Charlie Trotter 1959-2013: Chicago's Revolutionary Chef Found Dead in Home
Mark Caro | Chicago Tribune | November 6, 2013 1:00am
Nov. 06--Before there was "Top Chef," "MasterChef" or "Iron Chef," before chefs were multimedia celebrities who could monetize their volcanic personalities, before "farm-to-table" and "American cuisine" were routinely applied to high-end restaurants, there was Charlie Trotter, whose self-named Lincoln Park restaurant became one of Chicago's premier cultural institutions almost immediately after its 1987 opening.
Charlie Trotter's was an international destination and a pioneer in creating a bold, distinctly American form of haute cuisine, and its chef-owner was an inspirational and notoriously mercurial figure, qualities that the people who worked for him -- including many chefs who have achieved great success on their own -- did not find mutually exclusive.
Trotter closed his restaurant in August 2012 after 25 years, and now the chef himself is gone, found unconscious Tuesday morning in his Lincoln Park home by his son Dylan, Naha chef Carrie Nahabedian said Trotter's wife, Rochelle, had told her.
Nahabedian, a close Trotter friend, said that an ambulance was called to Trotter's home in the 1800 block of North Dayton Street at 10:45 a.m. and that the 54-year-old chef was not breathing. He was taken to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 11:48 a.m.
"My baby's gone," Nahabedian said Rochelle told her.
An autopsy is scheduled for Wednesday, but a Cook County medical examiner's spokesman said that Trotter's death did not appear suspicious and indicated that he had a history of seizures and strokes.
Rochelle Trotter released a statement Tuesday evening:
"We are incredibly shocked and deeply saddened by the unexpected loss of Charlie at our home in Lincoln Park. He was much loved, and words can not describe how much he will be missed. Charlie was a trailblazer and introduced people to a new way of dining when he opened Charlie Trotter's. His impact upon American cuisine and the culinary world at large will always be remembered. We thank you so much for your kind words, love and support. We appreciate the respect for our privacy as we work through this difficult time. Details for the memorial service will be forthcoming."
Trotter had just returned from Wyoming, where he was the keynote speaker Sunday night at the Jackson Hole Culinary Conference, hosted by Central Wyoming College.
Susan Thulin, director of the college, said Trotter arrived Sunday and left early Monday and spoke about excellence, "empowering your employees, being passionate about what you're doing ... and working so hard they have to hire two people to replace you."
Richard Ofstein, a former Chicagoan, who attended the Jackson Hole conference said that after Trotter dodged a previous question about what his favorite recipe was, he asked him what his last meal would be. Ofstein, a radiologist, noticed that his left hand was shaking as he held the microphone but didn't think more about it.
"I said, 'From one Chicagoan to another, what would be your last meal?' And he answered, 'A 1900 Chateau Margaux,'" a vintage bottle of wine worth between $9,000 and $16,000.
Family friends said doctors had recommended that Trotter not fly to Wyoming. Larry Stone, Trotter's longtime sommelier and friend, said the chef told him about a brain aneurysm, and had been told by doctors that he should not be flying, should not be at high altitudes and should not exert himself because of the resulting pressure on his brain.
"It was a time bomb, and he felt that he didn't have a lot of time left," said Stone, who now works with the Quintessa winery in Napa Valley. "It was inoperable, and it was not something that could be repaired; it was deep inside the brain. ... It was obvious he had problems and he had some seizures. It's a condition that had worsened in the last few years but it was something he had for quite a while."
But Trotter was not the type of person to ask for sympathy, Stone said.
"He said when your time comes, it comes; he didn't dwell on it," Stone said. "I don't think it made him very happy to know that he had a condition that would incapacitate him in some way. ... He never wanted anything to interfere with his craft."
Lauren Marks, a Trotter neighbor, said that she used to see him fairly regularly when he would walk his dogs but that he had been "rather reclusive lately."
"It's a sad thing; it's shocking," said Marks, who saw the emergency vehicles gathered outside in the morning. "With Charlie you never knew what was going to happen on any given day. ... He was an interesting man."
Trotter also was a larger-than-life figure to many who worked for him, including such notable chefs as Graham Elliot, (Graham Elliot, "MasterChef"), Matthias Merges (Yusho, the just-opening A10), Giuseppe Tentori (GT Fish & Oyster, Boka), Curtis Duffy (Grace), Mindy Segal (Mindy's Hot Chocolate), Homaro Cantu (Moto, iNG), Bill Kim (Urban Belly, Belly Q), Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand (formerly of Tru) and, after a brief, turbulent stint in his kitchen, Grant Achatz (Alinea, Next).
As news of Trotter's death spread quickly Tuesday afternoon, he was mourned by a stunned culinary community.
"Charlie was an extreme father figure to me when it came to not just cooking, but life, and seeing things in a different way," said Elliot, who worked two stints at Trotter's. "I just can't put into words how saddened I am by all of this. It's a huge loss, not just personally, but for the culinary world."
"I don't think you can write a sadder story," said Merges, who spent 14 years as Trotter's chef de cuisine, executive chef and director of operations. "I don't think it's even possible."
Merges, who, like more than a few Trotter's employees, left the restaurant on strained terms with its owner, emphasized that Trotter should be remembered for his incredible influence and successes. "What he's accomplished has been the game changer for the landscape of American cuisine, and we can never discount that no matter what happens," Merges said.
Tramonto remembered Trotter as "a friend" even though the two butted heads publicly after Tramonto questioned Trotter's decision to quit serving foie gras (a move that indirectly led to the city's short-lived ban on the fat duck livers) and Trotter responded by mocking his intelligence and suggesting that Tramonto's liver be served up instead. Tramonto praised the late chef for his philanthropy with youth as well as his "groundbreaking" work in the kitchen.
"Charlie can think outside the box," Tramonto said. "The look of the food, his free-spiritedness, his ability to coordinate combinations and flavor profiles, it was trailblazing. ... We had a great love-hate relationship, but Charlie and I patched stuff up a long time ago. I celebrated my 10th wedding anniversary at Charlie's restaurant the week before it closed. We sat there and talked for two hours, mostly about our kids."
Sari Zernich Worsham, who worked alongside Trotter for 13 years in his kitchen and on his books and PBS series, said she was "speechless" upon hearing the news. "Charlie always called me his little sister, and I feel like I just lost my big brother," said Worsham, now executive director of chef Art Smith's company. "He's welded and sculpted so many people's lives and sent them on the path to success. I can't thank him enough."
Worsham organized a candlelight vigil in front of the former restaurant late Tuesday afternoon, and about 50 colleagues, students and fans of the chef gathered to hold candles in the drizzle and to share sometimes-tearful stories about Trotter's kitchen and his influence on their own business and careers.
At the vigil, Smith recalled Trotter as "brilliant" as well as someone who respected him as a gay chef when not everyone did. "He was the first one to accept me in the kitchen, and he always loved me," Smith said.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel released a statement Tuesday saying Trotter "changed Chicago's restaurant scene forever and played a leading role in elevating the city to the culinary capital it is today. ... He will always have a seat at the table among Chicago's legendary figures."
Trotter was named the country's Outstanding Chef by the James Beard Foundation in 1999, and a year later Wine Spectator magazine called Trotter's the nation's best restaurant.
More awards and accolades followed, including a 2002 Beard Award for Outstanding Service, prompting Trotter to say it was the award he was proudest to receive as it represented "a team award."
Although known as a stern taskmaster with hair-trigger temper, Trotter also had a reputation for spontaneous bursts of generosity toward employees as well as philanthropic efforts.
The Charlie Trotter Culinary Education Foundation was said to have raised $3 million to provide needy students with culinary-program scholarships, and his Excellence Program enabled visiting high school students to dine at the restaurant and hear about the pursuit of excellence from the chefs presenting each dish. Trotter was named the James Beard Foundation's Humanitarian of the Year in 2012.
Trotter had announced that he was going to spend his retirement taking philosophy classes, though he attended and cooked at various events over the past year. He also was involved in a few well-publicized run-ins, most recently in late August, when he ejected a group of After School Matters public high school students from his former restaurant the day before they were supposed to present an art show there. In footage that stirred concern among some colleagues and observers, the grizzled chef appeared to be slurring words and moving slowly as he muttered to WGN-TV reporter Randi Belisomo, "Should I do an Alec Baldwin or what?" -- referring to the "30 Rock" star's recent tussle with a photographer.
Trotter also was sued in June by a couple who claimed he had sold them a $46,200 magnum of counterfeit wine -- Trotter dismissed the claim as "buyer's remorse" -- and he cut short an auction of his restaurant's contents in December after many lots weren't fetching the asked-for prices. (The auction resumed online weeks later.)
The adjoined town houses that held the restaurant went on the market in June for $3.8 million, and now Coldwell Banker lists them at $3.2 million.
Cantu had considered moving his Moto into the space and recalled his former boss giving him the tour, pointing out the squeaky-clean door knobs and immaculate locker room. "It was the same lesson he was trying to teach everyone every day when we were there: You can never be too perfect," said Cantu, who ultimately didn't buy the buildings.
But Trotter used to stress that his goal was not perfection but excellence -- an important distinction in his mind. "I never considered Miles Davis a perfectionist; I always considered him as an excellence-ist, where deviation is actually kind of cool," the chef said in an interview weeks before closing his restaurant. "It's the human element of it, and that's what I always liked about him."
Trotter received some push-back for his demanding ways, including having to settle two 2003 class-action lawsuits regarding overtime pay for the kitchen staff and tips distribution for the service staff. But the chef-owner remained unapologetic.
"If you ever want to get anywhere in life, you're going to have to push it, and somebody's going to push you to get there," Trotter said in an interview. "End of story."
Trotter's tremendous drive was in place even as he grew up the oldest of four children in what he called a "laissez faire upbringing" in Wilmette, with an entrepreneur father who wound up underwriting the ambitious restaurant's opening. "I think he always had that (drive) from himself," his mother, Dona-Lee Trotter, said in an interview last year. "He kind of directed his siblings; he was always trying to make them into better people" -- she laughed -- "which they didn't always appreciate."
"I think that was just me," Charlie Trotter agreed, adding with typical self-effacement: "I've always been a little crazy."
Merges, who enforced that sense of discipline in Trotter's kitchen and now in his own restaurant, said he could think of only one way to pay tribute Tuesday night.
"Nothing will honor the man more than to have great service tonight at the restaurant," the Yusho chef said. "It makes me want to buckle down and drive further. That's the quintessential Trotter ethos. In adversity you buckle down, your tenacity doubles, your focus becomes more laser like. You just push harder to keep yourself and your team out of mediocrity. That's one of the biggest things to take away from Charlie Trotter."
Tribune reporters Rosemary Regina Sobol, Jeremy Gorner, Carlos Sadovi, Cynthia Dizikes, Ellen Jean Hirst, Mitch Smith, Phil Vettel, Carmel Carrillo and Kevin Pang contributed.