A Chicago Legend Has Passed
November 5, 2013 10:35 AM   Subscribe

World renowned Chef Charlie Trotter, was found dead in his Chicago home this morning.

He had not been having a good year.

For the nostalgic, his former restaurant is for sale. {Previously}
posted by timsteil (50 comments total)
posted by Dr. Twist at 10:48 AM on November 5, 2013

posted by Iridic at 10:49 AM on November 5, 2013

posted by desuetude at 10:54 AM on November 5, 2013


A bit more context to the controversial legacy of Charlie Trotter's, in a Chicagoist article from 2012 that already reads like an obit in some ways ("There's no denying that Trotter was, in many ways, a great man.")

posted by naju at 10:56 AM on November 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

Wow, indeed. Back when I lived in Chicago, he was a giant.

posted by TheWhiteSkull at 11:02 AM on November 5, 2013

posted by Cash4Lead at 11:04 AM on November 5, 2013

What's next for Trotter and his restaurant? Well, he says that he is going to go to graduate school in philosophy.
posted by goethean at 11:11 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I remember reading about Charlie Trotter in Life, on the Line. Seems like a larger-than-life, incredibly talented guy. A real loss for the food world, I'm sure.
posted by xingcat at 11:14 AM on November 5, 2013

posted by Renoroc at 11:17 AM on November 5, 2013

Fuck that's terrible.

Reminds me of Bernard Loiseau.
posted by Keith Talent at 11:18 AM on November 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think all the curses my wife called down upon him while she was cleaning up after I cooked one of his pork chop recipes may have been what did it.
posted by BrotherCaine at 11:18 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I remember reading about Charlie Trotter in Life, on the Line.
Grant Achatz was the first thing to come to mind for me (too?). I saw Spinning Plates recently, and there's a bit where he sorta gloats about how his restaurant has three Michelin stars, while Charlie Trotter's restaurant only had two.
posted by yeoz at 11:19 AM on November 5, 2013

Only 54? All of his restaurants had closed? Damn.


Any reports on the cause of death?
posted by mattbucher at 11:48 AM on November 5, 2013

I wonder how Neil Steinberg is feeling about this.
posted by timsteil at 11:55 AM on November 5, 2013

Holy Fuck. Dinner at Charlie Trotter's (especially the "being able to afford it" part) was a Rite of Passage into Adulthood in Chicago for a long time.

He will be missed.

posted by tzikeh at 12:02 PM on November 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

I fell in love with cooking as a kid and it's become a lifelong passion, if not profession. I watched Julia and Jacques on PBS and so of course French food was the epitome of cuisine and culinary technique.

In January of 1995, the New York Times Magazine published a brief profile of an intense chef in Chicago I'd never heard of, Charlie Trotter. Man, this guy was out there:

Trotter believes in serving a succession of small, ornate dishes (constructions really), each no more than a taste, one more complex than the next. He'll stuff rabbit rillette, for example, into tiny columns of phyllo dough. Then he'll fry them, cut them like Vietnamese spring rolls and mount them like tiny rock pilings in a sea of oranges, black olives and reduced rabbit broth. His "lasagna" of braised turnips and rabbit is built like a shingled pagoda, floating on a sauce of sweet peas.

While Trotter's technique is indisputably French, butter and cream are not necessarily the cornerstones of his cooking. When Trotter layers scallops with pickled lamb's tongue, it's the truffled celery broth, not butter, that holds the dish together. Similarly, it's the simple tomato water in a dish of salmon, truffled artichokes and seared foie gras that mitigates all the richness.

There was no Food Network*, urban farmer's markets were a new phenomena, and going out to a fancy dinner usually meant a starter, followed by an entree and then dessert. This idea that the chef would choose what you were going to eat and that it would sprawl across a dozen courses was fresh and new.

I was a political science grad student living in Seattle on a stipend and from the moment I read that NYT piece I decided I had to eat at Charlie Trotter's. As luck would have it, the annual meeting of the American Associate of Political Science just happened to be occurring in Chicago that summer. So I saved my pennies and made a reservation.

Accompanied by my girlfriend and the only other colleague who'd found a way to afford the meal, we made the trek to 816 Armitage and had a meal like we'd never had before.

We selected the Vegetable Menu. The fact that there was a fine dining restaurant serving a multi-course vegetarian menu was, in itself, mindblowing in 1995. The plates were stunning works of art, the flavors were intense, there was an interplay of temperatures and tastes and more than once we simultaneously burst out giggling at the discovery of an unexpected flavor or the way flavors transformed into something different the moment we took a sip of the wine that had been paired with each course.

At (I think) $150 including wines, tax, and tip it was far and away the most expensive meal I'd had at that point. And it was completely delicious. The use of vegetable juices and reductions, the lack of animal fat** including butter, the multitude of fresh ingredients . . . it was simply exhilarating and even shocking.

Chef Trotter made a point of stopping by our table and even though we were clearly the least affluent/well dressed folks in the room he was kind and seemed energized by our enthusiasm for the experience he'd created.

There have been plenty of stories in recent years about Trotter's fading star, his failure to successfully hop on the celebrity chef bandwagon, and the passing of the avant garde torch to legions of talented chefs, some of whom passed through his notoriously difficult kitchen.

Whatever. That meal I had permanently changed my outlook on food and what a restaurant can be and his cuisine laid the groundwork for so much that came after.

Rest in peace, Chef.

*it had launched just months earlier and wouldn't have a major subscriber footprint for years)
**to be clear I was and remain a meat-loving omnivore
posted by donovan at 12:06 PM on November 5, 2013 [68 favorites]

God rest his soul.

posted by magstheaxe at 12:36 PM on November 5, 2013

Well, damn.

There are probably more stressful careers than being a chef (air-traffic controller, neurosurgeon, EMT, and rodeo clown spring to mind) but few combine art, science, commerce, and stupid blind luck in such an exhilarating and toxic mix.

I don't know many old chefs. Plenty old cooks, plenty old restaurateurs, but not so many old chefs. Most people can't work that hard with that kind of focus and live a long and happy life.

I never ate in one of Trotter's restaurants, and now I never will. That's sad. But partially because of his influence, there are places in town serving rabbit rillettes and corned duck terrines and all sorts of exquisite little plates that just wouldn't have been possible if Trotter hadn't done the heavy lifting years ago.

posted by BitterOldPunk at 12:45 PM on November 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

My wife and I went to Trotter's in 2001 the night we got engaged. One of the more memorable meals of my life. Sad to see how quickly things went off the rails for him after he closed the restaurant. Trotter was a giant in his day. Put Chicago on the map as the culinary mecca it is today. RIP Chef.

posted by theknacker at 12:54 PM on November 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

One of the first "fancy" cookbooks I ever picked up. I was working the year after high school graduation at Border's. No plans for college, no money and no direction. Picked up his book and one by Marco Pierre White one day and that's when the need to cook took hold.

More than anything he gave American cooking integrity. The insistence that you didn't chisel your diners. You ONLY offer the best and you prepare it with all of your skill and knowledge.

Thanks, chef.

posted by kaiseki at 12:58 PM on November 5, 2013 [4 favorites]

I grew up in Chicago; Charlie Trotter pretty much single-handedly put the city on the culinary map.

This is really unbelievable. You want people to rebound, but sometimes the cord just snaps. I wish this self-inficted torture on no one. I know in life he was not the victim. But in passing, it looks like he died having lost everything and everyone.
posted by phaedon at 1:09 PM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I ate things that I can't imagine eating in any other context. I remember being amazed that dessert came from the grapes that grew over the front entryway. Eating there changed how I thought about food, and changed how I thought about being an average midwestern girl in a fancy restaurant.

But I do think I heard him fire someone once; loudly. I don't know if I could have handled being on the other end of that.
posted by answergrape at 1:18 PM on November 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

posted by From Bklyn at 1:24 PM on November 5, 2013

I am very sorry I never got to eat his food.

posted by rtha at 1:30 PM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

His behavior in the past couple of years, coupled now with his sudden death, make me hope that he had an undiagnosed brain tumor that affected his behavior, rather than the conclusion I came to years ago while working with him, which is that he was just an enormous fucking asshole.
posted by juniperesque at 1:45 PM on November 5, 2013 [10 favorites]


I briefly dated a man, with more money than sense many days, here in Chicago, some years ago. He used to pick me up from my public interest lawyer hovel with Trotter's to Go in his hand. I have such fond memories of that food.
posted by crush-onastick at 1:51 PM on November 5, 2013 [4 favorites]

His behavior in the past couple of years, coupled now with his sudden death, make me hope that he had an undiagnosed brain tumor that affected his behavior,

Just got a tip from a former colleague (now with NPR), that COD was likely a brain aneurysm, which had been previously diagnosed.
posted by timsteil at 1:55 PM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Grew up in Chicago; this man's cooking is the single biggest reason why I'm thrilled my son has taken a strong interest in cooking.

posted by davejay at 2:03 PM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


posted by cool breeze at 2:07 PM on November 5, 2013

I always regret not asking for the waiter's tie. RIP Charlie.

posted by JoeZydeco at 2:09 PM on November 5, 2013

Also previously. I'll throw down a glass of diesel-like wine in his memory tonight.
posted by unliteral at 2:34 PM on November 5, 2013

I never got to eat at any of his restaurants, but I've read a good deal about his influence, without which I'd probably never would have started seriously cooking.

posted by Ghidorah at 3:14 PM on November 5, 2013

Charlie Trotter has died. -- Chicago Magazine.
posted by timsteil at 3:43 PM on November 5, 2013

My husband and I ate at C on our honeymoon. A man stopped by the table to ask how our meal was, and my husband replied quickly and affirmatively before digging back into this amazing passionfruit caramel sauce. The man, of course, was Charlie Trotter.
posted by Ruki at 3:50 PM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have a lovely ex-boyfriend from Chicago who loved Trotter. His father regaled us with stories of eating at his restaurants. I remember flipping through those cookbooks in a Northern suburb of Chicago in the wintertime on holiday.

posted by k8lin at 4:11 PM on November 5, 2013

The dinner I had at Charlie Trotter's was the best meal I've ever had.

RIP, Chef.

posted by Fig at 4:25 PM on November 5, 2013

I was lucky enough to dine there a few times in the early 90s when I was in my early 20s. Definitely some of the most formative experiences of my life.

posted by MarvinTheCat at 4:26 PM on November 5, 2013

posted by Karmeliet at 5:25 PM on November 5, 2013

Here's Charlie Trotter on Julia Child's Cooks with Master Chefs in 1995.

I don't think I've ever seen this episode before. Trotter cooks scallops in a curried carrot broth with chard, mushrooms and haricot vert--it's a lovely dish from his first cookbook and it illustrates, I think some of the newness of Trotter at the time. I mean, who the hell made sauces out of vegetable juice?*

* Trotter wasn't completely alone in this though it was not at all mainstream at the time. Jean George Vongerichten's Simple Cuisine published in 1990 was among the first books to document this lighter approach to haute cuisine, favoring juices, viniagrettes and infused oils over heavier cream-based sauces.
posted by donovan at 5:25 PM on November 5, 2013

The Chicago Tribune story mentions the brain aneurysm.

posted by BibiRose at 5:34 PM on November 5, 2013

posted by buffalo at 6:09 PM on November 5, 2013

Working in food in Chicago, I've come to know quite a few people who had worked with Charlie Trotter in the past. Their emotions are mixed today, as this news was like one final reminder of their experiences with him, and it churned up a lot of past feelings.

My sympathies are with his family.

posted by onehalfjunco at 6:21 PM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm glad he's now out of his misery, which seemed to become greater by the day.
posted by Jon_Evil at 7:33 PM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Wow. Reading about how Trotter treated the art students, he sounds like a major asshole.
posted by jayder at 7:43 PM on November 5, 2013

Pulitzer Prize winner Mary Schmich hits it out of the park.
posted by timsteil at 7:48 PM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

timsteil, that link gives me - "Premium content is currently available to users within the United States." This Google link let's me get it though.
posted by unliteral at 8:28 PM on November 5, 2013

That Schmich article is pay walled apparently. Too bad, she's usually great.
posted by MarvinTheCat at 9:20 PM on November 5, 2013

I mean, who the hell made sauces out of vegetable juice?*

Beyond "Who would have thought of doing that?", there were also multiple technical and economic hurdles to the culinary use of juices. The juice of 1 carrot still costs you a whole carrot, but the yield is only 33% by mass, and so a chef has to be willing to balance that cost for the restaurant. Meanwhile there are a several different types of electric juicers, each with different yields but also differences in the texture and flavor of the juice. And beyond that, plant juices broadly suffer from the problem of flavor decay—oxidation and other natural enzymatic reactions very quickly result in undesired browning and/or flavor loss, so a restaurant needs to figure out new routines to compensate for or work around that. These are just the general issues involved, and in contrast, traditional sauces based on dairy, eggs, protein or vegetable stocks, enhanced with small bits of herbs, were and remain much cheaper and easier to make, control, and execute. My own speculation would be that, of course, many passionate chefs throughout history would have noticed a glass of peach or tomato juice or whatever, and pondered, How can I bring this just-off-the-press flavor to the restaurant table? Then it was the many practical barriers that were in the way of the vision of chefs, but now modern chefs have both the desire and the means.

A simple dessert challenge is to find a way to keep Granny Smith apple juice green. I had been attempting this tonight and basically there's no cut and simple answer; easily there's a dozen factors/possibilities to consider and evaluate.
posted by polymodus at 12:57 AM on November 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's not paywalled, you just have to register. There's a free ("digital lite") option that will let you read it.

I just realized Trotter is the celebrity-chef-turned-philosophy-grad-student that Leiter wrote about a while back. Interesting.
posted by jayder at 8:09 AM on November 6, 2013

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