RIP, Charlie Trotter

Charlie Trotter passed away yesterday, likely as the result of a brain aneurysm. Ironically, just days before, he had appeared at a food conference in Jackson Hole, Wyoming — he wasn’t supposed to be flying, according to his doctors — and had been asked what his last meal would be. His left hand was purportedly shaking as he answered, because he was known to understand he was likely doing things to put his health at risk. His ultimate answer? A 1900 Chateau Margaux. 

Trotter was a celebrated chef who managed four restaurants (all currently closed), predominantly out of Chicago. His death was a huge deal in the Windy City, as many believe he put Chicago on the ‘food map.’ Trotter wrote 14 cookbooks and three management books; he was renowned as a chef for his ethics, including taking foie gras off the menu before many other big-name chefs did. Most of his obits had some connection to the theme of ‘changing the rules’ or ‘changing the game.’ He had a Culinary Education Foundation, regularly worked with Chicago public high school students on food, food preparation and motivations behind cooking, and was awarded a Humanitarian Award in 2005 from International Association of Culinary Professionals.

There was a darker side to his primary restaurant, but in general, Trotter was considered ‘a master chef with a McKinsey mind.’ He also produced a series of cooking proteges, many of whom reacted to his passing. He was one of the first chefs to use all-vegetable tasting menus, and one of the chefs at the forefront of the organic food movement (craze?). Vanity Fair even goes so far as to claim he set the table (sorry, pun) for the celebrity chef craze of today. Here’s a very nice timeline of his achievements, via GrubStreet.

Despite knowing he was not in the best health, he closed his namesake restaurant to return to school; then, last year, he talked with Epicurious about his future plans. Anthony Bourdain, perhaps the leader of the celeb chef world today, sent Trotter off in a tremendous way (albeit a tweet), and Chicago restauranteur Gale Gand also remembered him fondly. Trotter passed about two months after he was being lambasted on social media for ‘breaking bad’ on a student photography exhibit held at his former restaurant.

Cooking has a special place in my own heart/brain/etc. because I only learned to do it probably three-four years ago, and now I do it on the regular, and make much more ‘special’ things than I ever though I’d be able to wrap my head around. You can throw this out as crappy blog writing, and it probably is, but cooking is one of the rare successes I’ve had in my life since my late 20s (minus my marriage). Whenever I learn about a new cook or a new idea, I want to know as much as possible; I’ve been to Chicago maybe six times in my life, but had no context for Charlie Trotter at all. He seems like he had some demons, just like any creative person/chef does and will, but he also seems like he really got it in terms of food, food prep, motivations in the kitchen, and more. I’m sure it’s a tremendous loss, and my feeble attempt to honor the memory of a man I recently discovered will be this Amish chicken:

Ted Bauer