Something of the tragic in chef's end

'He wasn't happy,' former employee says

A stack of unopened mail sat on Charlie Trotter's porch Tuesday afternoon, a couple of hours after the news broke. Nearby lay a single bouquet and a white envelope inscribed with a single word:


In the alley next door, customers trickled up to the Interurban Cafe & Pastry Shop, a takeout-window spot run by Christine McCabe, who once worked in Trotter's kitchen.

"What's all the hubbub?" said a man, glancing toward the TV cameras on Armitage Avenue.

"Charlie Trotter died," a woman said.

The man looked shocked. Chicago's most legendary chef dead at the age of 54?

"Do you think he was upset about closing his business?" someone asked.

McCabe shrugged.

"He wasn't happy," she said. Not an explanation, just a fact.

If you've lived in Chicago for any significant part of the past quarter-century, you knew about Charlie Trotter.

He was the guy who defined Chicago for the world as more than a burgers-and-dawgs town, a celebrity chef before celebrity chefs were as ubiquitous as McDonald's.

I live not far from his restaurant, an old red-brick building draped with grapevines, and since it closed in 2012, I've driven by often and thought how forlorn it looked, sitting inert behind a "For Sale" sign, and how different it used to be.

For years, I'd drive past at night as gleaming men and women stepped out of gleaming cars and made their way up the short flight of stairs, past the engraved glass door and into the mystery.

Even though the place sat next to the sidewalk, open to anyone who could pay a couple hundred bucks for dinner, it always had an air of secrecy and exclusivity.

McCabe cooked there in the late 1990s and early 2000s, during the peak of Trotter's glory.

"The best ingredients, the best chefs, the best equipment," she said Tuesday, standing in the window of her takeout cafe, remembering Trotter as a genius even as she recalled the difficulty of working for him.

"He knew how to make people be their best," she said. "His technique might not have been the best, but he got results."

Last year, shortly after Trotter closed his restaurant and said he was going back to college to study philosophy, McCabe bought some of the pots, pans and racks from his kitchen, along with a $3,000, 40-quart mixer she thinks of as the heart and soul of her new business.

"I wanted a piece of it," she said, nodding toward his restaurant.

In the past year, from her window, she sometimes saw her old boss coming and going, saw his Jaguar parked out front. He was no longer the Charlie Trotter who arrived at work every day with a clean shave and a perfectly starched white shirt.