Aloha, Charlie Trotter

by Emily Bell
January 2012

Charlie Trotter - An American Chef

This article was written in 2012 after the closing of Charlie Trotter's to honor Chef Trotter's culinary vision and lasting impact on American cooking. We celebrated him in life, and now, as he's gone too soon.

There are plenty of somber-toned adieus to Chicago chef—and American culinary revivalist—Charlie Trotter, and we don’t plan on adding to the mix. We’re just here to give a friendly, reverential “see you later...?” to one of the greats. Not that Trotter’s achievements don’t merit an official, sober farewell. We’re just not ready to say goodbye. And fortunately, we might not have to.

OK, so the chef is officially shuttering his restaurant on August 31, 2012. And while he’s retaining ownership of the building, Trotter’s most definitely not pulling an elBulli and converting the space into a culinary think tank. So we’re not expecting a return anytime soon—especially considering the chef-intellectual has already been accepted to several graduate programs in philosophy and political science. But we just can’t help but believe that someone with such deep roots in the rebirth of American cuisine—someone who once told us that food is “the one great sensual experience we all have”—won’t find some way to return to it, Masters Degree in hand, sometime in the future.

Trotter’s roots do indeed run deep, to the sum of a quarter century, when the fresh-faced, self-trained chef first opened his eponymous restaurant and challenged an entrenched back-of-house Francophile worship. Unlike most fine dining chefs of his time—and certainly unlike most Chicago cooks, content with the city’s narrow protein-and-pizza pantry—Trotter had faith in American cuisine as a viable culinary category unto itself.

“It’s easy to make fun of American cuisine,” Trotter told our 2009 ICC audience in a keynote panel with Emeril Lagasse and Norman Van Aken (another iconic American chef, former Trotter employer, and friend ). But unlike the European chefs of his early training days, who might take a “trip to India for three weeks, come back, and put a little bit of curry into a beurre blanc,” American chefs, Trotter said, “have the chutzpah to travel around the world and bring ideas back.”

And Trotter was one of them, bringing techniques, ingredients, and a global culinary perspective to the kitchen of Charlie Trotter’s (along with his take on the European-style degustation menu and even a raw tasting menu, years ahead of its time). Not only that, Trotter woke the country up to the value of its own diversity. “That’s what makes America great,” he told us. “We’ve got these great pockets of areas around the country … true distinctive pockets of things that have a history, clearly defined as components of American cuisine.” The only thing that Trotter imported unscathed was a European standard of service (Charlie Trotter’s is now a synonym for “impeccably hospitable”) and the efficient, machine-like organization of the kitchen.

Charlie Trotter tasting on the 2008 ICC Main Stage

That combination—wide culinary horizons, high standards, and an unapologetic perfectionism—turned out to be magical. Charlie Trotter’s churned out scores of the country’s most influential young chefs, 11 of them Rising Stars Award Winners. And while some, like Homaro Cantu, eventually dove into the avant-garde chapter our culinary history, it’s pretty clear that without someone like Trotter, a dogged perfectionist fighting for the American culinary way, Cantu and co. wouldn’t have had the same standard of excellence to foam, froth, and rabidly deconstruct.

Not that Trotter doesn't evolve. His restaurant endured 25 years—a couple Gulf wars, single and double-dip recessions, and even the attempted sale of Obama’s senate seat—because it remained relevant, community-conscious and conscientious, and exquisite (i.e. get your reservations for its remaining eight months now). If anything, his move to the three-hour seminars of graduate academia is proof that Trotter puts his money where his mouth is. As he once said of American chefs, “we learn from so many things." It seems he's off to do some of that for himself. We’re just curious to see where a mind full of Machiavelli, Aristotle, and the heady potpourri of political philosophy will take his palate if (and when?) he does return to the kitchen.