INSIDE TROTTER'S KITCHEN: PART 3

Charlie Trotter gets ready to hang it up

“I'm like, ‘You know I'm not going to be there today. We talked about this on Sunday.'

“And then he's like, ‘Well, make this your last day.' So that's the last time I talked to him. That's him. That's Charlie in a nutshell.”

Trotter says he bears no hard feelings toward Merges.

“He was great. He's unbelievable,” Trotter says. “We spent a lot of time together, and he did a great job, and I know his restaurant is fantastic. I think he did the right thing to finally move on and do his own thing.”

Merges did not hear from Trotter when he opened Yusho to much acclaim in December and was not invited back for any of Trotter's farewell events.

Not all of the exit stories are so painful.

“My last day leaving, his mom hugged me and said to me, ‘Thank you for believing in my son,' and gave me a gift,” says Michael Taus (Zealous), who worked there more than 20 years ago.

Tentori says he gave Trotter about two months' notice, got out clean and has helped Trotter at some events since then.

Even Segal, who in May won the James Beard Award for outstanding pastry chef, has made up with Trotter and will be among those serving food at Friday's farewell dinner, along with fellow alumni Elliot and Bill Kim, although the alumni who haven't been asked to participate in the final events far outnumber those who have. “I wanted him to be proud of me,” Segal says. “His approval of me means an enormous amount.”

Cantu has returned to Trotter's to cook at a James Beard Foundation dinner and to eat in the dining room; he says he just wishes he hadn't seen so many fellow staffers driven anxious or worse by the work environment. “No job should be that way,” the Moto chef says. “I think you can be nice to people and run the world's greatest restaurant.”

Trotter bristles at the notion that he traumatized workers — or that traumatizing someone necessarily is a bad thing.

“Maybe it's good to be traumatized in your youth, to make you think differently and step outside the box,” he says. “Anybody can be comfortable, but if you get your world rocked, shaken as it were, then maybe it causes you to really go to a whole other level in a different way.”

He adds in a voice suffused with rare emotion: “As tough as I've been on anybody, as hard as I've ever been on anybody, I have been harder on myself. By far. So that's that.”

Says LeFevre: “I think that you can have that level of food and everything without it being crazy; I mean, other people are doing that. But I think that it wouldn't have been Trotter's then.”

What's next for Trotter and his property is anyone's guess. All he'll say about his enormous wine collection is, “I did a mathematical calculation, and if I live to the average age of an American male, which I think right now is 78.2 years, and if I average one bottle a day, on my last day on the planet I'll be able to drink the last bottle of wine.”

As for whether he's going to hold on to the two town homes that have housed his restaurant and business, he says he hasn't decided.

“That's the beauty of me,” he says. “I never know what I'm going to do.”

His mother, for one, doesn't think he's hanging up his chef's whites for good. “I honestly can't see him sitting back,” Dona-Lee Trotter says. “I can't. I think he really needs a rest, but I wouldn't be surprised if he didn't try something else.”

Says chef/old friend Van Aken: “I think he'll be back in some form of the restaurant business before long. But I hope that he gives himself enough time to accurately reflect on where he wants to be in it.”

In the meantime, memories of all of those meals will linger in the minds and on the palates of the guests who enjoyed them.

CHICAGO

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