Everyone knows Charlie Trotter as the chef of Charlie Trotter's. It's his name, his restaurant, and he's the boss. But that title “chef” has many meanings, and Trotter has embodied just about all of them during his 25 years at Charlie Trotter's.
For instance, there are cooks who have worked there during the past 15 years who make this statement: “I never saw him cook.” By then his notion of “chef” had changed, and he was doing his creative culinary work “100 percent upstairs,” he says, pointing to his noggin. But soon after the restaurant opened in August 1987 and he was a gangly ex-gymnast on the cusp of turning 28 — and before the restaurant's staffing caught up with its volume of diners — Trotter did pretty much everything there was to do in the kitchen.
He even set up a system to keep himself energized from his 6 a.m. arrival onward.
“I would make four very, very strong cappuccino drinks, and I'd put them in different places, so first thing in the morning I would receive the fish, and I'd have coffee at the back door,” Trotter says. “I would receive produce, and then I'd run over to the pastry department, and I made all the bread, I made all the ice creams and sorbets, and so I'd have coffee waiting there. The thing was, I would plant these things so I wouldn't have to carry coffee with me.”
Recalls Rick Tramonto, who worked as a daytime sous chef at Trotter's for a year in 1989: “He was in there every morning, doing dishes, doing pots, and it was a very different time.”
How different? A black Labrador retriever would tag along with Trotter.
“He'd just lay down in front of the pass,” says Tramonto, now cooking at Restaurant R'evolution in New Orleans. “(The restaurant) had these high, high standards and these high disciplines, but at the end of the day there was a dog in the kitchen.”
By 1993, when Tramonto's then-wife Gale Gand was a Trotter's pastry chef, she says it was unusual for Trotter to be doing the actual cooking.
“Occasionally, if the line got behind, he would try to jump behind line to cook, which was like everybody's nightmare,” Gand recalls. “What you did not want was you did not want Charlie on the line, because he made it worse, and he didn't get it. He's not an accelerated line cook. He's a great chef.”
Gand makes a key distinction. Many name chefs do not cook on the line. Some expedite, which means relaying each order to the kitchen and making sure it gets out to the dining room at the right time and in the right condition. Some aren't in the kitchen at all, having delegated those responsibilities to their chef de cuisine, sous chefs or other team leaders.
Trotter always has been known as a hands-on manager, but as his business grew in culinary ambition and overall scope, and as the restaurant garnered accolades as one of the country's and, eventually, world's best, he found himself taking a broader view.
“My role definitely changed little by little,” Trotter says. “I think for the first two years I never stepped one foot off the hot line. I was one of the guys on the line cooking in a station and expediting at the same time. And as we got busier, I realized I needed to have a different perspective. I guess I went from, if you will, first violinist to conductor. You're the conductor, you're not really playing the instrument, but on the other hand you see the whole orchestra, and you have total control over everything.”
Trotter had a vision of what he wanted — a superlative restaurant that matched a bold, creative American approach to cooking with a grand European level of hospitality — and he expected it to be executed with unflinching precision.
Mark Signorio, who started as a server in Trotter's second month and would go on to oversee several high-profile projects during his 20 years there, remembers the chef assembling his team in the front of the restaurant and inviting them “to go on this journey with him.”
“The level of expectation was always there right from day one,” says Geoff Felsenthal, the chef whom Trotter lured from San Francisco to help him open the restaurant. “He goes, ‘This is the level we want to be at, and this is how we are going to get there. We're going to work hard; we are going to come in every day and do the best we can and hire the best we can and get the best-quality product in here.' I don't think he's ever deviated from his original vision. Maybe just intensified it.”
Trotter's early dishes and a la carte menus weren't as elaborate as the tasting menus to follow. The opening-night menu included such relatively straightforward courses as grilled swordfish with crayfish mayonnaise, and roast chicken and braised cabbage with wild rice-garlic flan. But his overall philosophy wavered little over the years. The menu would change daily, as would the ingredients.
For most of its years Trotter's kitchen didn't have a walk-in refrigerator; the kitchen aimed to use up what it had every night and to get fresh product every day. Felsenthal recalls the parade of farmers and other small-scale purveyors who would appear daily at the back door bearing beautiful, fresh, unusual varieties of vegetables, herbs, seafood and other items not often found in restaurants at that time.
Says current Zealous executive chef/owner Michael Taus, who started his 18-month stint in Trotter's kitchen in 1989, “Nobody was doing farm-to-table like he was at that level.”
Building in so much product turnover is a more expensive way of doing business than buying in bulk from mega-suppliers, but in those early years Trotter generally let his father, Bob, worry about the books from his basement office while he attempted to achieve his dream of excellence. (Bob Trotter died in 1993.)
“In the winter months when truffles were in season, he was losing money every night on those dinners,” says Sari Zernich Worsham, who joined Trotter's kitchen in 1993 and spearheaded most of his cookbooks and the PBS series “The Kitchen Sessions With Charlie Trotter” during her 13-year tenure. “He didn't care. He just wanted to serve the best food at the time.”
The Trotter model also was more labor intensive than the norm, with the cooks having to start from scratch each day. Reginald Watkins, known as Trotter's first hire (as a dishwasher), prepared sauces, stocks and butchery as the a.m. sous chef, but otherwise there was no day crew to do prep work for the cooks coming in to make dinner. The cooks were responsible for their own stations and any other jobs that might come up; if another station fell behind during service, they were expected to drop everything and to help out no matter where they were with their own work. They also had to wash their own pots and dishes, take out the garbage and do the overall cleaning.
“You're a marathon runner, and you're going from point A to point B, and people are throwing chairs in front of you that you have to hurdle over — that's how it kind of felt all day long, because every 45 minutes you had to stop for 30 minutes to clean down,” Tramonto says. “And it was a serious clean-down because you created a lot of dishes and pots.”
When alumni discuss Trotter's kitchen, the word that comes up over and over is “intense.”
“It was like climbing Mount Everest every day,” says David LeFevre, a 10-year Trotter's veteran. “When you're working at Trotter's for a year, it's like working at another job for two-and-a-half because you're working twice, two-and-a-half times as many hours.”
Even as he left late at night, LeFevre, now chef/owner of MB Post in Manhattan Beach, Calif., sometimes would sneak ingredients out of the kitchen so he could get a head start on the next day's work.
“I would grab two cases of fava beans and take them to my car, shuck fava beans at night when I'd get home watching TV, and then I'd bring them in Ziploc bags the next day to the restaurant, 'cause there's no way I could shuck two cases of beans and peel two cases of beans, blanch them and do all that in time for the dish,” he says. He recalls that Watkins once caught him smuggling purloined ingredients back into the kitchen. “He was like, ‘Where'd you get these?' I just told him. I looked at Reggie, and I was like, ‘Reggie, don't stop me from getting my job done,' and he was like, ‘OK, Baby D! You got it!'”
Worsham, now executive director of chef Art Smith's self-named company, says she'd often enter at 10 a.m. and leave around 2 or 3 a.m.
“But then Charlie would feel like you had too much time to do what you need to do, so he'd lock the door and wouldn't let us in till like 1 o'clock on a Saturday,” she says. “We're all lining up outside like nervous kids. He opens the door. We're running downstairs, turning on ovens, grabbing pots, doing it as fast as we can. He was doing that to make us work faster, but, oh, my gosh, did it make me crazy.”
“I think Charlie enjoyed working in chaos,” Tramonto says. “I think he was driven by being in (expletive). I think he was driven on elevating that stress every day and having people feed off that stress.”
Guillermo Tellez, who began cooking at Trotter's in late 1989 and worked for the chef till 2005, calls the kitchen “a culinary boot camp, because we were learning something that wasn't around at that time. You can get your butt kicked but at the same time be proud of what you do. And you've got to have somebody to reject something for you to really pay attention that, yes, you're now focusing.”
Says Trotter: “If you ever want to get anywhere in life, you're going to have to push it, and somebody's going to push you to get there. End of story.”
Trotter was the rejecter-in-chief, and Tellez, now executive chef at Square 1682 in Philadelphia, was his enforcer during his several years as Trotter's chef de cuisine.
“I was on Charlie's side more than the cooks' because at that point, you know, you can't be their friend,” Tellez says, noting that Trotter told him: “You have to learn to separate yourself from them. You are not one of them anymore.”
Keep in mind that Trotter didn't turn 30 until 1989, and his underlings generally were his contemporaries or younger, so in the restaurant's early years, 20-somethings were managing 20-somethings.
“We were young and immature,” says Mindy's Hot Chocolate chef Mindy Segal, who says she clashed with Tellez while she was Trotter's pastry chef for eight months in the early 1990s. “We all want to be the best in that kitchen, so it's competitive. Who's going to be the first person to be there? Who's going to work the hardest? Who's going to clean the fastest? Who's going to work better?”
Matthias Merges, who would leave after two years and return to become Trotter's chef de cuisine in 1996, says when he initially began working there in late 1989, “there was a lot of high energy and a lot of creativity going on, but it was very chaotic, uncontrolled. It was very, very cutthroat.”
He says that he would prepare his station before leaving at night, only to return the next morning to find that “all your stuff would be gone, in the garbage. So you'd have to start from zero.”
Gand unknowingly got ensnared in some game-playing back when Tramonto was working there, and she would arrive to pick him up at 8 p.m., his supposed exit time as a.m. sous chef, only to find he had a couple more hours of work to do. “So Charlie would say, ‘ Hey Gale, you want to work the line while you're waiting for Rick?'” she recalls. “It's for free, you're not getting paid, but I would work the line, like dessert line or dessert prep, for an hour or two every night while I waited.”
Years later she reconnected with the man who'd been Trotter's pastry chef at the time, and she says he told her: “‘You know, you really would scare me when you used to come into Trotter's.'
“I'm like, ‘I scared you? Me?'
“‘Yeah, Charlie told me that you were trying out for my job, so I'd better step it up.'”
Even after he'd installed Tellez as his kitchen deputy, Trotter remained a formidable presence. The idea of chefs with tempers was nothing new — they were part of the European tradition, after all — but Trotter had his own ways of making his points.
“He was big into throwing things back in the day, and he would throw food off plates if he didn't like it, at the people who made it,” says Merges, who left in 2010 and now is chef/owner of Yusho. “That was a common situation. It happened (to me) once or twice.”
Taus recalls Trotter's plate-smashing fondly.
“Oh, it was awesome,” Taus says. “I remember him just clearing a table, like a station of plates, throwing them on the ground because somebody screwed up beyond belief. But what if that plate wasn't perfect and went out to a reviewer? We could lose a star. And that's the thing about a kitchen: Just like sports, you have five seconds to get that done and get it out.”
Chatting casually in his restaurant's front salon a few weeks ago looking grizzled and relaxed, his deep-set eyes peeking out beneath the brim of a baseball hat, Trotter notes that his plate-smashing days are long behind him — or at least were.
“Last night I smashed a plate for the first time in like 10 years,” he says. “There would be times when people would put up plates, and it would be cold, and it was supposed to be a hot dish and whatever, and you're like, ‘No, replate this,' and they'd do it, and it would be (substandard), and then I'd say, ‘You think you want to serve this? You want to serve this?' Yeah, I would just drop it on the floor to bring home the point like, ‘This is so bad.'
“So last night the two dishwashers were so noisy, like a record level of noise at the dish sink and silverware and all this other stuff. I said, ‘Guys, come on, it's too loud.' Again and again and again. And so I said, ‘Oh, I guess you like noise,' so I took a plate from one of their hands and I said, ‘Here, let me show you some noise.' And then there was not another sound for the rest of the night.”
Taus says the key to understanding Trotter is that he's an artist with an artist's temperament.
“It's your life, it's your vision, and it's on this plate, and you're trying to make it happen, and people are in your way, and it gets very frustrating,” the Zealous chef says. “It's not like you're just some worker somewhere, and you're making a car part. It's everything you believe in on that plate, and I think it gets frustrating sometimes when people just aren't listening, and they don't understand or they're not going fast enough.”
But former cooks also describe a dark, unpredictable streak in Trotter that could cause the whole kitchen to tense up. As someone now running her own restaurant, Segal says she ponders whether it's better to have the staff fear or respect you. Looking back on her time with Trotter, she says, “I think you started out by being afraid of him, and if you can run the gantlet with him, you'll end up respecting him.” She laughs. “I don't think I ever got over the fear of him.”
The source of that fear? That he'd “yell at you and humiliate you in front of everybody,” she says, adding with a laugh, “Who was going to get it that day?”
“Charlie could be brutal,” Signorio says. “He could be absolutely uncompromising. He could challenge you mentally, emotionally. Sometimes you felt like it was malicious.”
Patricia Mowen-Ziegler, who oversaw the service side for most of her 1990-1997 Trotter's tenure, says that when she was subsequently working at Tru (with Tramonto and Gand), she was seating guests at its kitchen table, and they told her they'd eaten at Trotter's kitchen table.
“I said, ‘Great, it's very exciting, isn't it?'
“And they said, ‘We'll never go back.'
“I said, ‘I'm sorry to hear that.'
“And they said, ‘One reason is because we saw how he treated you.'”
Trotter was no less obsessed with getting the details right in the dining room than on the plate.
“He's very critical, as well he should be,” Mowen-Ziegler says. “That's how he got to where he is. ‘Is your uniform perfect?' ‘Are you holding the plates' — because they all have different designs — ‘in the proper way?' It's all those little things. ‘You can't carry the water like this; you carry it like wine.'”
And if something wasn't going right, she heard about it.
“Every waiter's mistake was my fault, and I had to deal with it,” she says. “I was the whipping post for everything.”
She adds that he also took her on great dining excursions inside and outside the U.S., and in a gift exchange he once gave her a two-week vacation in France with her boyfriend. ”Graham Elliot, who now oversees three Chicago restaurants and co-stars on Fox's “MasterChef,” recalls incurring the boss's wrath when he made a major faux pas as a 21-year-old chef in the late '90s.
“I sent a dish off my station, the asparagus terrine, and it still had the plastic wrap wrapped around it, and a guest had that and chewed it and spit it out,” Elliot says. “Charlie made me go out to the dining room to their table to apologize and to tell them what happened. It scared the crap out of me.”
Another time in the middle of a busy Saturday service, Elliot says, Trotter shouted, “Whoa whoa whoa!” so loudly that the kitchen fell silent. “He had walked by the cooler, and there was like a handprint on the glass, and he's like, ‘Whose greasy, disgusting, germ-ridden hand is on this (expletive) window, and how many of you have walked past it and not done anything?'” Elliot says. “The whole idea is everything is of equal importance. If you walk past a greasy hand on that, that means you're going to serve a greasy plate, that means you're going to serve undercooked beef, that means you're not going to season your fish right, you know?”
“Charlie, he wanted us all to focus,” Worsham says. “He didn't care about what you did on your weekend. He didn't want to hear about it. He just wanted to know that you were doing this dish and you were putting your all into it and you were treating that asparagus, each spear, like each one's very precious. That's all he cared about.”
The long hours, including frequent events scheduled on off days, and constant pressure took their toll on many. Homaro Cantu, now chef/owner at Moto and iNG, recalls that on his third day at Trotter's, the grill cook was looking very distressed, so Merges took him aside to ask what was up.
“This guy says, ‘Look, I've just got to go out to my car and grab something,'” Cantu says. “The guy leaves, doesn't come back. Leaves his knives there, leaves everything right there on his station. Just didn't come back.”
This was a scene that would be restaged in multiple variations.
“Some people would come in there, and all of a sudden, it would be the middle of service, ‘I've got to put money in my meter,' and then you'd notice their knives were gone,” Worsham says with a laugh.
On the flip side were folks such as Merges, Tellez, LeFevre, Signorio, Giuseppe Tentori (now executive chef at GT Fish & Oyster and Boka), Watkins, Cantu, Worsham, Elliot and many others who remained for multiple years, sometimes leaving and returning.
“I wanted to quit every day for the first six months,” Elliot says. “Even though I was learning a lot of great things, it was just so hard emotionally and always full of anxiety.”
Worsham says for her first six months she was “incredibly nervous” and “overwhelmed every day” as well, but then she found herself in a rhythm, “and one day I felt some calm.” Still, she notes with a laugh, “a couple of times I stuck my head in the oven to catch some air, like looking for a plate, like I just need a moment.”
The key, she adds, was not to bring the tension home with you.
“There's a lot of moments in the heat of passion and the heat of the night, and you kind of just check them at the door when you leave,” Worsham says. “If you don't, they're all going to stack up on top of each other, and you're not going to be able to survive in any restaurant. I mean, restaurant folks are crazy. They're passionate. They're ‘all in.' You would think they were like saving lives. You're just cooking dinner.”
Elliot says his turning point
came when he was waiting for some quail from the meat cook so he could make a single-bite hors d'oeuvre, and Trotter was asking him for the dish, and Elliot finally told him that he was waiting on the other guy.
“Charlie grabbed me and walked me over to the meat station and showed me all these other pieces of meat that were cooked off, like lamb loin and venison, little ends and scraps and pieces, and Charlie's like, ‘Are you a robot that just (expletive) does what you're told, and you just sit here and wait for someone to bring something to you, or do you make it happen? Look at all this stuff. You could dice this up and toss it with this jus, or you could slice this or serve it with that.' That really changed my whole idea on cooking spontaneously.”
Trotter wanted his cooks to be able to pivot on a dime, to improvise like John Coltrane or Cannonball Adderley in Miles Davis' band. Segal will never forget her impromptu turn in the spotlight: The restaurant's Grand tasting menu's dessert sequence generally consisted of an amuse-bouche followed by a fruit course and a chocolate course, but for certain VIPs, Trotter might add extra dishes, so a ticket could come to Segal reading: “amuse, fruit, fruit, fruit, chocolate.” On this particular night, however, Trotter requested an amuse followed by eight fruit courses and then a chocolate one.
“I just kept coming up with these desserts, so finally after the fifth fruit — because I think he was testing me, I don't know — he was like, ‘OK, stop. I'll take a chocolate next,'” she recalls. “I was ready for him, and that was the thing. You had to be ready, for you didn't know what was going to happen in that kitchen. Always be ahead of Charlie. Be proactive. I really learned that from him.”
Although the restaurant was open only for dinner, sometimes Trotter would spontaneously invite people to lunch — a winemaker in town or people who'd been inspecting the menu outside — and all of a sudden these folks would be seated at the kitchen table.
“You're going, ‘Oh, my God, what am I going to do? I don't have any bread made, I don't have any dessert made. I'm going to have to come up with something,'” says Della Gossett, a Trotter's pastry chef from 2001 through 2010. “I definitely learned how to ‘make it happen' there.”
Trotter also would send the kitchen into a tizzy by announcing midafternoon that he had a great idea for a new dish that he wanted executed for that evening's menu.
“He was like a little kid sometimes, and he just got so excited about an idea that he just needed it, and he needed it right now,” Tramonto says.
This was food for the moment, not the ages. Trotter could have compiled some “best-of” dishes and set the kitchen on autopilot, especially when the restaurant was racking up accolades and doing more than 200 covers (that is, customers) a night, but he never did.
“When it got really good, that's when we would break it down, and we would rethink it and do something else and something new,” Merges says.
“Our whole history has been you've got to change, you've got to evolve,” Trotter says. “You can't really do the same thing over and over.”
One odd corollary to this approach is that with so many dishes and combinations having come out of the kitchen over the years, many chefs were hard-pressed to name one that they found particularly mind-blowing or even memorable.
“I don't remember any dishes that we did, because I never thought that way,” Merges says. “I never thought: Remember when we did this? Let's do that again.”
The Charlie Trotter's of 2012 certainly is a different place from the restaurant that opened in 1987, so all of those changes must have added up to some sort of evolution, but not everyone has the same take on what this progression was.
“There was a period of time where everything was center plated on this beautiful china,” Worsham recalls. “Every course you had a different china dish, and the focus was not just the food but the details on the china. I think when Matt (Merges) came on board, not one thing was center plated, sauces were strewn about — all white plates, none of the ornate designs. It was just a much cleaner style than before.”
Merges agrees, saying that the earlier plates “were very busy back in the day,” very colorful with “a lot of stuff going on all the time. And then toward the end, like in the ‘Meat & Game' book (2001), you can see it's getting simple. It's really focused on technique and purity of product.”
Says Trotter: “I can't speak to that. I don't know that it grew more complex and then became more simple.”
But he does acknowledge: “It's definitely been a progression. It was always light, but the food has grown lighter and lighter. There were always sparks of Asian influence, but it grew more and more. But you can't just make things up; you've got to make sure there's a coherence to the food. It's got to make sense. The most successful food, I think, is food that both appeals to the super-sophisticated diner or foodie and to the lay diner at the same time.”
One big leap came a couple of years into the restaurant's existence with the hiring of Larry Stone, whom Trotter calls “America's greatest sommelier.” Trotter says Stone would enter the kitchen many times a night with notes about how the wines were tasting. So, for instance, if a wine turned out to have more mineral content than anticipated, Stone might request that the cooks “add some kind of fat to the Dover sole preparation, like olive oil or whatever, or ‘if you could puree a little vegetable element, it'll help it with the mineral-iness of the thing,'” Trotter recalls. “So I'd taste the wine, and we'd adjust the dish. That was like unheard of then. It's pretty much unheard of now.”
Much of what distinguished Trotter's food and wine pairings emerged from the fine-tuning process. The chef knew precisely how he wanted his food to appear and to taste and to feel in your mouth.
“He'd taste a dessert and go, ‘What about a little black pepper here or something here?' and you're like, ‘God, how did he think of that?'” Gossett says.
This brings us back to how much he actually cooked and whether that mattered. When Trotter would conceive of new dishes, he wouldn't pull out a bunch of ingredients and some frying pans.
“People say, ‘Oh, do you experiment? Do you have a laboratory?'” he says. “It's not like, ‘Eureka! This works!' Because you taste so much, you're just tasting and tasting and tasting, you already know in your mind's palate that if you put okra and lobster and braised lettuce and curry together, you can envision where you're going to go with those ingredients.”
Worsham says this method applied to Trotter's work on his cookbooks as well.
“He cooked in his head,” she says. “He never wrote things down. He had a little book where he drew pictures, where he mapped out his ideas. He was never in there with a measuring device, absolutely not.”
So whether Trotter was physically manipulating the ingredients was beside the point, certainly in his own mind.
“There's only one leader,” Trotter says. “It's not a democracy. I'm driving this train.”
In the early years, he notes, he kept a firmer grip on the menu and dishes. Later, when Merges was running the kitchen, Trotter says he would suggest some combination such as sweetbreads, braised lettuce and pickled turnips, Merges and his sous chefs would put something together, and Trotter would taste it and say, “No, add more this” or “Delete that.”
Trotter adds that the kitchen's other chefs wouldn't come up with their own dishes, but rather that Merges would respond to his “directive,” and “a third of it would be his own interpretation, and that was fine. It was the same with Guillermo, Matt's predecessor.”
Others, though, remember Merges doing much creative heavy lifting during his 14 years atop the kitchen hierarchy while bringing an oft-cited sense of “Zen” (as several fellow chefs recall it) and professionalism to the room.
“Matthias' job during the day was just coming up with dishes,” says Curtis Duffy, who eventually moved on to work with Grant Achatz at Trio and Alinea before running the kitchen at Avenues and the soon-to-open Grace. “That's what he did, just worked on dishes all day. And then ran the kitchen. And put up with Charlie's (expletive).”
Merges says Trotter would make dish suggestions, “but there were other times when myself or other people would just make stuff. We'd be like, ‘What about this?' and we'd bring it to him, and he'd be like, ‘That's awesome,' or ‘That sucks' or ‘Do this extra step,' or ‘I want this flavor in it,' and then we'd put it on the menu. So there was a lot of experimentation on our own that we did just because we could, because there were no rules against that.”
“It was a very collaborative experience,” LeFevre says. “It never was ‘Do this, do this, do this.'”
Asked how much the restaurant's cuisine was shaped by its chefs de cuisine, sous chefs or other kitchen staff, Trotter replies, “I would say not much. I have a certain point of view, a certain way to plate food, certain ingredients that I like to use. With certain people, I've let the line out a little bit more, with others not so much, but it's very much of a ‘This is the thing.'”
Did any of his chefs make him look at food differently?
“No,” Trotter says.
So he influenced them much more than they influenced him?
“Of course, I did,” Trotter says. He does call Merges “one of the greatest technicians I've ever seen.”
How about Merges, did he learn new cooking approaches or techniques from Trotter?
“No,” Merges says. “No. When I first came there, they were doing some things I hadn't seen before, but after I got into the mix of it, then I looked for it myself or developed it.”
As for what he did learn most from Trotter, Merges says, “Tenacity. Perseverance. Truly not only thinking outside the box but living outside the box and not coming back to the box ever again.”
Thursday in Dining: Part 3 — Glory years, pained farewells
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