8 reasons Charlie Trotter was special for Chicago dining

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Charlie Trotter | Sun-Times File Photo

8 tenets that made the Chicago chef such defining dining source

From the very beginning, chef Charlie Trotter had a set of guiding principles. He never wavered from them, no matter what anyone outside his legendary restaurant was saying.

“He stayed extremely true to what he believed, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing,” says Paul Bartolotta, whose restaurants include Ristorante Bartolotta in Wauwatosa, Wis., as well as Bartolotta’s Ristorante di Mare in Las Vegas. “A lot of artists are criticized for saying, ‘This is who I am.’ He was an artist.”

Trotter, 54, died Tuesday at Northwestern Memorial Hospital after he was found unresponsive at his Lincoln Park home. An autopsy Wednesday was inconclusive, and a final determination of the cause and manner of death is pending additional tests, including a toxicology analysis, according to a spokesman for the Cook County medical examiner’s office. No signs of trauma or foul play were found. The tests are expected to take six to eight weeks.

A public memorial for Trotter will be held at 10 a.m. Monday at Fourth Presbyterian Church, 126 E. Chestnut, just off Michigan Avenue.

Here are the eight essentials that Trotter followed, and why they mattered, many from those who knew him best: his fellow chefs.

Use the very best food: Today’s menus days make a big deal about ingredients that are locally produced or from purveyors the chef has personally selected. But from the beginning, Trotter made it his mission to find the best ingredients — mainly local but he wasn’t afraid to go beyond the usual suppliers to get them. “It was really just about the best ingredients. If the local guy could get him the best stuff, he went with the local guy,” says Homaru Cantu, who worked for Trotter before going on to start his own restaurants, moto and iNG. “But when you’re Charlie Trotter and you can spend $7,000 on a Friday for truffles, well, the guy in France is going to give you the best truffles. … It was all about quality.”

Strive for perfection: Too many people talk about Trotter’s obsession with getting things right. That eye for detail brought excellence. “He was just passionate about what he wanted to do,” says Heaven on Seven’s chef Jimmy Bannos Sr. “He made sure there was no excuse of, well, I can’t get it this good. It’s only 99 percent, it’s not 100 percent. No, no. He would throw the fricking plate down. ‘We want it 100 percent. Let’s go.’ I learned a lot from that.”

Bring the kitchen to the customer: Everyone has eaten at a restaurant with a full view of the action in the kitchen. And how did that begin? Here’s a clue on how the kitchen table at Trotter’s came to be, from renowned chef Gale Gand. It all started with a discussion on the lack of a social life for her and her ex-husband and fellow chef Rick Tramonto: “We never get a night off, and even if we do get a night off, we never have clothes to wear to a fancy restaurant like yours. Can you stick us near the kitchen door or something? And Charlie said, ‘You know what, I’ve always wanted to serve someone in the kitchen. Why don’t you guys come and we’ll do a kitchen table, and I’ll serve you in there so you don’t have to worry about what to wear?’ ” Gand and Tramonto were the first kitchen table customers at Trotter’s.

Give the best service: Trotter knew it wasn’t just the food that brought customers back. Service was a hallmark of the dining experience. “[The service] was all about precision, and what [is set down] in front of you,” said chef Rick Bayless of Topolobampo and Frontera Grill. “His service was more in the classic style.”

Mentor other chefs: Trotter didn’t operate in a vacuum. Encouraging the chefs who worked for him as well as other chefs was an essential part of his role. “He opened our eyes, and our ears and our hearts to a whole other world of cooking, people of culture,” says Trotter alumnus David LeFevre, chef of MB Post. “For my life, one of the most powerful things he ever did was he assemble a group of people here to work with, to look next to you and to be able to inspire you as well.” Fellow James Beard Award winner Shawn McClain remembers: “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.”

Wine is important: Hard liquor with dinner wasn’t Trotter’s thing. He thought it interfered with the food. But wine — that was another matter. He built a wine cellar that was well-known across the globe.

Never stop trying new things: Tasting menus. A vegetarian course. Raw foods. Charlie Trotter was at the beginning of these innovations. And despite the success he achieved, he never rested on his laurels. Remember, his namesake menu had a different menu for 25 years. (Let that sink in; you and I can’t go two weeks without serving chicken again for dinner.) Moto’s Cantu recalls, “Charlie always had a saying and it always stuck with me. He would come into the kitchen and say: ‘This is a perfect opportunity to do something.’ ”

Be charitable: Trotter gave of his time and talents to a number of charitable initiatives. His foundation has raised more than $3 million used as culinary scholarships. In 2012, the James Beard Foundation named him Humanitarian of the Year. “He was a great philanthropist as well as a humanitarian,” says Art Smith of Table Fifty-Two and “Top Chef Masters” fame. “He taught us to use food as way to bring people together, that we could do great things, could share. He was the man who gave us the inspiration to do great things.”

Also contributing: Mike Thomas, Miriam Di Nunzio, Meg Moore, Peter Holderness, Laura Pavin.


Here are additional stories on Charlie Trotter’s life:

Bill Zwecker: Only last Tuesday when I crossed paths with Charlie Trotter’s wife, Rochelle at Fox 32 — we chatted about plans to get together. “Charlie is so excited to be going back to school in January,” Rochelle said with a smile. “Maybe you can come over to our house and we’ll cook dinner together,” she added.

Neil Steinberg:Charlie Trotter found the fame and success that many chefs set out to find but never grasp. He gave pleasure to countless Chicagoans, his namesake restaurant forming the frame for cherished celebrations and events.

First restaurant review: In October 1987, Sun-Times restaurant critic, the late Pat Bruno, reviewed the newest and most anticipated restaurant in Chicago — Charlie Trotter’s on West Armitage. Here is that 3.5 star review in its entirety, including the original — highly prophetic — headline: “A truly original restaurant destined for great success”

19th anniversary dinner: The restaurant usually is closed on Sunday. But tonight, it will open its doors to 104 people, many of them flying in from across the country, each of whom has paid $650 to toast the restaurant’s 19th anniversary.

Remembering Trotter: In the recently released documentary “Spinning Plates,”  critically acclaimed Chicago Chef Grant Achatz (Alinea, Next, Aviary) remembers his early mentor.

Trotter’s class: A lot of things distinguish Charlie Trotter’s from other restaurants: the 1999 James Beard Foundation Outstanding Chef Award for the nation won by its namesake chef, Charlie Trotter ; its recent designation by the editors of Wine Spectator magazine as the top-rated restaurant in the nation, and about once a week, a big, yellow school bus parked in front of this world-class restaurant.

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