There are two eras in Chicago dining: B.C. and A.C.
Before Charlie and After Charlie.
Charlie Trotter, who died Nov. 5 at 54, created more than an eating place when he opened his namesake restaurant in 1987. He remade the culinary landscape, introducing a sheaf of ideas on how to buy food, how to cook it and how to serve it.
Working from his own idiosyncratic playbook, he trained the chefs and the sommeliers and the waiters who would shape the dining experience that made Charlie Trotter’s the city’s pre-eminent fine-dining restaurant and a magnet for ambitious young professionals.
“He put across the idea that this isn’t just what you do, it’s who you are,” said Graham Elliot, who did two tours of duty with Trotter, at his flagship restaurant and at his takeout venture, Trotter’s to Go. “You are defined by your ingredients, by the way you touch them, by the flavors you draw from them. Chicago was absolutely transformed.”
The admirers who showed up outside Charlie Trotter’s on the night of his death and held a candlelight vigil might consider chiseling into its walls Christopher Wren’s epitaph in St. Paul’s Cathedral: Si monumentum requiris, circumspice. If you seek his monument, look around.
And not just in Chicago, for his reach was long, extending to chefs, restaurateurs, front-of-house workers and wine professionals across the country.
The legacy starts in Chicago, of course, where the graduates of what Elliot calls Charlie Trotter University now run the show. The honor roll is very long. There’s Elliot at Graham Elliot and Graham Elliot Bistro; Giuseppe Tentori at Boka; Homaro Cantu at Moto; Mindy Segal of Mindy’s Hot Chocolate; Art Smith of Table 52; Bill Kim of Belly Q and Urban Belly; and Curtis Duffy of Grace. Matthias Merges, the owner and executive chef of Yusho, opened a new restaurant, A10, in the Hyde Park neighborhood the night that Trotter died.
Trotter’s many acolytes bear the imprint of an experience not unlike belonging to a religious order or a cult. Trotter, like a culinary Maoist, preached endless revolution. Tasting menus, his stock in trade, were improvised daily and even hourly.
He was a fanatic about wine and food pairings and would order his chefs to adjust dishes at the last minute to match the wine order. A fan of cross-training, he did not hesitate to turn a cook into a waiter or tap his longtime sommelier, Larry Stone, on the shoulder and assign him to pastry duty.
“He created chefs, not cooks,” Elliot said, recalling the evening when he stood idle, waiting for the grill chef to deliver several quail he was using in a dish.
Trotter led him to the array of meats sizzling on the grill and told him to forget the quail. “Make something happen,” he said.
And it was not just the food. Trotter believed in the concept of the restaurant as a gesamtkunstwerk, to borrow the Wagnerian term for a fully integrated work of art that touches all the senses simultaneously. That is one reason he introduced a table in the kitchen, encouraging guests to talk to the line cooks.
The wine world has felt his influence, too.
“When Charlie started, chefs didn’t consider sommeliers as anything more than glorified bartenders,” said Stone, who joined the restaurant in 1989. At the time, there were only two sommeliers in San Francisco, none in the Napa Valley, a few in New York.
“He elevated food and wine pairing to a level that has never been matched,” said Stone, who is now the dean of wine studies at the International Culinary Center in Campbell, Calif., and the estates director of the Napa winery Quintessa.
Trotter pushed his sommeliers to pass the master sommelier exam, a credential that opened doors in the industry. Many of his former employees went on to other top restaurants, to work with wine distributors or to operate wine stores.
Trotter’s reputation slid in recent years. When he closed his restaurant last year, it was a quarter-century old, an eternity in restaurant time, and the manic energy he poured into it took a personal toll. Increasingly, other restaurants and chefs received some of the love and attention that Trotter once monopolized.
But that, too, was testimony to his influence. The newcomers making all the noise, and captivating the critics, had something in common. Trotter had made the world they now thrived in.