Chicago chefs react to news of Charlie Trotter’s closing
BY KIM JANSSEN Staff Reporter January 1, 2012 7:46PM
Chef Charlie Trotter at his restaurant at 816 W. Armitage last December. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times
Updated: February 3, 2012 8:14AM
He put Chicago on the culinary map.
Whether they woke up with hangovers or a spring in their step, that was the New Years’ Day reaction of some of the city’s top chefs to the news that Charlie Trotter plans to close his world-renowned eponymous restaurant after 25 years.
“He put us on the food map worldwide,” Urban Belly and Belly Shack chef Bill Kim said after the Sun-Times broke the news that Charlie Trotter’s on Armitage will close in August so that Trotter can study for a master’s degree in philosophy and political theory.
Kim, one of many kitchen stars who cut their teeth working under Trotter, said that even after he left Trotter’s restaurant and went it alone, “wherever I went, from the East Coast to the West Coast, even in Singapore, [Charlie] was the first thing people ask me about.”
The sky-high prices at Trotter’s restaurant — often ranked one of the world’s best — meant most Chicagoans never got the chance to taste his pioneering food-and-wine pairings or tasting menus. But the Winnetka native’s efforts to develop a modern American cuisine that replaced French cooking as the choice of chic diners means the city ought to be proud of him, his longtime sous-chef and chef de cuisine Matthias Merges of Yusho said.
“He took risks and he stayed true to what he believed in,” said Merges. “He’s definitely been a pillar in the foundation of American cuisine. People undervalue that.”
Curtis Duffy, who runs the kitchen at Grace, said that the three years he worked for the perfectionist Trotter were “the hardest I’ve ever worked.” He’s sad Trotter’s is closing but glad that his former boss, who has won 10 James Beard Awards, is going out on top and will pursue other interests. “It’s amazing to have operated at that level for 25 years,” Duffy said.
Trotter’s occasionally sharp elbows saw him clash publicly over the city’s foie gras ban in 2005 with friend and onetime rival chef Rick Tramonto, whose liver he once suggested was “fat enough” to provide “a little treat” for diners. But Tramonto said Sunday that he “always had the utmost respect for Charlie,” comparing Trotter to basketball great Michael Jordan. “He started it all in Chicago,” Tramonto said.
News of the closure came as a shock to former Bon Appetit magazine editor Barbara Fairchild, who now edits online food magazine Real Eats.
“In a way it’s like him to want to do something like this: He’s an interesting guy with an inquisitive, restless mind,” she said. “He has been a mentor to so many. I do hope he really does come back with another restaurant in the future.
“It would be fascinating to see what he comes up with for the next chapter.”
While chefs owed their starts to Trotter, Carrie Nahabedian — whose Naha is an established Chicago fine-dining stalwart — helped Trotter on his way, when she recommended him for a job at Sinclair’s on the North Shore in 1982.
When Nahabedian interviewed him, she was struck by the young wannabe chef’s “good hands,” she said. “Everything he did was very thoughtful and had a purpose,” she said.
“I’m sure that whatever he does next will be a meaningful extension of what he’s done for the last 25 years, and I’m going to eat at his restaurant as often as possible this year.”