News that Chef Charlie Trotter is closing his eponymous Chicago restaurant after 25 years of business caused much hand-wringing in Chicago, but a resounding “So?” from many other quarters. Despite Trotter’s illustrious history, his restaurant declined just in time for the ascendance of “eating” as America’s national obsession.
This was a guy who refused to have a Facebook page or open a Twitter account (or even to hire a danged ghostwriter; Charlie, ghost Twitterers were in a New York Times article in 2009! 2009!). So you may be forgiven for not remembering such Trotter high points as:
1987 Charlie Trotter opens up eponymous restaurant in a converted townhouse in Lincoln Park, Chicago. He almost immediately gains a reputation for terrific, innovative food. And the most control-freakiest reputation this side of Stalin.
“He’s been known to give cooks reading assignments (Ayn Rand, for instance). … For a while Trotter instructed his wait staff to wear double-sided tape on their shoe soles so they could de-lint the new carpet as they delivered the food. If a guest complimented a server’s tie, former employees recalled, Trotter required the server to place it into a box and offer it as a gift — even though Trotter might reimburse the server only a fraction of the tie’s actual cost.” — Mark Caro, The Foie Gras Wars: How a 5,000-Year-Old Delicacy Inspired the World’s Fiercest Food Fight
1989 Enamored of European-style menus where the selection changes daily, Trotter introduces degustation menus to Chicago, including a widely praised vegetarian menu.
“Noticing that most restaurants tended to cobble together a plate full of side dishes and odds and ends when confronted with vegetarian customers, he rose to the challenge and raised the bar significantly. … Though surely he knew that many of his vegetable offerings would taste a lot better married to a fat lardon of bacon, or tossed in duck fat, like most great chefs through history, he made the very best of limited options.” — Anthony Bourdain, The Nasty Bits
1989 Long before chef’s tables are a trend, Trotter puts a linen-draped dining table in his kitchen.
“In the heat of battle, Trotter sometimes forgets for a moment that guests sit a few feet away. A sloppily presented dish, a gaffe in service will trigger the chef’s extended vocabulary.” — Chicago Tribune
1995 Charlie Trotter’s begins to get a reputation for being laughably fancy.
“Esquire a few years ago wondered why a dish such as ‘bob-white quail over Hokkaido squash puree with white-corn grits strewn with foie gras and poached quail egg with mushroom sauce and squab’ just sounds like something you hit with your car?” — Chicago Tribune
1996 Trotter is voted second-meanest Chicagoan by local magazine, right behind Michael Jordan.
“Then there’s Charlie Trotter, the restaurateur who is dubbed the ‘high priest of perfection.’ Trotter’s response: ‘When you come to work at Charlie Trotter’s, you basically give up your life to the pursuit of perfection. It’s so extreme, it might be perverse.'” — Chicago Tribune
2002 Trotter quits serving foie gras at his restaurant, one of the first well-known chefs to do so.
“Not so long ago, when Chicago chef Charlie Trotter was defending the rights of geese and ducks to hold onto their engorged livers, a short term ban of foie gras ensued but I kept thinking, ‘I’ll listen to what he says about bird care when I hear he’s nicer to his line cooks.'” — restaurant consultant and radio food talk show host Clark Wolf
2005 Trotter’s alumni start opening restaurants: Grant Achatz opens Alinea, Homaro Cantu opens Moto, Mindy Segal opens Hot Chocolate.
2006 Chicago City Council briefly bans foie gras in restaurants, igniting local flap.
When asked by the Chicago Tribune in 2005 how he felt about Chicago chef Rick Tramonto’s criticism of those who spoke up against foie gras, Trotter said: “Rick Tramonto’s not the smartest guy on the block. Yeah, animals are raised to be slaughtered, but are they raised in a way where they need to suffer? He can’t be that dumb, is he? It’s like an idiot comment. ‘All animals are raised to be slaughtered.’ Oh, OK. Maybe we ought to have Rick’s liver for a little treat. It’s certainly fat enough.” — Chicago Tribune
2007 Charlie Trotter’s 20th anniversary causes fellow chef to blow town.
In honor of the 20th anniversary of his Chicago resty, Trotter hosts a series of dinners, including one at Schwa. The pressure of serving Trotter, Ferran Adrià, Heston Blumenthal, and other culi-luminaries apparently gets to Chef Michael Carlson: “The day after the dinner — with a full refrigerator and a full reservation book — Carlson disappeared.” — Chicago Tribune
2008 After several years of fizzled attempts to open Trotter’s outposts in other locations, Trotter opens Restaurant Charlie and Bar Charlie in the Palazzo Resort, Hotel, and Casino on the Vegas strip. By 2010 both are shuttered.
“‘We were supposed to be by the baccarat tables, but they put us in front of the penny slots and under an escalator bank,’ [Trotter] said. ‘And then we weren’t drawing enough business.’ But there remains a perception that there’s more to these off-site fizzles — that Mr. Trotter is a perfectionist control freak, temperamentally ill-equipped to delegate and collaborate.” — New York Times
2011 Michelin publishes its first guide to Chicago restaurants. Alinea gets three stars, Charlie Trotter’s gets two.
“‘I’d be lying if I said I don’t feel sad about that,’ [says Graham Elliot of Chicago restaurant Graham Elliot]. ‘I mean, I wanted to quit every day I worked there, but I’m proud that I got through it, and in some ways I look at Charlie as my father. To see him getting two stars instead of three, and not getting any articles or anything, it makes you feel bad — like seeing your dad lose his job.’” — New York Times
2011 New York Times writes devastating account of Trotter’s rise and fall, “Charlie Trotter, a Leader Left Behind.”
“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, with the spotlight trained upon alumni of Mr. Trotter’s kitchen like Mr. Achatz, Homaro Cantu (of Moto), Giuseppe Tentori (of Boka), and Graham Elliot (of Graham Elliot), the man who put the city on the fine-dining map has somehow fallen below the radar.” — New York Times
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