Feature

Charlie Trotter, 1959–2013

The Chicago chef who refined American cuisine

Charlie Trotter was a culinary pioneer. At his eponymous Chicago restaurant, he served farm-to-table cuisine before the term was invented. In 1988, he set up a dining table in his kitchen—the first chef’s table in the U.S. Soon after, he scrapped the à la carte side of his menu entirely and began offering two multicourse tasting menus, one of them strictly vegetarian—another first. Trotter dreamed up his menus daily, likening his improvisational style to that of a jazz musician. “Someone like Miles Davis never performed ‘Stella by Starlight’ the same way twice. In 100 different performances, there are 100 interpretations,” he said. “Our food is a lot like that. We’re always tweaking and adjusting, doing our riffs.”

Born in suburban Chicago, Trotter was studying political science at the University of Wisconsin when a roommate challenged him to a cooking competition. “That’s when I got the bug to cook,” he said. After graduating, he spent five years apprenticing in restaurants around the U.S. and Europe, and in 1987 opened Charlie Trotter’s in a remodeled Chicago town house. Foodies raved about his use of “naturally raised meat, line-caught seafood, and organic produce,” said the Los Angeles Times. Trotter favored light vegetable-based sauces that would not, as he put it, “mute or block” the natural flavors of ingredients. Thinking too much alcohol numbed his customers’ taste buds, he banned hard liquor from the bar.

Trotter was “a demanding perfectionist and easily riled,” said the Chicago Tribune. He would shout down staff, and in 2003 had to settle two class-action lawsuits regarding overtime pay and the distribution of tips. But he also tutored a new generation of chefs, many of whom now run the nation’s top restaurants. “He may not have been the best people person sometimes,” said Los Angeles restaurateur David LeFevre, “but there’s no arguing he made us all better chefs.”

Last year Trotter closed his famous 120-seat restaurant, and announced he’d return to college to study philosophy. He suddenly died last week, after suffering a brain aneurysm. “You may be on this planet for 80 years at best,” he had said before his death. “You can’t just pedal around and do the same thing forever.”

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