Charlie Trotter to close his world-renowned Chicago eatery
BY JANET RAUSA FULLER Special to the Sun-Times January 1, 2012 12:06AM
Chef Charlie Trotter in the kitchen and in the dining room of his restaurant at 816 W. Armitage Friday, Dec. 30, 2011. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times
Updated: February 2, 2012 9:45AM
Charlie Trotter is calling it quits.
The celebrated Chicago chef told the Sun-Times in an exclusive interview that he will close his eponymous restaurant on Armitage in August, after 25 years in business.
Trotter, 52, is calling this a “sabbatical,” though. He plans to travel the world with his wife, Rochelle, and go back to school to study philosophy and political theory. He said he’s been accepted into three graduate programs, two in Chicago and one in California.
And once he completes his master’s degree, he says he will open another restaurant, though he says it’s far too early to say what sort of place it would be.
Trotter considered closing the restaurant before — after 9/11, when he watched from an airplane runway as the second plane hit the World Trade Center, and again five years ago — but the timing never felt right.
The decision isn’t a financial one, said Trotter, who owns and will keep the adjoining buildings at 816 W. Armitage that house the 120-seat restaurant and the studio kitchen. Trotter’s To Go, his takeout shop at 1337 W. Fullerton, will remain open.
“We’ve always been profitable, that’s for sure,” he said. “We’ve certainly slowed down like a lot of high-end restaurants, but we’ve always been able to make money. We’ve always been busy.
“I just had to put the flag in the sand and say I’ve got to go for this; otherwise, I never will. If I don’t go for something while I’m in the prime of my life and I have the means to do it, well, why wouldn’t I?”
On Saturday, Trotter hosted his usual New Year’s Eve blowout, a $295 walk-around affair where, if you’re so inclined, you could hang out all night by the caviar station. He announced his plans to guests at the party, and to staff earlier in the day. The restaurant has about 60 full-time employees.
Trotter opened Charlie Trotter’s on Aug. 17, 1987. Fine dining in Chicago had had a strictly French slant until this 27-year-old kid from Winnetka came along. Ever-changing multi-course menus, ingredients sourced from around the world and hyper-attentive service became his hallmarks. Scores of young cooks, now leading some of the hottest kitchens in the city, cut their teeth at Trotter’s. Recent years have seen the elder statesman overshadowed by those proteges, most notably Grant Achatz, whose Alinea restaurant — just a few blocks away — was awarded, for the second time, three Michelin stars to Trotter’s two.
“We’ve been around long enough. We know what we do,” Trotter said of the Michelin rating, no small feat for any restaurant but perceived as a snub by many in the culinary community.
Trotter’s other projects through the years have stumbled. His two Las Vegas restaurants closed in 2010 after two years, and planned restaurants in New York and in Chicago’s Elysian Hotel never saw the light of day.
Unlike many tweet-happy chefs, who have discovered the power of social media to build their brands, or at least some buzz, Trotter has shunned Facebook and Twitter entirely.
“Trotter, a leader left behind,” read the headline of a New York Times article in March.
The leader, however, a James Beard award winner 10 times over, sees it as leaving on top. No regrets.
“This is our chance to say let’s end this on a great note of 25 years,” he said. “A quarter century of running a restaurant — that’s a long time to do one thing.”
The next eight months will be packed. There will be special dinners in Chicago and in other cities — including with Trotter’s close friends, the chefs Alain Ducasse and David Bouley, who also have restaurants turning 25 — leading up to Aug. 31, the final day of service.
Until it closes, the restaurant will be open four days a week as opposed to five, “to make it a little bit more special,” Trotter said — no doubt making a reservation that much more difficult to get.
He will continue his consulting role with Holland America Cruise Line and other projects he didn’t divulge. He also is working on a cookbook, his 16th, to be published in September. But he already is looking forward to devouring a different sort of book.
“When’s the last time I sat on a beach and read The Brothers Karamazov?” Trotter said. “It’s time.”
Janet Rausa Fuller is the former food editor for the Chicago Sun-Times.