Just after midnight on New Year's Day, Charlie Trotter walked to the counter near the wine cellar in his eponymous Chicago restaurant and asked for guests' attention. With his wife, Rochelle, by his side, Trotter announced that he will be closing Charlie Trotter's in August, just as it celebrates 25 years as one of America's greatest restaurants. The room was understandably awestruck, then the diners began clapping, paying tribute to their chef.
Trotter, 52, insists this is a sabbatical. A political science major who routinely cites writers like Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Ayn Rand, Trotter plans to study philosophy and political theory. He told the Chicago Sun-Times that he has been accepted into three graduate programs. He also plans to travel with his wife and enjoy some time off. “I just had to put the flag in the sand and say I’ve got to go for this; otherwise, I never will," he told the Sun-Times. "If I don’t go for something while I’m in the prime of my life and I have the means to do it, well, why wouldn’t I?” He owns the townhouse the 120-seat restaurant calls home and he said that when he finishes his studies he will open a new restaurant, though he provided no further details.
If the announcement proved surprising, it was trademark Trotter. His entire career has been defined by his willingness to pursue his own path. He fell in love with cooking while working in a restaurant during college. With little culinary training, he began working in various restaurants full-time at age 23. Just four years later, he opened Charlie Trotter's in its current location in a northern Chicago neighborhood.
Because America's dining scene has come so far in 25 years, it has become easy to forget what a pioneer Trotter was, especially in the Midwest. He was among the first to popularize tasting menus and was an early advocate for cooking with fresh, seasonal ingredients. He offered vegetarian menus and even a raw menu for guests. He was unafraid to take controversial stands—in 2002, he took foie gras off his menu. But when the Chicago city council later passed a ban, he spoke out against it, arguing it wasn't a politician's job to legislate eating habits.
Trotter’s career path diverged from those of many of his celebrated peers, who built small empires of restaurants around the globe. Though he did open several other restaurants, in Las Vegas and Los Cabos in Mexico, none of them flourished, and in the end he remained steady at the stoves of his Chicago flagship. While some critics considered this a failure on his part, Trotter seemed more concerned about maintaining high standards and personal consistency than in the fame and money that could be gained through expansion.
Trotter has been a consistent champion for excellent wine service. In 1993, Charlie Trotter's won a Wine Spectator Grand Award and has kept it since. The 1,800-selection list, built on a cellar of more than 7,000 bottles, offers both the benchmark wines of the world and smart buys, and Trotter has hired and nurtured some of the best sommeliers in the industry, including Larry Stone, who went on to build a Grand Award wine program at Rubicon in San Francisco, and Joseph Spellman.
Trotter has a reputation for being tough with staff, for being a constant perfectionist in the name of quality. A Chicago magazine once named him the "second-meanest person" in the city. He laughed when he responded to a reporter, "I was very upset, because I never like being number two." Wherever his sabbatical takes him, he'll undoubtedly bring the same competitive fire.
William Newell — Buffalo, NY — January 5, 2012 1:41pm ET
John M Eaton — WI — January 5, 2012 3:54pm ET
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