Charlie Trotter was wonderful for Chicago
Editorials November 5, 2013 2:36PM
7-30-2006---An evening at Charlie Trotter's.| Sun-Times file photo
Updated: November 8, 2013 9:32AM
To do something exceptionally well in this world before we leave it, maybe that’s enough.
Charlie Trotter, as one instant obituary after another said Tuesday, “put Chicago on the map” of fine dining towns, not just for Americans with sophisticated palates and considerable disposable income, but also for visitors from around the world. He was among the very first to deliver a culinary experience in this former cow town that rivaled that of any restaurant anywhere, demanding an almost impossibly high standard of himself and his often harried staff.
A typical “grand menu” at Charlie Trotter’s, the famed restaurant he opened on Armitage Avenue in 1987, might be Maine bluefin tuna with seawater and wasabi, followed by chilled Snow Lake trout with watercress, Louisiana crayfish and Indian celery, and then Four Story Hill Farm quail with chorizo, spring onions and clover.
Then (yes, there is more) would come Maine Day lobster with elephant garlic and grilled eagle rock oyster, followed by Elysian Fields lamb shoulder with toasted buckwheat, cumin and sheep’s milk ricotta.
To be followed (yes, more) by Nigorizake sorbet with pear and jasmine rice, and then Okinawan sweet potato with sweet stout and vanilla marshmallow.
And (finally) there would be Venezuelan chocolate custard with kaffir lime, grilled cactus and agavero jelly.
And here’s the craziest part: Trotter never repeated himself. Within a day or two or three, he would change the whole menu.
Beginning roughly in the 1980s, Chicago began a steady climb up the ladder of worldly sophistication and prominence, led by such Chicagoans and institutions as Mayor Richard M. Daley, Steppenwolf Theatre, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Oprah, Michael Jordan — and Charlie Trotter.
Not only did visitors stop looking around for Al Capone, they learned to expect fancier dining fare than a steak or deep-dish pizza.
Trotter saw his place in Chicago’s cultural firmament in just that way. When he announced last year that he would be closing his restaurant, he said, “After 25 years, Mayor Daley said I’m taking a hiatus here, and after 25 years in Chicago Oprah said, I’m ready for something different. So I guess I’m following their lead a little bit.”
Let us be clear — to borrow a pet phrase from President Barack Obama, another Chicagoan who put the city on the map — Trotter was temperamental and difficult. No secret there. He had an enormous self-regard and was not thrilled when the spotlight of the restaurant world shifted to others.
But Trotter was also generous and kind and, for that matter, far from oblivious to his own failings. His charity, the Charlie Trotter Culinary Education Foundation, created in 1999, has raised more than $1 million to award to young men and women seeking careers in the culinary arts. Many of the lucky recipients have been Chicago public school kids.
For his foundation’s work, Trotter was honored at the White House by President George W. Bush.
Charlie Trotter, an artist before all else, was wonderful for Chicago.
And what we wouldn’t give right now for one of those Venezuelan chocolate custards.