatz, Graham Elliot’s Graham Elliot and moto’s Homaro Cantu, among others — to follow his lead.
As news of Mr. Trotter’s death spread, former colleagues, friends and admirers offered heartfelt tributes.
Matthias Merges, who spent 14 years as a Charlie Trotter’s cook, executive chef and director of operations, said the visionary chef broke down barriers in fine dining, “changed the rules” and altered the public’s perception of what top-tier cuisine could be.
Merges — now chef-owner at Yusho, Billy Sunday and the newly opened A10 — also marveled at Mr. Trotter’s tenacity and drive, saying those who worked at Charlie Trotter’s had only one goal: “to be the best restaurant in the world.”
In a statement, Mayor Rahm Emanuel praised Mr. Trotter’s impact and food as well as his “generous philanthropy,” which manifested itself most publicly in the youth-oriented Charlie Trotter Culinary Education Foundation.
Mr. Trotter “was just way ahead of his time,” said Cantu, who spent four years in his employ and part of that time as sous chef.
In terms of menu, Cantu said admiringly, Mr. Trotter’s restaurant “was always in a state of change.”
“He never served the same dish twice.”
In the early days, as per a Chicago magazine retrospective of Charlie Trotter’s reviews, one might have enjoyed grilled venison with polenta-chestnut flan and truffled mascarpone. In later years, it might have been a poached hen egg with toasted brioche, torpedo onion and parsley. Wine pairings from a famously well-stocked cellar were guided by a highly trained master sommelier.
Mr. Trotter was such a devoted wine enthusiast that when asked Sunday at the Jackson Hole Culinary Conference what his last meal would be, Mr. Trotter required only a bottle of 1900 Chateau Margaux. Christie’s recently auctioned one for a bit over $7,000.
When the industry-revered Michelin Guide of restaurant rankings began evaluating Chicago establishments in 2010, Mr. Trotter’s earned a respectable two stars — one short of the three-star pinnacle. The competitive and ever-striving Mr. Trotter, who also authored cookbooks and hosted a cooking show — “The Kitchen Sessions with Charlie Trotter” — on PBS, was disappointed.
And yet, he won 10 James Beard awards — one of the highest honors an American chef can receive.
“Charlie Trotter was not only one of our country’s most influential chefs, he was a mentor, an innovator and a great humanitarian,” Susan Ungaro, president of the James Beard Foundation was quoted in a memorial piece posted on the Beard Foundation website. “He was also a friend and great supporter of our Foundation from its very beginning. He will be missed.”
Trotter’s death spurred the group PETA to issue a statement praising him as one of the first chefs not only to speak out against foie gras farms but also to stop serving it in his restaurant. The use of foie gras was behind a spat Trotter had in 2005 with fellow Chicago chef Rick Tramonto, whose liver he once suggested was “fat enough” to provide “a little treat” for diners.
On Twitter, where numerous tributes to Mr. Trotter reside and continue to proliferate, CNN host and former chef Anthony Bourdain called him “a giant” and “a legend” who was “treated shabbily by a world he helped create.” Mr. Bourdain, who also posted a photo of Mr. Trotter and his wife, Rochelle, engaged in a kiss, did not elaborate.
But as a March 2011 New York Times story pointed out, “Mr. Trotter hardly seems to figure in the national food conversation anymore. In the very years when Chicago has gloried in newfound recognition as a major restaurant destination . . . the man who put the city on the fine-dining map has somehow fallen below the radar.”
Part of the problem, Mr. Trotter told Chicago Tribune restaurant critic Phil Vettel that same year, was his longevity.
“[W]e’ve been around so long, we get taken for granted. And I respect that; people want something new, they like to see things evolve. But our story is still extremely vibrant and valid.”
Keefer’s executive chef John Hogan met the Winnetka-bred Trotter in 1987, when Chicago was just beginning to emerge from an era when local fine dining was scarce and largely defined by heavy French fare.
Calling Mr. Trotter “a big-time pioneer,” Hogan also noted that he could be tough to work for.
“He was rough as hell on people, but most everyone I know who worked [for him] went out and did something with their career. And a lot of people credit him with [being] more than a culinary influence. . . . He was more of a father figure as well to a lot of these young cooks.”
Mr. Trotter’s longtime friend Tony Mantuano, chef-owner of the celebrated Spiaggia on North Michigan Avenue, proclaimed, “The story of Charlie Trotter should be told [to] and learned by every chef and wannabe chef in Chicago. . . . He changed the way Chicago is viewed around the country.”
As Chicago-based restaurant publicist Ellen Malloy emphasized, Mr. Trotter did more than train and inspire young chefs: He “exposed the Chicago culinary community to every important chef around the world. Nobody else was doing anything like that.”
In summing up Mr. Trotter’s effect on the culinary realm, perhaps Cantu said it best: “The food world was round before Charlie Trotter came to it, and he made it flat.”
Contributing: Mitch Dudek, Art Golab, Becky Schlikerman, Jon Seidel, Tina Sfondeles, Sue Ontiveros