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Charlie Trotter ‘changed the landscape’ for friends, food world

Updated: December 13, 2013 6:11AM



Almost everything he created instantly disappeared.

What Charlie Trotter left behind could be seen in the crisp white chef’s coats — almost as visible Monday as mourning black — in the pews at the Fourth Presbyterian Church just off Michigan Avenue.

“Charlie Trotter built no cathedrals or palaces, but he changed the landscape of the restaurant world in Chicago and beyond,” the Rev. Sarah Sarchet Butter, the Trotter family pastor, told the hundreds who gathered to remember the trailblazing chef. “And for those who knew him personally, he changed the landscape of their lives.”

Like Lee Jones, a farmer from Ohio who showed up at Trotter’s memorial service wearing clean blue overalls, a white shirt and red bow tie.

“Charlie took us under his wing and he was a great mentor,” said Jones, whose farm provided vegetables and herbs for Trotter’s kitchen. “He did more for our family than we can ever repay.”

Or Todd Menaker, a research chef who spent a year working at Trotter’s restaurant on Armitage Avenue in Lincoln Park, which the chef closed in 2012 after 25 years in business.

“It was the most intense experience of my life — every day,” said Menaker, one of dozens lined up outside the church before the service. “Sometimes it was good, sometimes it was very bad. But in the end, it changed my life and made me who I am today.”

Trotter, 54, was found unresponsive in his Lincoln Park home Nov. 5. He was pronounced dead at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Though an autopsy was inconclusive, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed reported that Trotter died of a stroke — after suffering from an earlier stroke in January.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who graduated from New Trier High School with Trotter, said the chef made the city “the world-famous culinary capital it is today.”

“No one who walked into Charlie Trotter’s walked out unsatisfied,” the mayor told mourners during the service. “Each visit was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, because Charlie never produced the same dish twice.”

Those in attendance also included noted chefs Emeril Lagasse and Graham Elliot, among many others.

Trotter’s sister, Anne Trotter Hinkamp, shared memories of her brother’s early years — before he became the chef that put the city on the world’s fine-dining map. Hinkamp told those assembled in the church she remembered her parents visiting her brother while he was still in college. On one such trip, he prepared spaghetti and meatballs.

“On the third visit, when he served salmon and spinach soufflé, they knew he was serious,” Hinkamp joked.

The Rev. Calum MacLeod, a Scotsman, recalled Trotter being the guest of honor two or three years ago at an annual dinner for a Chicago-based Scottish heritage group. Trotter brought his own version of haggis, Scotland’s much ridiculed and most famous dish.

“He did it with Asian accents, with soy sauce and lemongrass,” MacLeod said. “I think it’s the first time that’s ever been the case — and probably the last. So it was a true original. . . . It was very good.”

As dedicated as he was his culinary creations, Trotter was most proud of his son.

“By far his greatest creation was his son, Dylan,” Hinkamp said, talking about the basketball games, skiing trips out west and bicycle rides the two loved to take together from the city to Dylan’s grandma’s house in Wilmette.

Several speakers recalled Trotter’s generosity — both in the form of scholarships and bringing in people off the street for one of his exquisite meals.

“He might have some celebrity or high-powered politician waiting in line for a table in the front of the restaurant, while in the back Charlie and his staff would be serving someone who had probably only been looking for a normal hot meal, but now was sitting down to an eight-course meal with all the bells and whistles, free of charge,” Emanuel said.

Email: sesposito@suntimes.com

Twitter: @slesposito



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