Charlie Trotter: Chef and restaurateur who led Chicago's rise to become a culinary capital


Of all the chefs who shot to international fame in recent times, Charlie Trotter was the most remarkable, and eccentric. He was entirely self-taught – as a cook and restaurateur – though he was a conventionally well-educated man from a well-off family. Yet when he retired in August last year and closed his Chicago restaurant, aged only 52, he said it was in order to travel and perhaps do postgraduate work in philosophy.

He acquired a fearsome reputation as a demanding, temperamental chef and teacher, so much so that he was chosen to parody a scary head chef in a cameo appearance in Julia Roberts' 1997 film My Best Friend's Wedding, screaming at an assistant, "I will kill your whole family if you don't get this right! I need this perfect!" But as my family can attest, he was a thoughtful, extravagantly kind human being. When, at our first meeting, he learned that my elder daughter was having a gap year in Chicago, he said, "She'll need a job, won't she?" and took her on as his personal assistant for several years, even putting her through university.

His Charlie Trotter's restaurant, financially backed by his father, opened in 1987 in a handsome North Side townhouse in Lincoln Park. It was an instant success, probably because he was determined that it should match the level of cooking and service he had experienced at Frédy Giradet's in Crissier, near Lausanne, then widely thought to be the best in the world. Following a worldwide tour of 40 restaurants in five years – his self-designed educational programme – Charlie instinctively knew that the culinary world was ready for an inventive chef who cooked refined American dishes, using the best, fresh American ingredients, and insisted that traditionally friendly American service could be combined with European discipline.

He was years ahead of his time in seeing sourcing as the key to good food (and wine), setting the day's menu by what was in the market, and being the first American chef to put together an all-vegetable tasting menu. He also saw the importance of the community to his restaurant, raising money for local charities and holding events there for Chicago schoolchildren. Rahm Emanuel, President Obama's Chief of Staff who is now Mayor of Chicago, said in a statement: "Charlie Trotter changed Chicago's restaurant scene forever and played a leading role in elevating the city to the culinary capital it is today. Charlie's personality mirrored his cooking – bold, inventive and always memorable. He will always have a seat at the table among Chicago's legendary figures."

Indeed, Charlie Trotter's revolutionised the Chicago restaurant scene overnight, shocking its weary, but luxurious (mostly French) eateries into upping their games. When the Michelin Guide got around to Chicago in 2010, Trotter's was one of three Chicago restaurants to be awarded two stars, and the Windy City had become known as a gastronomic destination.

Charlie's own fame was enhanced by presenting a PBS network cooking programme in 1999, and his 14 cookery books and three books on management skills. He had become a national brand, and offered a line of organic and all-natural foods that reflected his strong ethical stance and early interest in sustainable foods. In 2005 the International Association of Culinary Professionals, celebrating his work with the philanthropic Charlie Trotter Culinary Education Foundation, made him "Humanitarian of the Year".

Trotter was born in Winnetka, Illinois, where he attended the academically excellent New Trier High School. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison he took a degree in political science, where, as he told People magazine in 1995, his room-mate challenged him to a multi-course cooking competition. "That's when I got the bug to cook, he recalled."

At first, he said in a Chicago Tribune interview last year, "I thought cooking out of a cookbook and following a recipe was not unlike doing a math problem: you had to measure everything out; you had to follow the directions meticulously; you couldn't deviate; otherwise the recipe wouldn't work. So I cooked that way for about six months, and then I began to realise: Hey, tomatoes are out of season, so I'm not going to use tomatoes – I'm going to find something else to use. Or, I don't want so many mushrooms in the dish, so I'm going to cut back on the mushrooms."

He started his professional career as a busboy at Sinclair's in Lake Forest, Illinois. The chefs were Norman Van Aken, later to become a celebrity chef himself, and Carrie Nahabedian, and they gave Charlie his first chance to cook. Later he trained with Van Aken and at some well-known restaurants in France.

He was devoted to his 21-year-old son, Dylan, by his first marriage; his second wife, Rochelle, whom he married in the Maldives, took on doing the publicity for the restaurant.

Charlie had seemed on course to enjoy his brave retirement when Dylan found him unconscious at home. Larry Stone, his sommelier in the late 1980s and early '90s, had returned to work with him last year to close the restaurant. Stone, who is now with the Quintessa Winery in Napa Valley, California, said that Trotter and his family were aware that he had a brain aneurysm, that Trotter had told him that he was resigned to it, and it was why he had closed the restaurant.

Paul Levy

Charles Trotter, chef and restaurateur: born Winnetka, Illinois 8 September 1959; married firstly Lynn Thomas (one son), 2010 Rochelle Smith; died Chicago 5 November 2013.

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