The takeaway from Charlie Trotter: Chefs reflect on his legacy
By Miriam Di Nunzio | Staff Reporter November 9, 2013 9:02PM
Rick Tramonto | AP FILE PHOTO
Giuseppe Tentori, Curtis Duffy and Rick Tramonto talk about Trotter at suntimes.com.
E-book: A collection of reviews and news about Charlie Trotter. Get it at suntimes.com/ebooks.
Updated: December 11, 2013 6:23AM
At the memorial service for noted chef Charlie Trotter on Monday, the tributes will no doubt run deep. They are testament to the legacy of the chef, who opened his tony restaurant on Armitage Avenue in 1987, and the trickle-down effect he had on the dining scene in Chicago and beyond.
Though relatively few people ate at Charlie Trotter’s over the course of 25 years — there were only 60 seats in the dining room — Trotter’s influence reached beyond Lincoln Park. He helped make Chicago the dining capital that it now is.
We talked to the chefs behind some of Chicago’s most celebrated kitchens, chefs who directly — or indirectly — became purveyors of Charlie Trotter’s legacy, about how he changed them and the city’s dining culture:
Chef of Table fifty-two
“We wouldn’t have a Chicago dining scene if we didn’t have Charlie Trotter and the minion of chefs he trained. There isn’t a well-regarded kitchen in Chicago without a Charlie Trotter chef in place. As the saying goes, the fruits of our labor and love determine how great we are, and his legacy are the generations of chefs who will be influenced by what he taught us. He was a man [who] was so inspiring and had so much vision.
“We have a dynamic food culture in this city, but the country has a great one because of him. I didn’t know what James Beard was until he got one [award].
“And he was really the first to use food for philanthropy. He took kids from the roughest, toughest neighborhoods and would bring them to the restaurant not just to feed them this incredible menu but to teach them about the food, about pursuing and achieving excellence in life.
“In the end, his legacy will be all those people who went through those doors [to that kitchen] that he inspired. In Charlie’s book it was all about excellence; great wasn’t good enough. He put out a great group of people many of whom went on to open their own restaurants.” — Miriam Di Nunzio
Chef of moto and iNG
“Before Trotter, all the restaurants in the country were focused on a specific ethnicity like French or Asian. They didn’t really cross that border. And their products didn’t really exemplify anything great. It was just sort of what they could get a hold of. And Charlie took the idea of globalization and sort of made the food world flat. What that means is he made it easy to get sea urchin from Japan and put it right next to, say, sweetbreads from veal in France. In a time that was pre-FedEx and pre-UPS, he grew with those businesses and demonstrated the full capability of what you could do with same-day shipping. And what that did is it gave chefs a lot of information about new products around the world. ... And it really opened up the encyclopedia of what gastronomy was to become.” — Mike Thomas
Chef of R’Evolution in New Orleans; former chef-owner of Tru in Chicago, among other restaurants, and a former Trotter’s cook
“It was this relentless focus that I had never seen in Chicago before. You’d seen some of the discipline. … There were glimmers of it. But the over-the-top intensity of focus and leadership was the trailblazing part. And the degustation [artful presentation of many different and meticulously prepared foods focused on gustatory and other senses]. Being able to go in there and leave no stone unturned.
“Back in that day, when you were doing 12 or 13 courses and you said, ‘I’m just going to do degustation,’ that was extraordinary for Chicago. Everybody thought, ‘Oh, my God.’ They’re scratching their heads. ‘How is this going to work? How’s he going to pull this off?’ ” — Mike Thomas
Chef-in-Residence at Elawa Farm and former chef at Tru who also worked at Trotter’s
“He really taught Chicago how to dine. But I also think he taught chefs how to express themselves through their food. Charlie has a spontaneity about him that was also fueled by a generous soul. I remember one time we did an event where two chefs with the same first name were in a [competition] with tomatoes. Even I had never made a tomato dessert before. He would throw little challenge like that at you.
“It’s really less about how he affected dining in Chicago, but because he was such a public speaker and so prolific with books and speaking, it really helped Chicago develop our culinary identity. Mayor Daley was a foodie, he ate at Tru. He wanted Chicago to be known as a culinary capital and Charlie was a Pied Piper on that one. Charlie was the top of the line to get Chicago its culinary cred. ...
“I was working in France this summer. I was cooking on a river cruise and we had lunch at Paul Bocuse in Lyon, France. Painted at the top of the room are the names of prominent chefs, influential chefs and chefs who have received three Michelin stars — mostly French chefs. Amongst that group of names was Charlie Trotter. I had this moment of pride. Look at my boy who’s on the wall!” — Adrienne Samuels Gibbs
Chef of Frontera Grill and Topolobampo
“Beyond just offering a fine dining experience, there are a number of those places around the world, and you only get there from really exacting standards and having the right team. Charlie had all that — in Chicago. He brought to the world of fine dining the multicourse tasting menu, small bites. His most dramatic offering was when he started the all-vegetable [menu]. He was a trailblazer.
“I think a huge part of his legacy will be the books he wrote. He started doing them long before chef books were popular. And his were entirely different because they were teaching manuals and records of the food he was doing at the time. ...
“When he opened, there were only two other chef-owned restaurants in Chicago, and one was mine, which opened a few months after his. So this was a novel thing for Chicago to have two young chefs opening their own restaurants because usually the owner then hires a chef. ...
“Describe him in one word? Lots of people think of him as the guy who demanded excellence. But I would have to say visionary is the one word. He really had vision for what American cuisine could become. He was relentless in his pursuit of that.” — Miriam Di Nunzio
Chef of Grace, who worked with Trotter for three years
“He’s done so much for food and wine not just in Chicago but on a global standpoint. He changed the way people think about food and the perception of flavor combinations, and not being forced to be regimented in what you do every day [as a chef]. I worked for him for a little over three years, and it was his overall philosophy. You were questioning everything you did every single day for the purpose of ‘Can you make it better?’ That was always the approach on everything in the restaurant. When you stepped foot in that kitchen, as hard as it was, and it was very hard, very challenging every day, you wanted to be back there the next day. You were a better cook today than you were yesterday.
“As a chef, I’m a greater chef than I would have been, I’m a better person than I would have been, for having worked there. He made Chicago a destination for dining, at a time when New York was THE dining destination in the country.” — Miriam Di Nunzio
Chef of Spiaggia
“He was the first in so many ways. The first to do all tasting menus. The first to do a veggie tasting menu at that level of dining. His legacy to the culinary arts? He elevated it for all of us. He made all of us as chefs realize that we could stand toe-to-toe with New York and Europe, something that we all thought was impossible.” — Miriam Di Nunzio
Chef of bellyQ and Urban Belly and former Trotter cook
“He was an innovator. When I went to work for him the restaurant was rated No. 1 in the country. That was huge for Chicago. … To have that table in the kitchen. To have a veggie tasting menu. To have a tasting menu in the Midwest, period. There was nothing like it in Chicago. We were the first to do farm-to-table, sourcing the best ingredients from the best in the world. We would never buy fish in Chicago; we’d get it directly from the West Coast and the East Coast and Japan, because it was the best. That was in 1992. Very few restaurants, if any were doing that. He sent me out to buy truffles. I came back with $15,000 worth of truffles. He wanted the best.
“As cooks we didn’t realize what we were learning from him at the time, but after I left, I’ve never experienced learning on that level or anything close to that. He taught us the definition of excellence.” —Miriam Di Nunzio
Chef of Boka and GT Fish & Oyster
“Trotter was one of the first people to do a tasting menu. It was very risky at the time. Now you can find that all over the country. Also, the most famous chefs in the world went to his kitchen. He was cooking not just French, Italian or Asian; it was a little bit of everything. He wanted to make sure all of his guests had the best experience in their life.
“I started out with him in 1998. I left In 2007. You had to do everything from clean the alley to polish copper and scrub the (oven) hood every night. That was the Charlie experience in the kitchen. We had to learn how to clean everything . I really think he influenced how people should look at certain things in the kitchen. He would be walking in the kitchen and say ‘Something’s not smelling right.’ He would say the little details that make a big difference. That’s how he influenced me; the little details make a big difference. In my cooking he always tell me ‘less is more.’ ... Just have the food speak for itself.” — Adrienne Samuels Gibbs