Two Las Vegas/Chicago chefs remember Charlie Trotter

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Charlie Trotter’s fan base no doubt spans the world. That includes Las Vegas, where Trotter unsuccessfully launched two eateries, but where transplanted Chicago chefs remember him with the greatest of esteem.

In 2008, Chef Paul Bartolotta joined then Mayor Daley for Gourmet Chicago in Millennium Park. Bartolotta remembered his old friend Charlie Trotter as a innovator and perfectionist. | SUN-TIMES PHOTO

Chef Paul Bartolotta, who from 1991 was the executive chef and managing partner of Chicago’s Spiaggia restaurant, and who now helms his Bartolotta Ristorante Di Mare at the Wynn Resort in Las Vegas, expressed his shock and sadness today about the passing of his longtime friend, Charlie Trotter.

“I would invariably fly in two times a year to eat [at Charlie Trotter’s], Bartolotta said. “… I can’t pick a favorite because I never had the same thing twice. The menu changed every day!”

“When I was in town, he would come out regularly to eat with me at Spiaggia. He came and did many charity events with me up in Milwaukee [where Bartolotta’s restaurants include Bartolotta’s Lake Park Bistro; Bacchus; The Rumpus Room Gastropub, among others]. … He put Chicago on the [culinary] map. There’s nobody else that did it. Not to take away from Rick [Bayless] and Paul [Kahan], but Charlie really was the first to bring international consumer food attention to Chicago. It was his passion for wine and food. His attention to detail. His unrelenting passion for perfection.”

Asked what he thought Mr. Trotter’s greatest contribution to gastronomy was, Bartolotta said: “He did modern American food. He took French technique and really clean presentation of food and married the two to create a ‘Charlie style’ of food. When you look at his books and the progressive work he did, there’s a style in his cooking that reflected who he was. He understood that in a very small restaurant [Trotter’s sat 120 persons], to offer a very large menu was going to be very hard to control and achieve that level of perfection that he absolutely had to have. So he said, “I’m gonna do this set menu, vegetarian and regular. And that was it. He stayed extremely true to what he believed and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. A lot of artists are criticized for saying, “This is who I am.” He was an artist.”

Chef Shawn McClain, (formerly of Evanston’s Trio, Spring, and still the toque behind Chicago’s Green Zebra), who currently helms both Sage, and the Five50 Pizza Bar restaurants inside the Aria CityCenter Resort, also remembered Mr. Trotter with deep fondness and respect.

“Charlie was a huge influence to me because when I got out of school, he was well on his way to setting his mark nationally and internationally,” McClain said from his Michigan home. “When I was at Trio and then when I started Spring in 2001, he was always a big supporter. Whether it was emotional support or just a note or letter of support, he was always so kind. When he dined at Spring or Green Zebra, I was always humbled and honored.”

Chef Shawn McClain spoke Tuesday of Charlie Trotter’s contribution to both the Chicago and Las Vegas culinary landscape.

“It’s so sad because the way the world works is that it’s not until you don’t have something that you really reflect on it and appreciate it,” McClain continued. “Just in terms of bringing international focus to Chicago. And then in terms of bringing all the great chefs from Europe to his restaurant and then inviting people in the industry, chefs like me, to dine for lunch and expose us to the greats, the three-star Michelins from Europe. It was just amazing.”

When asked what Mr. Trotter’s greatest contribution to gastronomy was, McClain had this to say: In retrospect, it’s what we take for granted these days — excellence and commitment. If you look back 25 years, those words weren’t around [in the culinary world]. He brought them to Chicago’s culinary scene, to his restaurant, to build something that stood the test of time. His sense of style, his commitment to flawless service. He was inspired by the greats of Europe and absorbed that idea of what it takes to be at that level.”

As for his two forays into the Las Vegas dining scene, both McClain and Bartolotta called it a combination of bad timing and Mr. Trotter being way ahead of his time in the desert city. In 1994, Mr. Trotter opened Charlie Trotter’s at the MGM Grand, but closed it one year later as the restaurant business model for the resort was being revamped. In 2008, Mr. Trotter returned to the Las Vegas dining scene with Restaurant Charlie at the Palazzo Resort. Despite winning a coveted Michelin star and the James Beard Award for best new restaurant in 2008, the tony eatery was forced to close two years later as the recession hit Las Vegas hard.

“It was such an unfortunate case of bad timing for him in Las Vegas,” McClain said. “He was so ahead of the curve the first time with MGM that people weren’t ready for it. People’s focus out here was still on gaming and entertainment. The second time, with Charlie’s at the Palazzo, it was bad luck timing again. It was the height of the recession. People just weren’t spending their vacation dollars out here like before. But it was a beautiful restaurant. I had the pleasure of sitting down for a 30-course amazing dinner there after a James Beard event shortly before it closed. It was incredible.”

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