INSIDE TROTTER'S KITCHEN: PART 3

Charlie Trotter gets ready to hang it up

Nahabedian, another Trotter friend since Sinclair's, agrees that the other factors drove his decision, though she notes, “I think he was unhappy with the way the dining scene and the way the recession had hit restaurants in general. I think he didn't like the casualness of it all and the fact that everybody wanted a deal. He didn't want to change anything that he had worked so hard for over 25 years to achieve.”

Still, some things had changed in recent years, as key members of the kitchen team peeled off, among them sous chef Tentori in 2007, pastry chef Gossett in early 2010, Merges later in 2010 and Reginald Watkins, Trotter's first hire, last year. Trotter says the wind-down to his restaurant's closing has not been difficult or particularly emotional for him, but his endings with former employees haven't always been so tidy, as his 2005 public dust-up with then-Tru chef Rick Tramonto over foie gras indicated (“Maybe we ought to have Rick's liver for a little treat …”), though that fence has been mended.

Mark Signorio joined as a waiter in the restaurant's second month and became Trotter's point person on major projects over his 20 years there. But while working on Trotter's second Vegas venture in 2007, he accepted another job, and, he says, his efforts to have a face-to-face meeting with his longtime boss and friend ended with Trotter slamming the door in his face.

“There was no communication,” says Signorio, now interior design director with the Las Vegas Sands Corp. “I became a persona non grata in his book.”

Says Trotter: “My response is if you leave one way, it's fine, but if you leave another way, as in walk off the job and give a two-week notice, well, you've got to be effin' kidding me.” Still, he adds: “Mark's a great guy. He's unbelievable. Hugely talented.”

For Ben Roche, who worked in Trotter's kitchen for about 15 months and later became Moto's executive pastry chef, the end came on a Saturday afternoon when, he says, Trotter burned his hand on a hot tray, and Roche reflexively laughed, apologized and ultimately disobeyed Trotter's order to go home because he didn't want to leave his station short-handed.

“It was kind of a dumb reason to get fired,” he says.

Mindy's Hot Chocolate chef Mindy Segal had been pastry chef at Trotter's for eight months in the early '90s when her mission was aborted. She says she'd been chatting with a guest chef in the kitchen about her experiences there, and she thinks he must have said something to Trotter because “Charlie, a couple of days later, he took me into the dining room to have a talk with him, and he said, ‘I accept your resignation.' And I was like, ‘OK.' It was like I was being fired, but he was letting me resign.

“I was very angry with him, and I did not talk to him for years — 10 years probably. I really felt cheated.”

Cantu suspected his Trotter's days were numbered after a fellow chef told Trotter of Cantu's desire to open his own restaurant someday, and Trotter subsequently transferred him to the Trotter's To Go store on Fullerton Avenue. Yet Cantu stuck around because, he says, Trotter asked him to be the opening sous chef for a new London restaurant. Cantu says he even moved up his wedding to Katie McGowan, whom he met when she was a Trotter's guest chef, from May to March 2003, and McGowan quit her job and put her condo on the market in anticipation of the April move.

But when he found Trotter and the other managers assembled in the front salon on what happened to be his fourth anniversary there in February, “I just knew that was it,” Cantu says. “He's like, ‘So, London's not going to work out for you.'” (The restaurant would never open.)

For 90 back-and-forth minutes, Cantu says, Trotter tried to get him to quit. “He would just point out the window — it was snowing — he'd be like, ‘What the (expletive) do you think is out there for you? What do you think you're going to do in this business? Do you honestly think you're going to open up your own restaurant and compete with me?'

“He would say, ‘Are you sure that you can make it at this restaurant, at my restaurant?' When your boss tells you that, you're ready to quit. But what I was worried about was: How am I going to pay my bills? My wife doesn't have a job. We have no place to live. I need unemployment (compensation).

“At the very end he's like, ‘So you're saying that this place isn't for you.' And I'm like, ‘Well, if that's what you're saying, I guess this place isn't for me.' He's like, ‘Well, I guess that's it. There's nothing else to discuss.' I got up. I grabbed my (stuff) from my locker, and I went right to the unemployment office. Called my wife, said, ‘Look, I just got fired. There's nothing that I can do.' Went home. We cried on the couch together. We wound up getting married a month after that. She cried the morning of our wedding.”

“There's a mantra that I used to say to all the cooks, and the mantra is ‘I will not become distracted,'” Merges says. “And you will say it to yourself over and over a thousand times in a day in order to stay focused on your task at hand. There was a point when the (restaurant's) overall direction became distracted.”

Among those who worked in Trotter's kitchen over the past 15 years, no figure may be more widely admired than Merges, who had been a Trotter's cook for two years in the early 1990s before leaving, opening his own restaurant in Salt Lake City and returning at Trotter's behest in 1996 to run the kitchen. (Elliot gave one son the middle name Matthias in tribute.) But by May 2010, Merges says, he had a bad feeling about where the restaurant was headed.

“I was willing to help save it and do something with it, but there was no reciprocal focus,” he says.

So he says he gave Trotter three months' notice, and Trotter asked him to stay on to work on more events — and then more after those. It was October in Diamond Creek, Calif., when Merges thought he had worked his final event and thanked his boss of the past 14 years.

“He says, ‘What? This can't be your last day,'” Merges recalls. “He asked me to stay and work until the end of the year. At that point I knew I needed to start working on my own stuff. I told him I'll work; I need to do my own stuff too. I'm going to work from home sometimes, but I'll come in when it's busy, and I'll work for all the events and all the administrative stuff that I needed to do.

“I got home. It's Tuesday. I remember this vividly. I'm working from home; I'm doing all this stuff for him, this event in Montreal that had to happen, one in New York, another one in LA or something, and I was coordinating it all. I get a call from him that afternoon. I told him what I was doing, and he's like, ‘Well, I thought I'd see you in the restaurant today.'

CHICAGO

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