Charlie Trotter, the cerebral, passionate chef who owned and operated what was for many years America’s best restaurant, died Nov. 5 in his hometown of Chicago. He was 54.
A Chicago Fire Department spokesman said that rescue crews were called to Trotter’s Lincoln Park home at 10 a.m. A neighbor told reporters that the chef’s son Dylan found him unconscious and not breathing. An ambulance crew transported Trotter to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where he died after unsuccessful attempts to revive him.
“Charlie was a visionary, an unbelievable chef who brought American cuisine to new heights,” said fellow chef and friend Emeril Lagasse. “We have lost a tremendous human being and an incredible chef and restaurateur. It’s a very sad day and my heart goes out to Charlie’s family.”
Later that evening, Trotter's widow Rochelle released a statement: "He was much loved, and words cannot describe how much he will be missed. Charlie was a trailblazer and introduced people to a new way of dining when he opened Charlie Trotter’s. His impact upon American cuisine and the culinary world at large will always be remembered. We thank you so much for your kind words, love and support. We appreciate the respect for our privacy as we work through this difficult time."
Trotter emerged from culinary anonymity in 1987 when he opened Charlie Trotter’s in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. He had been a political science major at the University of Wisconsin, but fell in love with food while working in a restaurant kitchen during time off from school. He was soon apprenticing with chefs like Bradley Ogden and Norman Van Aken. At just 27 years old, he opened an ambitious fine dining restaurant, which aimed to prove that American cuisine—in the Midwest, no less—could compete with the best in the world.
Because America's dining scene has come so far since, it has become easy to forget what a pioneer Trotter was. 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.
His cuisine was a distinctive, imaginative blend of French techniques, American inventiveness and international ingredients. Its signature was the marriage of delicacy and intensity and an ability to blend boldly contrasting flavors in each harmonious dish.
The restaurant won a Wine Spectator Grand Award in 1993 with a cellar that roamed the whole world, putting special emphasis on Burgundy, the Rhône and California. The 1,800-selection list, built on a cellar of more than 7,000 bottles, offered both the benchmark wines of the world and smart buys, and Trotter 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.
"Charlie Trotter was among the very few chefs of any period who gave serious consideration to the role of wine in the dining experience," Stone told Wine Spectator. "When I came on board in the early years of the restaurant he launched into an intense collaboration with me about menu creation that took into account what wine the diner was having. He would change entire menus if the wines that were being consumed did not match the dishes he had painstakingly planned before. But he was a nimble thinker and loved to improvise."
Trotter was named the country’s outstanding chef by the James Beard Foundation in 1999; in 2000, Wine Spectator called Trotter’s the best restaurant in the nation. More awards and accolades followed, including a 2002 Beard Award for Outstanding Service.
“Charlie was the towering bridge between a new generation of American chefs and their Michelin-starred brethren in Europe,” said restaurateur Danny Meyer. “He was the youngest, serious chef of a serious restaurant I ever met in this country, and he was boundless when it came to teaching his staff, his guests, his city, his industry—in short, his public—everything he wanted them to know about restaurants and food.”
In his early days, Trotter earned a reputation for being a demanding perfectionist. A Chicago magazine once named him the "second-meanest person" in the city. He laughed when told. "I was very upset, because I never like being No. 2.”
"He was demanding of his staff, but also very generous with them," said Stone. "He always introduced them and their stories to his guests and encouraged them to step up and take the spotlight for something that they did under his direction."
And those who know Trotter say the reputation overshadowed his personality, a kind, genial man with a great wit. He showed that spirit in his charity work, creating the Charlie Trotter Education Foundation to provide scholarships for culinary students. Three nights a week, 50 weeks a year, youths from disadvantaged backgrounds were treated to elaborate multicourse tasting menus at Trotter’s, a tour of the restaurant and a succession of inspirational speakers, often including the chef himself. Trotter received the James Beard Foundation’s Humanitarian of the Year award in 2012.
“Everything I do in my restaurant is inspired by the example he set for me,” said Molly Wismeier, who was a sommelier at Charlie Trotter’s and is now wine director at Restaurant R’Evolution in New Orleans. Wismeier remembers that Trotter was much more passionate about wine than many chefs, that he understood wine flavors and how it worked with food. He also believed his staff should set high standards. “He always told us to remember that we don’t work for him, we work for ourselves.”
Despite his success, Trotter never expanded his brand beyond Chicago. Ventures in Las Vegas and a Mexican resort closed, and two attempts to expand to New York never came to fruition.
In 2011, Trotter surprised many when he announced he would close Charlie Trotter’s the following summer. He wanted to see what else life held. He planned to study philosophy in graduate school and travel with his second wife, Rochelle. In an interview with Wine Spectator six months ago, he remarked that he loved his studies, having the time to analyze writers like Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche.
An autopsy is scheduled for Wednesday, according to the Cook County medical examiner's office. Trotter is survived by his wife Rochelle and his son Dylan.