Graham Elliot was an aspiring young cook in the late '90s carrying steaks to a party of 20 in the Charlie Trotter's Studio Kitchen when the restaurant's brilliant, mercurial owner stopped him in the hallway and grabbed one of the pieces of meat.
"He goes, ‘Whoa whoa whoa, I'm really hungry,' and just starts eating it, like in his hand,” recalls Elliot, who went by Graham Elliot Bowles back then and now owns three Chicago restaurants and co-stars on Fox's “MasterChef."
"I just looked at him, like (freaking out). I only made 20 steaks for 20 people, and he's like, ‘What's wrong?'
"Well, there's 20 people, and one of these could be undercooked or over(cooked) or overseasoned or could fall on the floor. Like you wouldn't be stupid enough to only make 20 steaks for 20 people. You've got like five extra, right? You wouldn't do that.'
"'Chef ... '
"And he was like, ‘What the (expletive)! What are you thinking?!'
"And I had to run back, and I was just like, ‘Who does that (stuff)?' And that's my lesson."
People in and out of Chicago have known about Charlie Trotter's groundbreaking cuisine and peerless hospitality since his eponymous restaurant opened 25 years ago in a Lincoln Park town house. Far fewer folks have had much inkling of the creative, tumultuous, inspiring, grueling, uplifting, crushing and sometimes wacky behind-the-scenes goings-on that enabled Charlie Trotter's to deliver those superlative experiences.
After a final event Friday, Trotter will close the doors on both his restaurant and an era in Chicago fine dining. Milestones are a time for reflection, and many of his former cooks and dining room staffers are now talking publicly about their experiences working with a man who made “excellence” and “intensity” his mantras — and had zero tolerance for anyone who didn't fall in line.
So it is that Elliot could laugh about his steak encounter with Trotter but didn't want to comment on another incident recalled by several people who were in the kitchen at the time. Trotter's hot, cramped kitchen is a notoriously serious place where you focus solely on the food that you're preparing. You don't chat. You don't joke.
But one evening during service, Elliot said something funny to crack up his friend Homaro Cantu, now the executive chef/owner of Moto and iNG, who was working alongside him.
“Charlie walks into the kitchen,” Cantu recalls, “and he goes up to Graham Elliot, and he puts his hands around (Elliot's) neck, and he's like, ‘Don't you know that I will (expletive) kill you right now?' And Elliot's just standing there, and tears (come) right out of his eyes.”
Matthias Merges, who ran Trotter's kitchen for more than a decade and is now the chef/owner of Yusho, says such behavior and words weren't unusual for Trotter. “We'd see it all the time,” he says. “He said it all the time. You just have to brush that off.”
Giuseppe Tentori, Trotter's sous-chef at the time and now executive chef at GT Fish & Oyster and Boka, didn't take the dust-up too seriously. “It's not strangling,” he says. “It's just like: ‘Get back to work; be serious.'”
All Elliot will say about the incident is, “I can tell you that I was laughing when he walked in with the kitchen tour, and I was, uh — what would the wording be? — I was quieted.”
When asked specifically about putting his hands on Elliot, Trotter has this response: “Here's the thing about me that I guess is misunderstood: I never talk about myself, but if I do say so myself, I'm just about the funniest guy I know. I have a sense of humor that might not always work for folks. I put my hands around a lot of people's throats. We'll take pictures in the kitchen. A guest will say, ‘Can I take your picture?' I say, ‘Let me get a picture with me and this guy,' and I'll be like with my hands on his throat going, ‘Don't ever mess me with again' kind of thing.”
The image of Trotter choking a chef certainly fits the cartoon persona of him. In the opening of the 1997 Julia Roberts romantic comedy “My Best Friend's Wedding,” Trotter, playing a version of himself, yells at a cook: “I will kill your whole family if you don't get this right!” The previous year Chicago magazine ranked him as the city's second-meanest person, and he complained about not being No. 1. (That was Michael Jordan.)
The chef, who turns 53 next month, has a reputation for being, let's say, difficult.
Yet what's the moral of these particular stories?
Elliot reveres Trotter.
He refers to him as a father figure.
He's so dedicated to his former boss that he recently kicked WLS-Ch. 7 food reporter Steve Dolinsky out of his restaurant g.e.b. because Dolinsky had made negative Twitter comments from Charlie Trotter's dining room nine months earlier.
Although Elliot says he wanted to quit Trotter's every day for the first six months he worked there, after a stint in the less tense kitchen of Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand's acclaimed fine-dining restaurant Tru, he did what many former Trotter's chefs have done: returned for a second tour of duty.
“It's kind of like that Vietnam vet thing, like you don't understand unless you were there in the trenches with people,” Elliot says.
Like the combinations of ingredients and flavors on his plates, Trotter and his relationships with the people who have worked for him can be enormously complex. Some felt bullied by him. Some felt inspired. Many felt both.
Regardless, since Aug. 17, 1987, diners have made the pilgrimage to 816 W. Armitage Ave. to consume something other than Trotter's personality. From the day it opened, Charlie Trotter's was busy, and the heat it generated, inside and outside the kitchen, only intensified over time. For most of its 25 years, Charlie Trotter's defined fine dining in Chicago.
Other great restaurants operated in the area before Trotter's — Le Francais, Cafe Provencal and Le Perroquet, among them — but Trotter's was a groundbreaking American restaurant with international reach. It anticipated many trends we now take for granted:
Sourcing fine, fresh, often-unusual ingredients from small purveyors locally (hello, farm-to-table) and far beyond.
Dispensing with traditional French-style cream- and butter-based sauces and heavy reductions in favor of lighter, healthier broths.
Bold, surprising flavor and texture combinations, with fruits often showing up in the entrees and savory ingredients giving a kick to the desserts; the spotlighting of vegetables, including the creation of an all-veggie tasting menu.
Elevating wine pairings to the point that food often would be adjusted to match the wine rather than the other way around.
An obsessive quest to merge food, wine, service and hospitality into a singular sublime experience.
Trotter turned this show into a blockbuster at home and took it on the road, paying for his team to travel around the country and globe to prepare lavish dinners at charity functions and high-profile food events. In the meantime, his maroon-covered, self-titled first cookbook from 1994, with its glorious full-page color photos of beautiful, complicated, exotic-sounding dishes (Squab Salad With Foie Gras Hollandaise, White Truffle Oil, 50-Year-Old Balsamic Vinegar and Crispy Pig's Feet), was one of the first to function as a coffee-table art book, and it doubled as a recruiting tool for chefs.
For many years if one chef from Chicago was known throughout the world, it was Charlie Trotter.
Back when he was preparing to open the restaurant, he said he intended to name it Zelda or Zelda's after author F. Scott Fitzgerald's “glorious but extremely troubled” wife, whom he imagined eating a duck leg with the juices dripping decadently down her neck. But, he says, a public relations guy persuaded him to follow the tradition of grand European restaurants named after chefs and to call it Charlie Trotter's instead, even though he was actually known as Chuck at the time. (Chuck Trotter's sounds more like a steak joint.)
Charlie Trotter's, like Charlie Trotter, has been perpetually restless, in constant pursuit of excellence, he stresses, and not perfection — though folks in his kitchen certainly felt his wrath when their work was less than perfect. To Trotter, excellence is something more fluid and ever-changing than perfection. Dishes, no matter how awesome, should not become menu fixtures; they shouldn't even be repeated from day to day. Variations per plate are OK, desirable even, as long as a certain standard is maintained. With Trotter that standard just happens to be astronomically high.
“I never considered Miles Davis a perfectionist; I always considered him as an excellence-ist, where deviation is actually kind of cool,” Trotter says on a recent hot summer afternoon as he sits in his restaurant's elegant front lounge sporting plaid shorts, a baseball cap and the faint beard stubble that has become part of his recent look. “It's the human element of it, and that's what I always liked about him.”
Trotter likes to view his own work as a culinary form of jazz, and he'll go to great lengths to keep his players on their toes for the sake of spontaneity. Sometimes that means informing the kitchen personnel that he has just welcomed in a group of passers-by for lunch, so they ought to drop everything to prepare a Charlie Trotter's-worthy lunch for the visitors. Sometimes that means announcing at 3 p.m. that he has a new idea for a dish he wants served that night.
Almost always that means invoking the mantra “Make it happen,” no matter how impossible the person on the receiving end may consider the task. And if Trotter doesn't like how something looks, into the garbage or onto the floor it goes, a bit of raucous dinner theater for guests seated at the kitchen table.
For more than two decades, Trotter has relentlessly driven his food and service staffs with a micro-precise eye for detail and disdain for anyone who doesn't share his monomaniacal focus and willingness to spend night and day — and, often, off days — in the restaurant. You're not expected to do just what you think your job description is; duty may also compel you to scrub down the inside of an exhaust hood at 1 a.m.
That pressure cooker of a kitchen has turned out a who's who of chefs who have achieved significant success on their own, among them Tramonto and Gand, Elliot, Cantu, Merges, Tentori, Bill Kim (Urban Belly, Belly Shack), Mindy Segal (Mindy's Hot Chocolate), Curtis Duffy (soon-to-open Grace, after an acclaimed stint at Avenues), Michael Taus (Zealous), Jeff Mauro (Jam) and chefs who have thrived in other cities, including David LeFevre, David Myers, Michelle Gayer, Guillermo Tellez, John Shields and Karen Urie. Trotter often touts the leadership culture he fostered, and many of these chefs agree that their Trotter's experiences prepared them to run their own kitchens, even if they vowed to do so with a gentler hand.
Trotter's most celebrated alumnus may be Grant Achatz of Alinea and Next, but Achatz worked there for just a few months, and Trotter's general rule was if you didn't last a year, you didn't really work there at all. Achatz, who went on to be mentored by Thomas Keller at the French Laundry in Napa Valley, detailed his negative Trotter's experience in his 2011 memoir, “Life, on the Line.”
What hasn't been publicly aired is that Beverly Kim, who recently left Aria to become chef at the intimate Logan Square restaurant Bonsoiree — and who achieved national fame earlier this year as a somewhat polarizing semifinalist on Bravo's “Top Chef” — followed up her early-2000s stint in Trotter's kitchen by filing a class-action lawsuit against the restaurant and its owner over unpaid overtime and other wages.
Here's a complicated question: Could Charlie Trotter's have been Charlie Trotter's without Charlie Trotter's ultra-demanding, confrontational nature?
And if Trotter's such a tough SOB, how does one explain the ultra-generous side of his personality, which covers anything from underwriting the legal work to settle an employee's immigration status to paying for staffers' travel — sometimes on Trotter's business, sometimes not — to such philanthropic efforts as the Charlie Trotter Culinary Education Foundation, which since 1999 has raised $3 million to provide needy students with culinary-program scholarships; his Excellence Program, through which, a few times a week, high school students would dine in his restaurant and hear about the pursuit of excellence from the chefs presenting each dish; and sizable donations of money, time, food and his staff's talents to support various charities. Earlier this year Trotter was named the James Beard Foundation's Humanitarian of the Year.
“As cruel as he is, he's generous to a fault,” Patricia Mowen-Ziegler, who managed the dining room for much of her seven-year Trotter's tenure in the 1990s, says — one of those statements about Trotter that place two seemingly contradictory concepts into proximity.
Not everyone agrees he was cruel, but some have wondered whether Trotter might have achieved what he achieved without being so … for lack of a better word … mean.
Chicago magazine's ranking aside, Trotter rejects the premise.
“I was never mean,” Trotter says. “I was always intense and always have been intense. I will make sure that people don't just slack off or take the easy road. I make you take the high road. I don't come here every day going, ‘Am I going to be mean?' But if you're slacking off or something, I'm definitely going to make you feel the pain.”
Trotter's legacy in the dining world no doubt overshadows his impact on those who worked for him. But that impact sure was something.
“What we owe to Charlie is Charlie taught us how to dine,” says Gand, who worked as Trotter's pastry chef in the early 1990s. “He was instrumental just in putting Chicago on the culinary map and really helping us understand fine dining.
“But, you know, it was a painful process, and a lot of us were shell-shocked. I remember (years after I worked there) he had a PBS show (‘The Kitchen Sessions With Charlie Trotter'), and it was on in the background of my house one day, and I heard Charlie like yell at an employee on the show, and my blood pressure went up, and I literally said, ‘Yes, chef!' like he was ordering something. And then I was like: ‘Oh wait, it's just a TV show.' Like I was a bit traumatized by my time with Charlie, and a lot of people experienced him that way.”
Dec. 2, 1985, 5 p.m. PARIS
The culinary tour de force is reaching its conclusion. I've seen enough, I've had enough, I'm almost ready to return and resume my duties in the kitchen. French food is great, no doubt about (it), indeed maybe The Greatest! But my style is forged more than ever, and although it owes its very backbone to classical cuisine, there are many, many influences that have changed and altered it. … Cuisine Personnal, American Haute, who knows? But I'm ready to really begin executing it on a serious level ...
Love, CHT(postcard from Charlie Trotter to Carrie Nahabedian)
Growing up in Wilmette as the oldest of four children, Charlie Trotter wasn't the kind of son who would send his mother's food back to the kitchen because it didn't meet his standards.
“He was my best eater, as a matter of fact, so he always had a good palate,” says Dona-Lee Trotter, though she adds: “I never had the gift that he has for creating these incredible dishes. He'd try anything and not complain. He wasn't even interested in cooking then. I mean, he was just a boy growing up, and he never asked to cook in the kitchen or anything.”
The young Trotter also had no one pushing him in the way he came to push others; he says he had no especially demanding role model. His father was an entrepreneur whose success would underwrite Charlie's ambitious restaurant venture, but rather than being an authoritarian figure, Bob Trotter encouraged his eldest son to strike out on his own path.
“My parents couldn't be looser,” Charlie Trotter says. “It was the ultimate laissez faire upbringing.”
Dona-Lee Trotter says of her son's drive: “I think he always had that from himself. He kind of directed his siblings; he was always trying to make them into better people” — she laughs — “which they didn't always appreciate.”
“I think that was just me,” Charlie Trotter agrees. “I've always been a little crazy.”
His attention to detail surfaced in his earliest jobs. When he did lawn work, he says, he made a point of mowing at a different angle each time, as well as doing the edging and cleaning up the leaves under bushes.
“Even as a kid delivering newspapers,” Trotter recalls, “I would make sure the paper would be at the front doorstep, and it would take me longer to do the thing because I'd have to ride my bicycle all the way up and get off my bicycle and put it on the doorstep.”
Food as a passion didn't enter into the equation until he was an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, earning his degree in political science, and found that he enjoyed cooking for his roommate.
“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,” he says. “So I cooked that way for about six months, and then I began to realize: 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.”
Trotter worked as a waiter, a bartender and a host at some Madison restaurants before ending up back on the North Shore. At that time restaurant work was considered more of a blue-collar pursuit — it certainly wasn't among the preferred professions for the New Trier set — but Trotter found his experiences “really cool” and considered having a go at it.
“What's the worst that could happen?” he says he thought. “I can always go back to graduate school or business school or law school or something.”
Trotter, who's big on noting anniversaries, says September will mark 30 years since he started cooking with Norman Van Aken and Carrie Nahabedian at Sinclair's in Lake Forest. Van Aken, the venerable chef of Norman's in Orlando, Fla., recalls an “impossibly pale, thin, gaunt, very athletic” young man coming in as a busboy and eventually asking whether he might work in the kitchen.
Van Aken said no, repeatedly, but Nahabedian, now chef/owner at Chicago's much-acclaimed Naha, saw something she liked.
“He was very passionate that he wanted to cook, and he had incredible book knowledge, and his hands were amazing, just the way that he expressed himself,” she recalls. “I remember going to Norman, saying, ‘He doesn't have any experience, but I think we should hire him, No. 1, because I think he has really great hands, and I think that this is somebody that we should be on the lookout for.'”
What was it about his hands?
“I could just tell that he had talent,” Nahabedian says. “Even now when you're talking to Charlie, watch his expressions with his body and his hands and the way that he always has one hand kind of at the top of his arm, and he's holding it, and he's so reflective. It wasn't like he was an Italian person from the Bronx waving his arms around. It was just that self-assured confidence of inquisitiveness. I know he went to school and got his degree in something completely unrelated to cooking, yet it showed through in the interview that this was somebody that had that intensity, and those hands, they were going to create something great.”
Nahabedian and Trotter finally persuaded Van Aken to relent, but before those hands could achieve greatness, they accumulated their share of nicks.
“He kept hiding his hands from me,” Van Aken says. “His chef coat was dragging down past his hands, and I went over to him one day, and I just began to fold back his jacket sleeves for him like a mother might for a schoolchild who was in clothes that were too long. And then I realized that he had, you know, been cutting himself and burning himself in the act of getting to know how to cook, how to be a chef. And I was shocked. I was like, ‘What are you doing?' He thought he was going to be in trouble. But then I began to kid him. I'd say, ‘Hey, Chuck, how many Band-Aids are we going to use on you today?'”
For Trotter the scars were nothing compared with the experience he was gaining.
“It was sort of like: I can't believe I'm doing this. This is unbelievable. They're even paying me three dollars and 10 cents an hour, which back then was the minimum wage, and I thought: Wow, this is the greatest thing ever,” he says.
“He took a lot of notes,” Nahabedian recalls. “That scholar in him, that student in him, wanted to know why you roasted the onions before you put them in the compound butter, or why do you score red snapper skin. Most cooks wouldn't ask you all those things. They would just emulate what you were doing. But Charlie would want to always know why.”
His quest for knowledge became an odyssey that took him to work at restaurants in San Francisco, to attend the California Culinary Academy for two months, to reunite with Van Aken at two more restaurants in Florida and to embark upon a tour of Michelin three-star restaurants in Europe.
“I don't like to always publicize this to my own team, but the longest job I ever had prior to opening this restaurant was six months,” Trotter says. “I worked in 40 restaurants over a five-year period.”
While in California, Trotter called Van Aken asking whether he needed a hand at his new hotel restaurant opening in Jupiter, Fla. The chef told him sure, and Trotter hopped into his car and drove cross-country, finally phoning from a 7-Eleven in town so Van Aken could direct him to the hotel.
“I drove down to that 7-Eleven, and oh my God, he looked so beat,” Van Aken recalls with a laugh. “He hadn't shaved, and there were like countless coffee cups in the back of this car, newspapers and just the whole detritus of having gone across the country in four days. And he was slumbering in the front seat of the car with a sweat-stained golf visor sort of down, hiding his face from the Florida sun. And I woke him up by pressing a cold Heineken against his cheek.”
Van Aken noted that Trotter had “grown in leaps and bounds” in the kitchen, but soon Trotter was embarking on his European adventure.
“I have an entire box full of postcards that Charlie sent me from all over the world,” Nahabedian says. “He has incredible handwriting. He's one of those people that could write The Lord's Prayer on a kernel of rice. He would say, ‘This is what I ate,' and so on and so forth, and ‘I love this person's style of cooking.' At some point that's what transformed him.”
Says Trotter: “The epiphany for me in terms of what (Trotter's) became was a meal that I had at restaurant Girardet in Crissier, Switzerland, back in I think it was '85. At the time I think it was considered the best restaurant in the world, and chef Fredy Girardet never really did the same dish twice, and it was the first time I'd ever been to a restaurant where the four tenets of the grande cuisine were all elevated in equal measure: the cuisine, the ambience, the wine/beverage program and the service, so that they added up to something greater than the sum of the parts. It was then that I determined that this is the kind of thing I want to do.”
Van Aken worked with his friend one last time at the Key West, Fla., restaurant Louie's Backyard and observed: “He had just an extraordinary capacity to pick out all of the little details of the entire restaurant experience,” Van Aken says. “His maturity and his sense of progression were uncanny. It was just, holy cow.”
After a few months of helping Van Aken achieve his vision of elevated American cuisine, Trotter told his mentor that he was ready to return to Chicago to try to open his own restaurant, but first he wanted to cook dinner for Van Aken and his wife, Janet.
“For the first time, I sat down as a customer in the restaurant, and Charlie cooked a meal that had nothing to do with what we were cooking ever before,” Van Aken says. “Every dish was a dish that I had not seen in any parts before: a brand-new, complete roster of dishes from beginning to end, and every detail was extraordinary.”
One dish that foreshadowed what became a Trotter's trademark was a terrine of chocolate and poached oranges, as Trotter took a traditional French technique and applied it to nontraditional ingredients instead of the standard meats. “The terrine was one that just rocked me,” Van Aken says.
Back in Chicago, Trotter got to work on turning his vision — an American fine-dining restaurant with a European-style dedication to service and wine — into reality. Most chefs who open their own restaurants must scramble to line up investors, but Trotter required just one key supporter: his father.
“My husband was an entrepreneur, and he was retired and sort of hungry for a new project, so he decided to back him in this,” Dona-Lee Trotter recalls. “He was in the restaurant five days a week in the basement building up the business side of the restaurant; they still use what he set up today. Charlie couldn't have done it without him.”
“He hated restaurants, hated them,” Trotter says of his father. “He thought they were pretentious. He thought that the people that work in restaurants were disorganized and not responsible and would run late every day and everything else. But it was like a father-son project, and he just liked the idea of the process of starting a business and doing it with me, which I'm eternally grateful for. He would wring his hair half the time like, ‘What is this place?'”
The young chef was inspired by elegant and understated restaurants, such as Lutece, that he'd seen in town houses or brownstones in New York. In 1987 the block of Armitage west of Halsted Street lacked the upscale cachet it now boasts (thanks in no small part to Trotter's), but it did feature a town house that, after a $1.3 million gut rehab, could become home to the restaurant of Trotter's dreams.
While Trotter was waiting for the work to be completed, he catered a series of dinner parties alongside Geoff Felsenthal, a chef with whom he'd worked at the Campton Place Hotel's restaurant in San Francisco and whom he had asked to help him open his own restaurant by sending him a letter on a chocolate wrapper.
“We did a lot of catering for people that might have helped him out, lawyers or accountants or whatever, just to get the word out,” says Felsenthal, now a culinary professor at the Illinois Institute of Art.
Trotter estimates that he prepared 80 dinners in homes over a year, “so when we opened, some 400 people had had an intimate experience with what I was going to do, and so there was a small groundswell of folks right out of the gate that wanted to come.”
“I still remember eating there opening night,” Nahabedian says, noting that although Trotter's food would rise to higher levels, it still was impressive — enough that she made a point of keeping every menu from every dinner she has eaten there. “A lot of people talk about Charlie's family's money and the wealth and that things came easy to him, and I call bull … right away on that. You still have to worry that your staff is making money and that your restaurant is full and that you're doing what you want to do and you're not compromising. Charlie's father believed in him, and his family believed in him, and look what he has. Look what he built.”
When Van Aken traveled to Chicago to visit his protege, he was wowed by the restaurant and surprised by the imposing chef he observed in the kitchen.
“It was completely different than the guy I knew,” Van Aken says. “I kept thinking he was kidding. He was coming across almost like playing a bit of a part that he had seen somewhere. But he wasn't.”
Wednesday in A+E: Part 2 — Trotter cranks up the kitchen heat
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