“Charlie Trotter changed Chicago’s restaurant scene forever and played a leading role in elevating the city to the culinary capital it is today,” Rahm Emanuel said in a statement following the legendary chef’s passing in November 2013. “Charlie’s personality mirrored his cooking — bold, inventive and always memorable.”
There are many who would agree with the mayor’s views; others would vehemently disagree. But, like the thousands of unique tastings he created at his namesake eatery for 25 years, Charlie Trotter was inarguably one of a kind.
And while much has been written about Trotter’s award-winning career and his culinary vision, a unique opportunity to get a glimpse at the man behind the public persona is tucked away in a surprisingly small exhibit at the City Gallery inside the historic Water Tower on North Michigan Avenue. Co-presented by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events and the Charlie Trotter Culinary Education Foundation, “Charlie Trotter: Chef, Artist, Thinker” is a slice of Trotter’s personal life — from books and photographs and kitchen items (such as his favorite red pot or first Boos cutting board), to the Golden Ticket: a most intriguing sampling from his personal notebooks, including sketches, notations and recipes. Want to know what Trotter was thinking? The penciled writings reveal a lot.
At the exhibit’s opening night, Rochelle Trotter was visibly emotional as she chatted about the items on display and the story they reveal about her husband.
“The story about him as a chef, the story about out the restaurant, that’s been told. I thought it was important for people to have a better understanding of him, what helped form him, not just as a chef but as a person, as a human being, as a man. To give people a peek behind that white chef coat into the man who would take a week to read a newspaper or read a book over and over again and find something new in it each time.”
‘Charlie Trotter: Chef, Artist, Thinker’
When: Through Sept. 7
Where: City Gallery in the Historic Water Tower, 806 N. Michigan
Gallery hours: daily, 10 a.m.-6:30 p.m.; holidays, 10 a.m.-4.pm.
“How did he form his philosophy, for instance, on this whole notion of the pursuit of excellence? Well, if you asked him, he’d point you to ‘The Fountainhead’ by Ayn Rand. He would say that from that book he realized that as humans we have an obligation to pursue excellence. And that’s where he got that real maniacal pursuit of excellence.”
“My husband was dyslexic, and not many people knew this about him. He would take a week to read one section of the Sunday paper, but boy if you threw that paper away before he was finished! But he had a massive book collection. He loved to read. He would read books over and over again and make notations in them because he would always find something new in what he had read.”
“He was going to go back to school not to earn a degree, but to pursue his passion on the philosophy of religion. He was probably the most spiritual person I know but he didn’t ascribe to any sort of formal religion. I remember one of our last conversations about philosophy. We were talking about Faulkner’s [iconic novel] ‘As I Lay Dying’ and he said, ‘What I really love about this book is it’s as if as he was penning the book he knew the end at the very beginning. That’s how I feel about my life.’ I wish to this day I had gone deeper in that conversation with him. … Two weeks later he passed away.”
“With the dyslexia, he figured out how to learn in a different way. He took a year off from school because he couldn’t keep up with the course work and the required reading. He came back with just a tenacious positivity that his goal in life was to be a culinarian.”
“When we got married in 2007 and I moved in and was cleaning out some drawers, I found this old, brown, rolled-up piece of paper. And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh what is this?’ It was his original menu from the restaurant from 1987, with his notations. He told me he was so nervous about it at the time because he thought $35 was too high of a check average. And that menu was a la carte! And I said Charles, ‘When you say the name Charlie Trotter’s, people equate that with one of the most expensive restaurant experiences in the world.’ And he just looked at me and said, “Rochelle, it was different time. Back then I had no idea I was going to evolve into where I am today.”
“Charles was his hardest critic. He wanted to continue to grow, and not to allow himself to be labeled. That’s why I have some of his personal notebooks in the exhibit. … On some pages you’ll see the same word written over and over again along with the definition, because he was challenging his dyslexia by committing things to memory. He had a photographic memory. I want kids to learn that you can learn! Don’t let the world put limitations on you and don’t limit yourself. Charles didn’t let that happen to him. He was brave enough to say he couldn’t keep up with the school work; he wasn’t a straight-A student. But he did finish. He found a way to work around the challenges.”
“He loved jazz. His dad, a trumpet player who started a jazz group in his younger years, is where Charles got his jazz influences from. He would say how one of his father’s favorite jazz musicians was Charlie Parker, and that’s for whom Charles was named. So you’ll see in the case over there this really old collection of CDs from his dad, as well a CD from Miles Davis who was by far Charles’ greatest jazz influence. Charles would always say if you ever saw Miles Davis play ‘Stella by Starlight’ or ‘My Funny Valentine,’ he never changed his lineup of instruments. But one night he might emphasize this instrument and the next night he might emphasize a different instrument, so it was the same instrument but a different emphasis put on it. Charles adapted that as the philosophy for his cuisine. We have friends and clients who probably enjoyed 100 meals, eight, ten, twelve courses, at the restaurant, but it was never the same meal twice. It might be the same group of ingredients but it put together in a way that was unrecognizable from anything they had had before. That was the jazz influence coming through.”
“I miss our quiet time. Everyone knew the busy, busy, busy Charlie, always working. I miss coming home and finding him with his legs thrown across the lazy boy, and I’m cuddling up in his lap and we’re debating the latest book he’s reading. And his laughter. He laughed all the time. He would say humor was the most important element in life. I miss those little things.”
“I miss the man who’d take me to go to Wieners Circle at 3 o’clock in the morning. He’d still have his business attire on he’d be standing in that line just mortified that the people serving up the food were just gonna go off on him with insults. But he really wanted his Char-Cheddar Polish! Then we’d go into the car ’round back and sit in the car and eat the hot dogs because he couldn’t wait till we got home. I miss my best friend.”
Posted on June 4, 2015.