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A Farewell to Trotter

KevHickey | Phoby LarKastner

Kevin Hickey | Photo by Lara Kastner

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Updated: October 1, 2012 5:45PM

W hen I was “coming up” in the restaurant business as a very young cook in Chicago, there was one name that dominated any discussion of becoming a chef: Charlie Trotter.

Back then, there were very few options for culinary school and being a chef carried nowhere near the cachet it carries today. In my family, it was expected that I would attend whatever university I could manage to get myself into, and if by some miracle I became a doctor, lawyer, professor (or if all attempts at a respectable vocation failed, a politician), then I would have appeared to have succeeded. But, from a very early age I wanted to cook.

I struggled with my desire to cook and the life of a chef. It was far from glamorous and not particularly well paid at the time. But thanks to Trotter, times — and perceptions — were changing. He continued to gain national attention and notoriety. I watched, read and dined, and was continually inspired.

I remember living and cooking in San Francisco when his first book came out in 1994. It was like a rock star releasing his first album; every cook I knew had a copy. We had never seen a cookbook like it! Stunning photos, intricate techniques and beautiful binding all came together to become an iconic addition to the library of great cookbooks like

Ma Cuisine by Fernand Point, White Heat by Marco Pierre White and Cooking with the Seasons by Jean Louis Palladin. Trotter, along with his contemporaries at the time like Jean Joho, Gabino Sotelino and Fernand Gutierrez, changed the way people thought of chefs.

What set him apart from those great chefs was that not only was he American, but he didn’t have that pedigree of working his way up for 20 years in the grand kitchens of Europe — yet was still considered a visionary. This was transformative for me. It broke the rules in that it leveled the playing field a bit.

Television shows and social media have really taken the culinary world to a different level and exposed so many more to cooking, but it’s important to remember how restaurateurs like Trotter took the profession of “chef” from a blue-collar, underappreciated worker to the status it carries today.

I’ve dined at Trotter’s, but here are the experiences with him I cherish the most: A lifelong Chicagoan, before I landed my dream job here, I worked in the kitchens of the Four Seasons Beverly Hills, Dublin and London. And when I was working in other cities and Trotter would make an appearance at an event, he would always find me. When I came home to Chicago, he was the first to send me a personal note of congratulations. He continued those personal notes every time I enjoyed a serious mention in the media until his last note, which said: I’m not sending you any more notes because I’m running out of paper.

Twenty-five years for a restaurant is an astounding feat, but Charlie, there isn’t enough room in this paper to list all of your accomplishments. Though I never worked for you, your presence is felt in every kitchen in Chicago, including mine. And I want to thank you and let you know: You are the reason I’m a chef.

Kevin Hickey donated his fee for writing this column to Common Threads.

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