Charlie Trotter, a Leader Left BehindWhen we decided to leave Chicago a decade ago, my wife and I invited the founder of the big marketing research firm where I'd worked for most of my life in Chicago and his wife to a going-away dinner. It took a six month wait to get the kitchen table in Charlie Trotter's at 9pm on a Saturday night, but it turned out to be worth it. You don't order from a menu in Mr. Trotter's kitchen, you eat whatever he feels like serving you. There were 27 different servings (most small, of course), each remarkable.
Though [chef Charlie Trotter] can be genial and very funny, he has never been able to shake his label as a tyrant of fine dining. In fact, it's the main way his name has been coming up of late. Grant Achatz, the chef and an owner of the Chicago restaurant Alinea, devotes an entire chapter to Mr. Trotter's scariness in his new memoir, "Life, on the Line."
Otherwise, Mr. Trotter hardly seems to figure in the national food conversation anymore. In the very years when Chicago has gloried in newfound recognition as a major restaurant destination, with the spotlight trained upon alumni of Mr. Trotter's kitchen like Mr. Achatz, Homaro Cantu (of Moto), Giuseppe Tentori (of Boka), and Graham Elliot (of Graham Elliot), the man who put the city on the fine-dining map has somehow fallen below the radar. ...
It's a curious fate for a chef who turned a page in American culinary history. Charlie Trotter's opened in 1987 in the Lincoln Park town house it still occupies. ... Mr. Trotter was a homegrown talent who saw no reason an American restaurant couldn't offer the same experience that gastro-tourists enjoyed in Europe: the tasting menu of multiple small courses, each audacious in its inventiveness and exquisite in its ingredients. And he pulled it off - at 27.
Yet Mr. Trotter never quite cracked the code of how to expand his brand.
But there remains a perception that there's more to these off-site fizzles - that Mr. Trotter is a perfectionist control freak, temperamentally ill-equipped to delegate and collaborate. ... Mr. Trotter grants that control is exceedingly important to him, and that there is an inherent contradiction between the nature of his business - hospitality - and the radical extent to which he takes his quest for excellence.That was certainly my experience. My attitude during the meal was, "Chef, bring us some more of whatever you got cookin'!"
"You know the old adage that the customer's always right?" he said. "Well, I kind of think that the opposite is true. The customer is rarely right. And that is why you must seize the control of the circumstance and dominate every last detail: to guarantee that they're going to have a far better time than they ever would have had if they tried to control it themselves."
There were 30 chefs working in the kitchen, almost all between age 25 and 35, each one intent on learning from the master so he could launch his own restaurant. Mr. Trotter was not an easy taskmaster. When the chefs finished their cooking late on a Saturday night when a young man would like to get out, they then spent two hours cleaning their stoves. I'm sure it would be cheaper to hire help for that drudgery, but the lesson imparted about the importance of scouring away all aromas of past dishes was clear. From the intensity in the room, it was obvious that famous chefs of the new century were going to emerge from this group, as has happened.
Mr. Trotter yelled at one or two of his chefs for mistakes, but my friend across the table had yelled at me a few times in the years I had worked for him. (We didn't, however, invite clients in for ringside seats.) Can anyone perform at that high a level while winning the Mr. Congeniality trophy? Besides, I was so buzzed on the greatest meal of my life that a summary execution or two probably wouldn't have harshed my mellow.
"Alice Waters may have discovered vegetables, but Trotter was the first man I know who cooked them beautifully," said Alan Richman, the longtime restaurant critic for GQ. ...From an HBD perspective, what was interesting was that, in the year 2000, 29 of the 30 chefs in his kitchen were men. Cuisine at this level is so far outside my field of expertise that I can't begin to speculate upon any specific reasons.
You have the interesting situation in cuisine that the great American innovator the 1970s, Alice Waters, was a woman, but since then the top ranks of achievement continue to be male-dominated. Somebody should make up a list of the male dominated fields where a woman was the most important contributor historically. Film criticism (Pauline Kael) is one obvious one.