Charlie Trotter often left his customers and employees at his famous eponymous Chicago restaurant shaking their heads, smacking their lips and perhaps moaning with pleasure and wonder.
A diner might gaze into a soup that had just arrived and discover that it looked like a pointillist painting, with seemingly hundreds of vegetable cubes, each precisely diced to perhaps a sixteenth of an inch square, floating in a sumptuous Asian-inflected broth.
And the apprenticing chef in the kitchen, who had been tasked with executing Trotter’s vision, would perhaps curse his legendary perfectionism. But ultimately, the culinary world at large would nod in admiration at the artistry of the self-taught chef who put Chicago on the culinary map, championed a new brand of American cuisine and provided a training ground for some of the country’s other best culinary pros.
Trotter, 54, who died Tuesday at a Chicago hospital, “had the great attributes of a chef: culinary excellence, mentoring the next generation and giving back to his community,” says Susan Ungaro, president of the James Beard Foundation in New York, which had bestowed its top honors upon Trotter multiple times, including the Humanitarian Award last year.
Trotter first gave notice that he was shaking up American dining a quarter-century ago when he introduced one of the first multi-course tasting menus in the country — a radical departure from the three-course norm. “Some loved it, and some did not, but many great American chefs followed that model, to give diners what they thought would be a creative experience with multiple tastes,” said Ungaro.
Marcus Samuelsson, who was a rising star chef at Aquavit in New York when he first encountered Trotter, noted that when Trotter published his first lavish cookbook in the early 1990s, “it became the one that we all had to have. I couldn’t believe there was an American guy doing this stuff.”
Samuelsson praised Trotter for championing diversity in his hiring. “When I had my restaurants, he set up a program for them to come and intern with him. For me, that was huge.”
New York chef/restaurateur Daniel Boulud, who often worked with Trotter on charitable events, said in a statement: “His dedication to make America a world-class dining destination was expressed in his restaurants and cookbooks he published. His creative style of cooking was a departure from the more classic approach to French cuisine. He was a true American chef and restaurateur with a European vision inspiring and educating a whole new generation of chefs. He will be greatly missed, but never forgotten.”
News of Trotter’s death spread quickly on social media. “Today, heaven will eat better,” tweeted Washington, D.C., chef Jose Andres.
Trotter’s name is synonymous with gourmet cuisine. He earned 10 James Beard Awards and provided a training ground for some of the USA’s other best-known chefs, such as fellow Beard Award winner Grant Achatz of Chicago restaurants Alinea and Next, Emeril Lagasse, Norman Van Aken, Paul Kahan and award-winning sommelier Larry Stone.
Charlie Trotter’s earned two stars when the highly respected Michelin Guide made its debut in Chicago.
“His restaurant shaped the world of food,” said Dana Cowin, editor-in-chief of Food & Wine magazine. “He was so innovative and focused and intense and really brilliant. When he opened Charlie Trotter he was so original.”
His legacy will be “a passion for perfection and innovation,” she said.
In keeping with his reputation for bold, unexpected moves, Trotter closed the iconic 120-seat restaurant in 2012, saying he planned to go back to college to study philosophy.
On Tuesday, a bouquet of roses was left outside the site of the former restaurant with a card that read, “Chef.”
Courtesy of USA Today