A KITCHEN DRAMA

Why bother with the refinements of the restaurant when you can dine in the chaos of the kitchen? Michael Bateman meets Charlie Trotter, master of the epicurean and entrepreneurial and Chicago's hottest chef experience

A table for four in the restaurant kitchen? The dramatic potential of the situation might well have appealed to Luis Bunuel. The surrealist Spanish director filmed many a bizarre dining experience: one meal in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is disrupted by army manoeuvres; another takes place on the stage of a theatre.

In this particular scenario, the well-to-do guests are seated at a table laid in the bowels of the kitchen, where the odours of garlic and spices, seafood and hot oil, impregnate their fashionable $2,000 suits and dresses. They have to raise their voices to be heard above the clank of pots and pans and the rattle of cutlery. Bustling cooks and waiters brush past them as they mop their brows in the warm waves radiating from hot stoves and sizzling pans.

This is no surrealist fantasy, however, but a twice-nightly experience at Chicago's top restaurant, Charlie Trotter's. Although there are over 30 well- appointed tables in this converted suburban townhouse restaurant, such is the craze in the US for the novel and the bizarre that the table most in demand is the one laid in the kitchen.

The night I'm there, the foursome at the kitchen table includes a couple who have flown in from Houston (two hours away). "We'd been on a waiting list for about three months," they tell me. "Then they rang to say there would be a table free this Tuesday at 5.30pm."

Wait a minute. Dinner at 5.30pm? That can't be right. But then, this is America, not Madrid. Charlie has two sittings: at 5.30pm and 8.30pm. Well then, yes, 5.30pm would be just dandy.

And was it worth it? To see the great Charlie Trotter conducting his orchestra of chefs, you bet. He's a dapper, composed young man in his thirties and, though wearing chef's whites, he's not given to the mannerisms of some European celebrity chefs, such as the hurling of abuse and copper pans.

It is good enough for the oil-folk from Houston (you don't have to be oil-rich to eat here, but it helps.) They were triumphantly happy. "It was perfect." Other customers, though not seated at this privileged table (and as yet there are no tables laid in the three cellars, the cold store, the porch or the toilets), were no less pleased.

Charlie Trotter's is not only the hottest ticket in America's second city. Charlie himself is considered one of a handful of America's most acclaimed, intelligent, mould-breaking cooks, along with the West Coast's Alice Waters, Wolfgang Puck, Jeremiah Tower and Jonathan Waxman.

Is it the food then? Well, I was treated to the gastronomic option, 13 petite courses, all of them keen-tasting, bouncily fresh and rakishly presented with the brio of a fashion designer (actually some of his creations do look as if they owe more to the catwalk than chopping board and stove).

Charlie's cooking is based on the rules of French classical cuisine but parts company on the matter of creamy sauces, mousses and pastries. These are abandoned in favour of a mood more akin to classical Japanese cooking (a kaiseki meal runs to 13-odd courses too).

Presentation also leans towards Japan and each course in miniature is presented on different kinds of decorative plates and ceramic bowls, including flat, oblong glass dishes.

For example, a single shape of ravioli (a raviolo?) stuffed with shreds of oxtail, and dressed with truffle oil, comes in a covered bowl sitting on a plate which rests on yet another, the three separated by napkins. This morsel represents no more than a mouthful.

The parade of dishes, served in succession, gives an idea of the anthology of flavours on show. To start, gravadlax with Ocietra caviare followed by Kumomoto oysters with chilled sugar-pea puree (very tiny portions, so you feel like Gulliver being fed by Lilliputians). Then a nugget of Maine lobster in nori (paper-thin Japanese seaweed) with sesame-oil vinaigrette, followed by Hawaiian moonfish with chilli-tingling satay sauce, then a fat divers' scallop with Korean kim chee (spicy pickled cabbage). A last fish course is a mouthful of Alaskan halibut with brown butter vinaigrette.

After the fish comes a firm slice of Hudson Valley foie gras, a bite of oxtail ravioli, three mouthfuls of delicious grilled smoked Californian squab (pigeon) with lambs' tongue and braised turnip, and the climax of a familiar and very American round of thick beef tenderloin, but served in miniature - an inch of it, not a plateful. A savoury Roquefort souffle, the size of a small egg cup, is served with poached pears (Gulliver hasn't loosened a notch in his belt yet), and then the meal ends with the challenging flavours of pink guava and vanilla yoghurt sorbets, with feijoa puree and a chilled lemon grass soup.

If not a Grand Guignol of a dinner, it is certainly a star-studded Las Vegas cabaret of a meal, with each course matched by an appropriate glass of wine. This is a restaurant which has won the top American awards for its wine cellar and service. Their sommelier, Joseph Spellman, represents America in the world championships held in France.

Charlie Trotter is, of course, more than a cook. The restaurant is the culmination of the philosophy he has been pursuing with extraordinary zeal for two decades. The way that he marries ambience and service to the wine and food outstrips conventional American ambitions. Charlie explains that it's intended to be a blend of European refinement, American ingenuity and energy and Japanese minimalism and elegance with an up to the minute approach to health and dietary concerns.

He talks about his creation in the new offices he's built next to the restaurant. He has bought the adjoining house, which means that by moving the administration, he can enlarge the dining space. He has also put in a demonstration kitchen for cooking courses, another promising source of revenue (the table in the kitchen, by the way, generates pounds 250,000 a year).

Clients who like the demonstration kitchen can buy it (Americans think big) for it has been built by a fitted kitchen company, using details from the professional kitchen next door. There are drawers with chill compartments and spaces between equipment are brought into play as vertical shelving for knives, or singly-stacked bottles.

Eat the food, buy the kitchen? "I'm first of all a businessman," says Charlie. "Money-making projects are important to me - books, promotions, cookery courses. I have a terrible spending habit on wines, on the kitchen. The restaurant is profitable, but I spend every penny."

Charlie doesn't match the Michelin-man image of the traditional chef. He is bespectacled and trim and looks disturbingly fit. He was, in fact, a schoolboy trampoline champion. He had never thought about cooking as a career, but nursed a childhood ambition to make animated films.

At Wisconsin University, reading political science, he shared rooms with a passionate amateur cook, Joel Fisch, who brought out his competitive spirit. "Joel made stocks, he made his own bread, he made his own beer. I'd never been exposed to these ideas. He'd cook one day, I'd cook the next. On Sundays we'd do an elaborate four-course meal. I enjoyed my studies, but I couldn't wait to get home and do the shopping, preparing, cooking."

Charlie took a holiday job as a waiter in a bar. "I got the restaurant bug. I loved the sense of theatre. I liked the exuberance, enthusiasm, decorum. I liked the idea that you do what you can for the clients, anticipate their needs before they know them themselves."

It dawned on him that cooking could provide intellectual, sensual and creative satisfaction. While Joel went on to become a West Coast lawyer, Charlie launched himself into a restaurant career.

He was obsessed. "I immersed myself in cookery books seven days a week. I cut myself off from all my friends. I did nothing socially; I read everything. It wasn't a burden, it was what I wanted to do."

Although not a vegetarian, he found a copy of The Vegetarian Epicure, Anna Thomas's classic book, written 20 years ago, and cooked every recipe in it. He pulls down a copy of the book from his shelves, limp with use. (Last year, he invited her over to eat her way through his whole menu.) He read the books of James Beard, the godfather of American cooking.

Charlie started in a kitchen in San Francisco. "I said to them `I'll do anything'. If they said my shift was at 4pm, I'd go in three, four or five hours early. For the first month I didn't ask for a coffee, or even a glass of water. I was so proud to have the chance to learn."

He gave himself five years. "Heming-way was approached by a writer who said he was a failure and felt like killing himself. `Do it for five years,' said Hemingway, `then, if you're still a failure, kill yourself'." (Charlie is full of improving thoughts. A good one is: "If it ain't broke, break it." "It helps revitalise and energise the staff," he says.)

Charlie moved to Key West in Florida, working in restaurants which were just starting up, to get that specific experience. He travelled to Europe and made the culinary acquaintance of Madame Point (who was still running Fernand Point's La Pyramide), and heroes such as Roger Verge in Provence ("it was like meeting Mick Jagger") and Fredy Girardet in Lausanne. A picture of Charlie and family with Fredy hangs on the wall behind him.

Back in Chicago, he established a catering service with the object of seeking out potential customers, while at the same time refining a repertoire of dishes. These were as far away from the usual way of big, blowsy, bland American eating as you could get.

He opened his restaurant to almost instant acclaim. A mission statement emerged. "Food doesn't have to be rich to taste good. Food should taste of itself." He promoted unadulterated, all-American food, offering free-range meats, line-caught fish and fresh organic vegetables. It was high on flavour, and low on cream, butter and alcohol.

In the space of only 10 years (it is his anniversary in the business this August) Charlie Trotter has become an institution in America, a beacon of the new American haute cuisine. Yet his style is barely known in the UK, except to a few aficionados, mostly chefs, who own his lavishly illustrated books (a third, on fish, has just been published).

But now there is an opportunity to experience it here. This week Charlie is bringing over his circus on a first trip to London, to take over the kitchens at The Lanesborough Conservatory in Knightsbridge. He will be cooking lunch and dinner for three days (see box below left), culminating with an Independence Day dinner on 4 July when a large party of London chefs are booked in. The Lanesborough's resident chef, Paul Gayler, says that none of them has yet expressed a desire to eat at a table in the kitchen.

STEAMED COD WITH POTATO-APPLE-CELERY PUREE

Charlie Trotter uses many vegetable juices, such as the celery juice in this recipe, as the base of a sauce. All cup measurements below are American, one cup holding 8fl oz/225ml.

Serves 4

490g/3oz portions cod or other white fish

1 cup chopped celery

2 cups chopped Granny Smith apples

112 cups chopped potatoes, boiled

salt and pepper

2 cups celery juice

3 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons butter

6 tablespoons chopped fresh chives

2 tablespoons chopped fresh chervil

1 cup julienned Spanish onions

4 teaspoons fresh chive blossoms

Place the celery and one cup of the chopped apples in a medium saucepan, cover with water, and simmer over a medium heat for five to seven minutes, or until slightly soft. Drain and puree with the cooked potatoes until smooth (additional water may be needed to puree it smoothly). Place the puree in a non-stick pan and slowly dry over a medium-low heat for 20 minutes, stirring constantly until the puree has a sturdy consistency. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Place the celery juice in a small saucepan with the remaining one cup of apple and simmer over a medium heat for 15 minutes. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve and season to taste with salt and pepper. Whisk in the three tablespoons of butter, three tablespoons of the chives, and one- and-a-half tablespoons of the chervil. Froth with a hand-held blender just prior to use.

Caramelize the julienned onions with the two teaspoons of butter over a medium-high heat for 15 minutes, or until golden brown.

Season both sides of the cod with salt and pepper. Crust the top side with the remaining chives and chervil. Place on a rack in a steamer and steam for three minutes, or until just cooked.

Spoon some of the potato puree in the centre of each bowl. Top with a piece of steamed fish. Arrange the cara-melized onions in the bowl. Ladle the celery-apple broth into the bowl and sprinkle with the chive blossoms.

TROTTER COMES TO TOWN

For details of Charlie Trotter's "A Taste of America" lunches and dinners at the Lanesborough call 0171 259 5599. Prices include a two- course lunch at pounds 25.20 and a four or five-course dinner at pounds 68.50.

Charlie Trotter's Cookbook, Charlie Trotter's Vegetables and, most recently, Charlie Trotter's Seafood are all published by Airlift Book Company, priced pounds 40 each. They are available from Harvey Nichols, or can be ordered, postage and packing free, from Virtue Books on 01709 365005.

Charlie Trotter will be signing copies of his three books in the Foodmarket at Harvey Nichols, London SW1, on Thursday 3 July from 4.30 to 5.30pm. He will also be signing copies in Books for Cooks, 4 Blen- heim Crescent, London W11, on Sat- urday 5 July from 4.30 to 5.30pm.

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