Well-known as an irascible perfectionist who terrified workers in his kitchen, Trotter was also acknowledged to be one of the most creative, disciplined and hard-working chefs of the past decades. His eponymous Chicago restaurant vaulted Chicago’s dining scene into the big leagues. He closed the restaurant in 2012 after 25 years at the top of the gastronomic hit parade.
I loved Trotter’s food. Globe artichoke soup poured over spun honeycomb and garnished with artichoke chips and fresh mint. Open-face wild mushroom tarts. Cardamom-scented ricotta soufflé with candied Buddha's Hand mushrooms and olive praline. (Food photos by John Reed Forsman for Veranda.)
Toast of the town
At first, I found the sleek, quiet, contemporary atmosphere of Charlie Trotter's very staid. But with each remarkable dish – an asparagus terrine with goat cheese; potato cannelloni with artichokes; foie gras served with white asparagus soup and sweet Vidalia onions; skate wing with clams and preserved papaya – and with each delicious wine recommended by the friendly sommelier, Trotter's Chicago town-house seemed more and more like the happiest place on earth.
But as much as the food world appreciated Trotter’s talent, fellow chefs, kitchen workers and, yes, food writers were often totally put off by his arrogance and demanding-to-the-point-of-nasty style.
I encountered that side of Trotter on my very first writing assignment, some 30 years ago, for the then-San Diego Union. At a glitzy gala dinner, staged in Los Angeles by the Relais & Chateaux collection of luxury restaurants and hotels, 50 American and international chefs gathered to cook together. The team represented a staggering 90 Michelin stars. For hours, 49 of the chefs toiled in the hot kitchen of the Biltmore hotel, helping each other, trading jokes, tasting, and praising. The other chef, Charlie Trotter, blew in the door with less than 30 minutes to showtime, having done all his cooking elsewhere – unencumbered by such things as collaboration and camaraderie.
“As the last waiter clears the swinging door, all eyes focus on Charlie Trotter, who has arrived with great fanfare and with much of the preparation of his lamb dish done in the morning in his Chicago kitchen.
While a KCET camera lens creeps to within an inch of the glasses perched on his nose, Trotter leans over a plate explaining quietly to his helpers exactly how his lamb with Israeli couscous and red wine essence should be plated. He places an oven-roasted slice of lamb loin on the plate, moves it a fraction of an inch, moves it again, adds a drizzle of sauce, then steps back to assess his handiwork.”
High-strung. Volatile. Arrogant. Maybe.
But the world’s communal dining table will be a less interesting place without Charlie Trotter’s talents. And I, for one, will always be grateful I got the chance to enjoy that foie gras with white asparagus soup and sweet Vidalia onions.