Kass: Death of a public man provides a private regret

A few minutes after legendary Chicago chef Charlie Trotter died Tuesday at age 54, two conflicting notions came to mind.

One, that obituaries of public people most often serve the vanities of the living who write them, not the dead.

Two, that I was sorry I never tried the man's food, even though he invited me to do so.

First, though, Trotter was a public man, a celebrity. And now that he's dead, he unfortunately must suffer that last cruelty visited upon public people when they're gone: the obituary, the remembrance, the theater of the postmortem, the eulogy.

What's sad is that after death, public men are often hijacked by the agendas of those of us who bang keyboards and pretend we're fitting something so complicated as a human life into a few talking points.

For some, Trotter will be the proud and imperious taskmaster who was mean to those teenagers, or the moralist who took the side of the geese in the ugly Chicago foie gras wars, in which he said that a rival chef's liver should be fried.

Others will say he helped make this city a truly great restaurant town. And they'd be right.

His passing could also be the jumping-off point for an essay on celebrity, and what it says about an American culture that has been economically flattened, yet still worships gourmet chefs.

America might still mock the French, but with so many of us out of work, angry and desperate, there's something almost pre-revolutionary about our chef-and-food worship, isn't there?

If you've been following the news since he died, you've been watching that unfolding ritual being visited upon Trotter. It happens to all public people when they stop moving for good. They're still, helpless in death. They become utensils for the animated.

The thing is, the public person once stilled can do nothing about any of this. And so, perhaps the best thing for the rest of us to do is to wait for the biography.

But another thing that came to my mind was extremely selfish: my regret that I never tried the man's food, even though he personally invited me to stop on over.

The remembrances of Trotter reminded me of the way we talked about another Chicago icon who died too young, Walter Payton.

What was important to me about Payton wasn't about his personal life, it was how he performed on that football field, how he carried that ball. And for Trotter, what mattered wasn't his legendary temper and intensity. It was what Trotter did in the kitchen, as a chef.

I sampled Payton's greatness on TV, as did many of you, and from the last row on top of the old Soldier Field. But Trotter? I foolishly shrugged him off.

Years ago, he called me because I'd written a sarcastic column about gourmet groupies who were desperate to pay $1,000 to sit in Trotter's kitchen and eat at the special table.

That column featured Paul Sfikas, the cook at the old Cambridge House diner, which I renamed La Maison Cambridge.

I asked Sfikas — wise in the ways of the francheese, the patty melt, braised short ribs and Greek chicken — if he'd let me pay $1,000 to bring my friends and watch him cook in the diner's blistering hot kitchen.

And I promised that when he'd serve us, we'd clap and make tight little smiles and say "Bravo, Bravo!" just as those gourmet groupies did at Trotter's.

"I bring you the food, and you clap like babies and say 'Bravo'?" asked the astonished Sfikas. "Are you all right? You'll pay $1,000 for food and you'll clap? Are you crazy? It's stupid. What kind of food? Diamond food? Gold food?"

CHICAGO

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