The Chicago chef Charlie Trotter had become such a culinary superstar in the 1990s that when the producers of the Julia Roberts romantic comedy “My Best Friend’s Wedding” were looking for someone to play a temperamental chef, they cast Trotter.
“I’m gonna kill your whole family if you don’t get this right,” Trotter bellows to an assistant. “I need this perfect!”
Whether you’ve been around long enough to remember the meteoric rise, long reign and tragic fall of Charlie Trotter, or you’re only vaguely familiar or utterly unaware of Trotter’s legacy, the documentary “Love, Charlie,” stands as the definitive look at the man’s life and times. Neither hagiography nor cold-plate dish, this is a solidly researched, well-photographed, crisply edited film that chronicles Trotter’s life with journalistic integrity, while providing fascinating glimpses into the “foodie” culture of the times, in Chicago and around the world.
The gifted Chicago director Rebecca Halpern sets the tone for “Love, Charlie” with footage of Trotter getting miked for an interview and noting, only semi-facetiously, “My philosophy has always been, if it weren’t for employees and it weren’t for customers, the restaurant business would be the greatest business in the world. And basically, I hate people.”
Except for when he was loving them. “Love, Charlie” paints a complex and nuanced portrait of a man who could be a hopeless romantic, who mentored dozens upon dozens of young talents, who is lauded as a wonderful friend and a dedicated father — but could also be enigmatic, mercurial, hot-tempered and dismissive of anyone he felt couldn’t meet his impossibly high standards.
Writer-director Halpern crafts the story in chronological fashion, drawing upon 8mm home movie footage of Trotter’s happy and comfortable childhood growing up on the North Shore; clips of Trotter making TV appearances with the likes of Julia Child and Gordon Ramsay and working his magic in the kitchen, and interviews with his mother, his sister, his first wife and a bevy of renowned colleagues.
We follow the young Chuck Trotter’s path as he finds jobs working at restaurants such as the Ground Round in Wilmette and the Monastery in Madison, Wisconsin, where he attended the University of Wisconsin and met his first wife, Lisa Ehrlich. After working at restaurants in San Francisco and Florida, Trotter eventually returned to Chicago, where in 1987 he told his recently retired businessman father, Bob, he was ready to open his own restaurant. With Bob as the financial backer, Chuck opened Charlie Trotter’s. (The thought was that “Chuck Trotter’s” sounded too much like a steakhouse.)
The concept was a tasting menu of 10 courses, with “no one focal point [as] everything builds,” Trotter explains. This was a groundbreaking approach for the mid-1980s, and Charlie Trotter’s was an immediate sensation, drawing throngs every night and earning raves from the media. “He was the first American kid to open a great restaurant, to be really fearless, to invent new things, to do new things,” says Wolfgang Puck.
We see footage of controlled chaos in the kitchen, and learn of Trotter’s single-minded determination, which eventually cost him his first marriage. A colleague recalls Trotter saying, “Some chefs have great marriages and others have great restaurants. I want to have a great restaurant.”
Throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, Charlie Trotter’s remained an international sensation, with customers flying in from all over the world and Trotter expanding his empire to include restaurants in Vegas and Cabo, a signature line of organic gourmet food products and more than a dozen books. Sadly, though, a letter Trotter’s father Bob had written to him a year before Bob’s death, warning his son about his temper and his demanding ways, turned out to be prescient. A revolving door of staffers would exit when they couldn’t stand the figurative heat in the kitchen.
In 2003, overworked employees who hadn’t been compensated for long hours filed a class-action lawsuit and received a total of more than $700,000 in back pay — but anyone who took a slice of settlement was essentially dead to Trotter. “Charlie was the hardest on himself,” says Emeril Lagasse. “[But] if mediocrity was in the air, he was going to destroy it.”
In 2012, after a run for the ages, Charlie Trotter’s finally closed. “Love, Charlie” illustrates how the next year was not kind to Charlie, as he suffered from health problems and was involved in some bizarre incidents, including allegedly selling a counterfeit bottle of wine for $46,000 and showing up at the site of his former restaurant and disrupting an after-school program. Even Trotter’s death in November of 2013 was the subject of scrutiny and speculation, with rumors of drug or alcohol abuse or a suicide. (The medical examiner’s office found cause of death to be a stroke.)
Friends and loved ones note that in addition to Charlie’s physical ailments, he seemed lost without his namesake and legendary home base. Laments the great chef Grant Achatz of Alinea fame, “When the restaurant closed, Charlie closed.”
This is one of the best documentaries of the year.