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On Generosity


Posted: Oct 17, 2006 1:29pm ET

One of the most appealing things to me about being in the restaurant business is that you have a chance to share a real generosity. It seems to me that to be truly successful as a restaurant owner, a chef, a dining room leader, a sommelier, or any other position in the hospitality/service world, you have to be someone that absolutely and completely gives from the heart. And not just because you think that it might be “the right thing to do,” but because it genuinely comes from within.

At Trotter’s, we charge our patrons by way of something that I refer to as “price of admission.” That is, once you’re in, and you’ve chosen your menu (Grand, Vegetable, Red Wine, Kitchen Table, Raw, Spontaneous) and your wine(s), then there are no other charges.

If you finish your “wine by the glass” before you’ve finished your food, more is poured. If you’re still hungry, we keep bringing plates of savory food until you say, “Enough!” If you still have a half-bottle of red wine left going into dessert, we’ll bring cheese and, oh, by the way, we’ll bring cheese anyway if you even bring it up. Bottled water (Fiji or Pellegrino) is poured automatically, right when you sit down. Cappuccino, espresso, tea … drink all you want. Desserts? You have a sweet tooth? We’re just going to continue to bring them. It seems that’s what the dignity of this field is all about. Charge what is appropriate, then don’t be stingy—be generous!

I read a great story about the brilliant Fernand Point, the founder and chef of La Pyramide. He once saw a young couple in his dining room that clearly couldn’t afford the experience. For him, there was no question about it—no check. We’ve followed his lead and done that here about 200 times. Recently we had three young Navy cadets in, in full uniform, by the way. Obviously there was no way they could get a bill. That’s about the 50th time we’ve hosted members of the armed forces.

I guess the bottom line is this—it’s never about the money, it’s always about making sure it comes from the heart.

Michael Bianco
Kettering OH —  October 17, 2006 4:25pm ET
Chef Trotter,I have found your posts to be very insightful and inspiring. As a young person starting out in the hospitality/service world, you have set some high standards that I hope to live up to. I have always believed in leading by example and you have set a high standard for others to follow. I look forward to reading your next post and was wondering if you had any advice for a prospective sommelier.
Jason Thompson
Foster City, CA —  October 17, 2006 10:07pm ET
Mr. Trotter, you get it. You understand what service is about and you take care of those that appreciate it. Next time I am in Chicago, I am going to try to book dinner at your restaurant. And I will be happy to pay the bill, knowing that you support the less fortunate and those that protect us from the dangers outside our great nation. Cheers.
Karl Mark
Geneva, IL. —  October 17, 2006 10:55pm ET
It seems to me that your approach to cooking/dining and Brian Loring's approach to wine growing/making both come from the heart. Matching food and wine are the perfect compliment for just this reason. Love the blog...thanks.
Anthony Clapcich
October 18, 2006 7:22am ET
Charlie-- If you go to www.chicago.city search.com, a popular search engine for restaurants around the US, you will find many negative comments about your restaurant's food portions...one even described the portions as "infantile" and another described a "scoop of sorbet counting as a 'course'". Clearly consumers can be "demanding", but wouldn't you be mortified to know some folks have left your restaurant hungry? You may genuinely believe in the philosophy of "sharing and generosity", but maybe your waiters and captains are not watching out for their customers. I respect your contributions to American cuisine, but comments like those make me a little nervous booking a table....unhappy customers are a part of restaurant life given the wide range of tastes in the world, BUT, skimpy portions are unacceptable when one drops >$200/person for a meal.
Robert Fukushima
California —  October 18, 2006 2:00pm ET
Anthony, I am sure Charlie Trotter does not need adefender here, but, I generally do not trust reviews blindly. Based upon you comments, I went and looked at the current menus posted on the Trotter website. I would say that 12 to 15 item tasting menus should have very small portions. I would also add, that while I certainly enjoy a 16oz steak, if that is what I am looking for, there can be an overemphasis on quantity in restaurants these days. $200 is a lot to spend on a meal, unrealistic for me these days, it would be easy to expect more food, than less. Again, if the intent of the chef is to provide clean, clear flavors, distinct courses and a highly crafted meal, perhaps one should be prepared to enjoy quality, in small portions. I think big meals tend to bleed flavors all over the place.
Anthony Clapcich
October 18, 2006 3:48pm ET
Robert-- The whole point of Charlie's blog was that his restaurant provides such extraordinary service that every patron is ensured a fully belly of food and wine before the show is over--quite a bold statement. My culinary experience, which is very broad, is completely immaterial. If you read the customer reviews, they are generally complimenatry about the quality and taste of the dishes, however, there are a number of complaints about very small portions and "feeling hungry" when they left. Remember, it is physically impossible to be at your restaurant at all times-- you have to rely on the worker bees that are tending to the hive. Such negative comments about customers leaving hungry would make me re-evaluate the daily waiter/sommelier/sous chef meetings that are held during "family dinner" time before the night starts. Perhaps Charlie needs to re-address his mission statement with his staff-- what Charlie expects may not always happen when he's not around.
Robert Fukushima
California —  October 18, 2006 6:05pm ET
Anthony, my comments were meant to reference my experience and beliefs only. I apologize if my comment seemed to impugn your knowledge or experience. Yes, I see and understand your points completely, I have run a business for 15 years and totally understand that execution sometimes fail to meet up expectations, even when the boss is there.
Charlie Trotter
Chicago, Illinois —  October 18, 2006 6:52pm ET
I would simply say that if one wants to be a truly great chef thanhe or she must be as focused on the wine as on the food. Thesame thing applies to those who wish to attempt greatness as asommelie, study food as much as you study wine.
Charlie Trotter
Chicago, Illinois —  October 18, 2006 6:53pm ET
Thank you....we looking forward to seeing you....and, you arequite right, service is very much my obsession.
Charlie Trotter
Chicago, Illinois —  October 18, 2006 6:55pm ET
Chefs and wine makers have a lot in common, and the best verymuch do it from the heart.....
Charlie Trotter
Chicago, Illinois —  October 18, 2006 7:24pm ET
Thank you very much for the observation. I would say one ofthe most difficult things we do is gaging the right portion size for a tasting menu. It's interesting, too, because for every person who feels there should be more food, there is another who thinks we have over done it. Members of our service team are constantly on the look out for diners who eat too ravenously or still appear to be hungry as they near the mid-point or the end of the meal. Or, we simply inquire, "May we bring you additional savory preparation?" or "Perhaps you would enjoy a cheese course?" Sometimes we don't even ask, we just bring. That said, the nexttime you dine with us, I assure you, you won't go away hungry.
Charlie Trotter
Chicago, Illinois —  October 18, 2006 7:31pm ET
Thank you.....again, if anyone dining here ever desires more food, it's never a problem, and there is certainly no additionalcharge.
Charlie Trotter
Chicago, Illinois —  October 18, 2006 7:34pm ET
We have meetings daily with the service team, and formal training sessions two or three times per week. It is constantlyemphasized that it is essential to "read" the guest....trust me,and this is what makes it fun, our work is never done.
Anthony Clapcich
October 19, 2006 7:04am ET
Charlie-- I applaud the thought and effort. I look forward to visiting your restaurant soon!
Mr Tom A Hughes
Keller, Tx —  October 19, 2006 3:45pm ET
I have had the good fortune to dine at your restaurant 4 times over the years. I have never gone away hungry. I remember I was shocked at the first course, the first time I was there but, 9 courses later I had figured out the drill. The service has always been at the top level I have experienced anywhere. I have always felt I received good value for my money. This is important for repeat customers. As I read once, you can feel cheated by a bad $8 hamburger and a $200 meal at Charlie Trotter's can seem like a bargin.Congratulations, how special for someone in their teens or early twenties to come out of boot camp and have the opportunity to go from mess hall to 5 star dining.
Paul Crepeau
October 19, 2006 9:10pm ET
I have never eaten at Trotters. However, after reading his article I made a mental note to stop by next time I am in Chicago. After reading the comments about portion size I am even more sure. Lately, I have made it a point to eat at one good restaurant during my annual trip to France: At Bocuse I was so full that I could only eat a small selection of the fabulous desserts. (One day I will return just for the 20 euro dessert menu.) One course at Michel Guy was exactly 2 sawed-off spoons of foamy, pureed vegetables; after the 4-hour lunch I only ate a pear for dinner.While I am astounded at how one could leave such an experience hungry I do have some atypical French friends who avoid starred restaurants due to portion size.Let's be clear: gourmet excellence is about quality. It's not about filling up. I always wish for more at the end of a good bottle of wine; no one would ever complain about the Pegau that didn't make it to dessert.Anyway, I simply pace myself during the meal and make up any margin of error at the cheese plate. Sounds like Trotter's is just perfect.
Apj Powers
Dallas, TX —  October 20, 2006 2:17am ET
Chef-before I even read the comments about your blog I was thinking how some guest would either abuse your generosity or complain about portions. I've never been but I always, always hear great things and try to read all articles Trotter-related to learn or motivate myself. It is unfortunate that some people want to feel gorged because of the amount of $$$ they have spent. They are missing out on the experience of the meal w/ all the great flavors and pairings and interaction w/ their fellow diners. Dallas has a great new restaurant this yr run by Chef Stephan Pyles. I'm always amazed.
Jeffrey Ghi
New York —  October 20, 2006 9:01am ET
Apj: While I will agree with you about experience of a meal. And Chef Trotter is brilliant with his food. I'd have to agree with the other posters that, because it is a meal you should come out feeling full. Bottom line, you eat a meal to be full and if you spend that much money you should be full (so as to not feel that guilty that you have that much excess capital to throw around). So I absolutely applaud Chef Trotter's motto that you pay the price of admission and he'll take care of you.
Joe Downs
Vason Island, WA —  October 21, 2006 10:44am ET
My wife and I have dined at Mr. Trotter's restaurant, and I can personally attest to the generosity of Mr. Trotter and his staff. While we have had the pleasure of dining there on only one occasion, it was one of the best food experiences I have had in my life. Both of us were treated to course after course of sumptuous food, and since we had requested wine service, glass after glass of fabulous wine. As you would expect, the wines were perfectly matched with the food. We finally had to tell the waiter to stop; we could not eat another bite. We were served three or four more courses than were shown on the menu, so there was no way we could have left hungry. When presented with the bill, I noticed that we had only been charged wine service for one. Thinking this was an oversight, I brought it up to the sommelier. I was informed that the bill was indeed correct, and that we were only being charged wine service for one. This was a remarkable gesture, since the wines that were served were not inexpensive. Moreover, the sommelier had conferred with us throughout the meal, and had chosen wines to our taste. Like many others, I have been "comped" the odd glass of wine or appetizer before, but never on such a grand scale. I can not say enough good things about Mr. Trotter¿s restaurant; the food and attitude of the staff were extraordinary. Bravo!
Charlie Trotter
Chicago, Illinois —  October 23, 2006 12:23pm ET
Thank you for your comments Mr. Hughes. Interestingly enough, 50% of our clients don't even look at the menu, they simply say, "Do whatever you want!" That's obviously a big responsibility, as anything less than exceeding expectations, from our perspective, is a failure. And I couldn't agree more about the price vs. value issue. I would rather spend $500 at,say, Masa's, than pay $40 and feel ripped off at a "concept" restaurant. It's absolutely all about "value!"
Michael Plovanich
Chicago, Ill —  October 23, 2006 4:58pm ET
Mr. Trotter, I was born and raised in Chicago, spent 32 years on the CPD, retired as a Detective and have never been to your restaurant. I have been to many others but somehow missed yours.I agree with your philosophy and am a wine and food lover, and will definitely try the restaurant on my wife and my next anniversary. Great touch with the servicemen. Thank You.
Charlie Trotter
Chicago, Illinois —  October 24, 2006 12:42pm ET
Mr. Fukushima, thank you for your post....degustation menus can surely be tricky....one must attempt to figure out just theright variety, and just the right amount to eat....it's taken me 20years and I'm still learning....It's possible to consume a lovelyappetizer, and then a large piece of fish or meat, and I'm sure that most of us would be more than delighted, if the food was merely even tasty and fresh.....but, if one could devour 8, 9, 15 courses, but still the same overall quantity of, say an a la carte sized appetizer and entre,...and perhaps even more delcious, it seems to me that that would be infinitely more interesting. Additionally, thank you for your aprreciation of our pursuit of purity of product and clean flavors.....
Charlie Trotter
Chicago, Illinois —  October 24, 2006 1:02pm ET
Mr. Crepeau,I truly aprreciate your comments. I don' think it's too pleasant to leave a meal at a fining dining feeling stuffed and overwhelmed.It seems that the "less is more" approach can actually be morefulfilling. We look forward to welcoming you to Trotter's on yournext trip to Chicago.
Charlie Trotter
Chicago, Illinois —  October 24, 2006 1:12pm ET
Thank you Mr. Powers.One of the reasons we started a kitchen table 19 years ago was to showcase the culinary professionalism behing the scenes. Back then, and to this day, almost every table remarks that theycan't believe the number of cooks moving around with a sort ofspontaneous precision. (Yikes, it's up to 25!) It truly is all aboutthe experience! And I have found that most people do not abuse generosity, in fact they tend to really appreciate it. And, as for Stephan Pyles, well, what can I say, he's one of the greats!
Charlie Trotter
Chicago, Illinois —  October 24, 2006 1:15pm ET
Thank you Mr. Ghi,Some diners want a lot, and some much less so. That is why wetry to split the difference and subsequently offer more to thosewho are still hungry.
Tim Meranda
Wheaton, IL —  October 24, 2006 3:22pm ET
I really wonder just what restaurant Charlie is talking about here. It can¿t be his resturant in Chicago because I¿ve been there twice and had to stop at the nearest White Castle after leaving his joint hungry. The only thing that underwelmed me more than the lack of quantity at his restaurant was the lack of gracefulness of his staff. After having to get into a big argument with his wine steward to get the bottle I wanted the rest of the staff treated us like dirt (that is when they bothered to stop by).
Charlie Trotter
Chicago, Illinois —  October 24, 2006 3:25pm ET
Thank you Mr. Clapcich. I very much take your comments to heart. I will definitely share your POV with my team. Interestinlyenough, though, you would be amazed at how many people comment that there's too much to eat. Therein lies the problem,how does a tasting menu provide the ideal amount of food? Well, as always, it's a work in progress. Guest feedback along the way, and dining room staff members being hyper-observantare the only way we will acheive the right mix. Thanks again foryour observations.....
John Eagan
Los Angeles —  October 24, 2006 4:14pm ET
I dined at Charlie Trotter in late September and very much appreciated the service. I may be to used to LA restaurants but I found $50 corkage interesting and the fact that Mr Trotter came through our dining room three times with not even eye contact was different from my experiences.
Charlie Trotter
Chicago, Illinois —  October 24, 2006 4:51pm ET
Thank you Mr. Eagan. Corkage at the restaurant is indeed $50 per bottle, that is, if it's alreadly on the list...otherwise, it's usually waived.....Regarding me being in the dining room andnot visiting your table, well, all I can say is, just ask, and I'llstop by for some pleasantries....Kind regards.
Pietro Cavallo
October 25, 2006 5:50am ET
Mr Trotter,what I just read is charming and moving. So many times I read similar stories which were obviously made for promoting themselves or the restaurant; you sound sincere and I want to believe you. Two years ago I had the luck to eat "a bite" in your Trotter To Go in Chicago and I still remember the experience, which for somebody like me that for business has to eat regularly in restaurants outside Italy means that it was either very good or very bad. It was excellent and I hope to repeat it sometimes in the future.Take careRaffaella Guidi FederzoniFattoria dei BarbiMontalcino - Italy
Steven Page
October 25, 2006 2:57pm ET
For what it's worth, in the two meals I've had at Charlie Trotter, I've had nothing but astoundingly great service: runners who almost invisibly whisk plates away the second a dish is finished, waiters who come to describe dishes as soon as they are put down by the ninja-style runners, and inspired wine choices. Last time we ate there, my wife and I decided to share the Grand Menu and the Vegetable Menu, by trading dishes halfway through each course. Rather than sneers, as we might get elsewhere, we got encouragement from the servers, and we each got our own glasses of both wines matched to each course. One of my favourite food and wine destinations, I look forward to our next visit to Charlie Trotter!
Steven Page
October 25, 2006 3:00pm ET
For what it's worth, in the two meals I've had at Charlie Trotter, I've had nothing but astoundingly great service: runners who almost invisibly whisk plates away the second a dish is finished, waiters who come to describe dishes as soon as they are put down by the ninja-style runners, and inspired wine choices. Last time we ate there, my wife and I decided to share the Grand Menu and the Vegetable Menu, by trading dishes halfway through each course. Rather than sneers, as we might get elsewhere, we got encouragement from the servers, and we each got our own glasses of both wines matched to each course. One of my favourite food and wine destinations, I look forward to our next visit to Charlie Trotter!
Thomas C Boyce Jr
New York, NY —  October 25, 2006 5:06pm ET
Several years ago when I lived in Chicago, I was fortunate enough to enjoy dinner in your restaurant at the kitchen table and it was tremendous! I had relayed that story to my wife once or twice over the last few years and, for my 40th birthday, she arranged a trip to Chicago and booked the kitchen table for us and 2 other couples who still live in the area. Without question, it is one of my most cherished memories. Dinner was as fabulous as I had remembered. Each course was perfectly timed, an exquisite blend of flavor and texture, and the wine pairings were exceptional (and I can confirm that they will indeed pour additional wine if your glass gets empty before your course is complete). In addition to the wonderful meal and company, we were afforded a tour of the kitchen and the studio. I can't thank you and your staff enough for my perfect evening. Everyone had a great time and nobody left hungry. I would STRONGLY encourage anyone thinking of making a reservation to do so (book early -- reservations fill up quickly). You will not regret it!!!
Brent Palmer
Los Angeles, California —  October 26, 2006 2:43pm ET
Hi Charlie! My wife works for Reason magazine (which I hear is one of your favorites!) Actually, she helps make the magazine possible by raising several million a year for the magazine and foundation. I'd love to zip her over to Chicago next spring for a fifteen-course kitchen table experience! She's a big fan. I was surprised to see how easy it is here to drop you a note that you will actually read...! Could you put me in touch with the right person to plan this dinner? My email address is brent@ziquin.com. Thank you!
Robert Gall
Athens, Ohio —  October 26, 2006 5:20pm ET
My wife and I saved our pennies and visited Chicago about four years ago so we could eat at your restaurant. It was the most extraordinary dining experience either of us had ever had or have had since. The food and wine, of course, were fabulous, but what really made the evening was the way the service staff went way out of their way to make our visit special. Reading this blog makes me think even more highly of you and your restaurant. The bottom line: though the price was stiff, the entire experience made us feel like it was worth it.
Jonathon Gillespie
Colorado —  November 1, 2006 9:54pm ET
I can attest to the generosity of Chef Trotter. I was lucky enough to dine there in the spring and upon learning that I was a chef on a trip to my "Mecca" my entire meal was free!!! Unbelievable the drive this man has. My hat's off to him, his staff and all that they are trying to acocmplish

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