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harvey steiman at large

Memories of Charlie Trotter

Chicago's legendary chef showed the way for many others
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Nov 7, 2013 3:00pm ET

The news Tuesday stunned the food and wine world. Charlie Trotter, the legendary Chicago chef who, as much as anyone, defined modern fine dining in America, was dead. At 54, how could this be?

It turns out he had a secret. Although cause of death has yet to be determined, he had been diagnosed on January with an aneurysm deep inside his brain, according a statement issued by his widow, Rochelle. It was inoperable. But he refused to use his illness to play for sympathy, even after he closed his restaurant last year after a 25-year run. He said he wanted to pursue an advanced degree in philosophy and travel with Rochelle.

He had confided his illness only to a few close friends, who respected him and his privacy enough to keep it to themselves.

His accomplishments have been well-documented in the past few days. In 1987, at the age of 27, he opened his eponymous restaurant in a remodeled Chicago townhouse far from other restaurants. In 1988 he set up a dining table in his kitchen, by all accounts the first chef's table in America, and it became a coveted reservation. Realizing that only a few diners were ordering from the à la carte side of the menu, he simply eliminated it and offered only two multicourse chef's menus, one of them entirely vegetarian, another first. He was doing farm-to-table cuisine before the term was invented.

He wrote cookbooks. He did a very good, if typically cerebral, television program, Kitchen Sessions with Charlie Trotter, on PBS. In 2000 he was the first prominent chef to stop serving foie gras. And then later, when Chicago was considering a ban on foie gras, he defended others' rights to serve it.

He had a reputation as a tough disciplinarian, a perfectionist. But I never encountered a quieter or more efficient kitchen than Trotter's. Cooks and chefs worked in near-silence. No one barked orders. The choreography was breathtaking to watch. The results had the same quiet grace as the choreography. Trotter was not one for crazy flavor combinations. He simply sought out delicious ingredients, insisted on drawing out their own natural flavors, and found creative ways to put them together without building weird constructions on the plate.

And then he made sure it all was framed by impeccable service, elegant surroundings and, most of all, great wine. Trotter was among the very few great chefs who made wine an integral, inseparable part of what he did and, with sommelier Larry Stone amassing a stunning collection, the restaurant's wine list earned a Wine Spectator Grand Award in 1993. By that time, Trotter had purchased the house next door, in part to accommodate two more wine cellars.

This emphasis on wine also led Trotter to tweak his recipes to match the wine on the table. "For the five years Larry was here, 20 or 30 times a night he would come running into the kitchen, saying, ‘Stop, Charlie, don't plate that dish. I thought this guy was going to order a different wine, but the one he chose needs more lettuce in the dish, maybe a bit more butter,'" Trotter recalled in a 2011 Wine Spectator story. "It was like a master class in food-and-wine pairing."

Most chefs expect the sommelier to find an appropriate wine match for a preset dish. Trotter took a different approach. "The wine is fixed, it's there, and we can adapt the food to it easily. It's not that [the match] has to be perfect, but I will do anything to make it a better experience for the guest. That's what it's all about."

He organized his 1997 cookbook, Charlie Trotter's Seafood, according to the wine type to serve with each dish. The chapter headings started with Champagne and ran to Syrah, with stops along the way for the likes of Riesling, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Near as I can tell, that made him the first prominent chef to base a cookbook on wine.

While other celebrity chefs created culinary empires that spread across the country, even the world, Trotter never did. Not that he didn't try. He took a stab at Las Vegas in 1994, before the big boom in that city's dining scene. Charlie Trotter's in the MGM Grand was ahead of its time, and it closed within a year.

I never got there, but I marveled at what he did with his second effort in Las Vegas, which opened in early 2008. Restaurant Charlie and Bar Charlie took seafood to unheard-of heights. The restaurant served meltingly tender veal cheeks with blocks of seared hamachi, the sort of thing that seems surprising until you taste it and wonder why no one thought of it before. The attached Bar Charlie was an upscale sushi bar, where Trotter installed a brilliant young talent, Hiroo Nagahara. The chef's table was in a loft above the kitchen, where diners could get a bird's eye view of their dishes being prepared. But the economy went pear-shaped later in 2008, and the enterprise closed in March 2010.

Much careful design and work went into C at the One & Only Palmilla in Los Cabos, Mexico, which lasted for five years (2003–2008) and not only raised the level of dining, but also installed the most extensive wine cellar in the area. Trotter also was supposed to have one of the prime spots alongside Per Se and Masa at the Time Warner Center in New York, but as pre-opening costs spiraled out of control, he pulled the plug on that project.

But Trotter's influence was not defined by how many restaurants he had, but by the complete experience at the townhouse on Armitage Street in Chicago. When it was hitting on all cylinders, it was an unforgettable adventure. For the would-be philosophy student, it was always about the power of his ideas.

Adam Lee
Sonoma County, CA —  November 7, 2013 3:31pm ET
Many years ago, when still new in the wine business, Dianna and I had the occasion to go to Charlie Trotters restaurant. We went with two other young winemakers, and with a young wine salesperson. None of us had much money, but we had all saved up for a big night out. When we got there we were handed the menus...one set menu on the left side and one on the right side, along with the wine list, and we were trying to figure out what to order and what wine we could afford to drink. We were so engrossed in the menus that we didn't notice the man standing over the table. He introduced himself by saying, "Hi, I'm Charlie, and I'd like to cook for you tonight, if that is okay." He then went around the table, shook our hands, and told each of us how much he liked our wines, etc. We truly couldn't believe it.

He also sent over the sommelier with the instruction to tell him how much we wanted to spend on wines, and he'd work with him on the pairings within our budget.

Needless to say, it remains one of the greatest meals of our lives. We ended the evening with Charlie giving us a tour of the kitchen and of the wine cellar. I often tell this story...and of how much it meant to us all.

Charlie Trotter will truly be missed.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  November 7, 2013 4:08pm ET
A beautiful story, Adam. Thanks for sharing it.
Michael Bonanno
Bolton —  November 11, 2013 1:01am ET
Harvey, well said as always. . .
Larry Stone
Napa, CA  —  February 19, 2014 12:46pm ET
Thank you, Harvey, for such a beautiful tribute to Charlie.

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