Yesterday morning the sad, sad news came that chef Charlie Trotter was found unresponsive at his Lincoln Park home He was pronounced dead at Northwestern hospital at the age 54. My initial reaction, like everyone else’s on twitter and facebook, was disbelief and shock. Sure, he had been mostly under the radar since the closing of his restaurant, but he had plans to travel and study, and I was sure his fast-casual burger concept in Vegas was right around the corner.
Sometimes I’ll get asked about the most famous person I’ve ever interviewed, and Trotter always comes to mind. I was lucky enough to interview him several times over the course of my career, both for local and national publications. No matter how big or small the story, he made time for my call or visit, and even though the interviews were challenging, he made them happen. I remember telling people how hard he was to interview, how he never quite answered your question, and seemed distracted, bored, borderline pissed or made you feel the answer was too obvious to even ask. But like so many encounters in life, it wasn’t personal, it was just who he was. Intense, wildly dedicated, masterfully particular, thinking of the 300 things he had going on at that moment, a perfectionist almost to a fault. It was if he couldn’t even let that guard down for a light-hearted interview about his favorite places to dine in Chicago. It’s what made him so great. He was a force, a presence that took over the room. He commanded perfection, even if you weren’t cooking in his kitchen.
And the time came that I actually did get the chance to cook in his pristine kitchen (well watch, mostly) in the early 2000s as a guest for a huge collaborative dinner with Heston Blumenthal and some other big wig chefs. I was there to write a first-hand account for CS magazine on the experience. Like most guests and writers who got to have a mini stage in Trotter’s kitchen, I was given my own chef’s coat, embroidered name and all. Of course it was three sizes too big and I had to roll the sleeves up four times just to take notes and bites of dishes as they were done. At one point Trotter felt compelled to put me to work and made me come right to the line and help dust dozens upon dozens of rabbit dishes with cocoa powder as they made their way down to the server’s tray. The “I Love Lucy” situation eventually got the best of me as my right sleeve accidentally tipped over the entire bowl of powder on the table—beyond a mere dusting of cocoa powder covered, well, everything.
Expecting Trotter to have a total blowout, he did quite the opposite. He cracked a joke about how he’d send me the cleaning bill in the morning, helped dust the powder off my sleeve, and the entire thing was cleaned up on the line in 2.2 seconds. The expediting resumed as if nothing had happened, and the kitchen didn’t skip a beat. For that moment, he let his guard down, and it’s one moment I’ll never forget.
In fact, every encounter I had with Trotter, from the vegetable tasting at the chef’s table to getting lucky enough to snag an invite to NYE at the restaurant, was an over-the-top experience that left an imprint; this was his essence.
I can only imagine the immense impact he had on the chefs, cooks, waitstaff and sommeliers that actually worked with him in his famous restaurant on Armitage Avenue, and were, and still are, forever changed and inspired. We’ll miss you Charlie.