Charlie Trotter is out and Jean-Georges Vongerichten in at the One & Only Palmilla, one of the top luxury resorts in Mexico, but that's only half the story.
A terse announcement earlier this week from Palmilla, the posh resort in Los Cabos, said that Trotter's five-year contract to run C, the featured restaurant there, would not be renewed when it expires in September. Vongerichten would install a "new concept" there. But the Chicago-based chef, a Wine Spectator Grand Award winner for his eponymous restaurant there, is not getting out of the hotel dining business. In fact, he's jumping in even deeper, with a brand-new hotel brand called Elysian.
The first Elysian hotel, with 188 guest rooms and 51 private residences, is nearing completion in Chicago at Rush and Oak streets, about one block west of the Four Seasons. Trotter will be responsible for all the food and beverage there, including casual restaurants and room service. One of his goals is to have a wine list good enough to win a Wine Spectator Grand Award within two years.
"We had a great relationship with the people involved with One & Only," he said by telephone from Chicago. "It was a difficult decision to give that up, but part of our deal with them was that we could not do another hotel in Mexico, and Elysian has plans to do one." Elysian has plans to open similar hotels in Aspen, San Francisco and Tokyo, Trotter added.
What sold Trotter on throwing in with Elysian was David Pisor, CEO and founding partner of the hotel company. "His aunt is Alice Waters," Trotter said. "He worked at Chez Panisse for a while, and he understands how important fine food and wine is. He's willing to go all out. We're on the same page."
Trotter is impressed with Pisor's plan to make Elysian's service the best among American hotels, including full-scale butler service and a system that allows a guest to arrive, do anything in the hotel and depart without ever checking in at a desk or seeing a bill until it arrives in the mail.
"We're not going to have mini-bottles in the mini-bar either," says Trotter. "You want a nice glass of wine with your room service, it will be something special."
When Elysian opens in early 2009, Trotter plans to move his entire Chicago staff over to the hotel while his flagship restaurant undergoes a remodel. Three months later, half the staff will return. His model for this plan is what Thomas Keller did in 2005 when he opened Per Se in New York and closed French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., for an upgrade. That worked out pretty well for both restaurants.
But Keller wasn't trying to compete with himself in the same city. In 2009, Trotter will have two upscale restaurants in Chicago, both trying to be the best in town. Part of the reason he decided to do this, he explained, is that review after review of the next hot restaurants in Chicago trumpet a chef whose resumé includes a stint at Charlie Trotter's.
"They're my competition now," Trotter said. "But I'd rather keep all that talent with me by giving them someplace to shine, and then we all prosper." That's part of the reason chefs with extensive empires, such as Wolfgang Puck, Mario Batali, Emeril Lagasse and Vongerichten, are doing so well. Trotter is late to this game, but he made a start with C five years ago, and with Restaurant Charlie in Las Vegas, which opened at the Palazzo earlier this year. (I reviewed the latter in the July 31, 2008 issue of Wine Spectator.)
The big question is my mind is whether there are enough rich people willing to pay what this sort of service will cost. Maybe they are unaffected by the current economy, but it seems like an audacious time to go after this kind of a prize.
Tony Wood — Brighton U.K. — August 2, 2008 5:34am ET
Sips & Tips | Wine & Healthy Living
Video Theater | Collecting & Auctions