Award-winning Chicago chef Charlie Trotter dies

By CARYN ROUSSEAU, Associated Press Updated at 2013-11-05 21:12:32 +0000

CHICAGO (AP) — Award-winning chef Charlie Trotter, a self-taught culinary master whose namesake Chicago restaurant elevated the city's cuisine and provided a training ground for some of the nation's other best chefs, has died at the age of 54.

Paramedics were called around 10 a.m. Tuesday to his Lincoln Park home, where they found Trotter unresponsive. An ambulance crew transported Trotter to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where he died after unsuccessful attempts to revive him, Chicago Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford said. An autopsy was planned for Wednesday.

Trotter's name is synonymous with gourmet cuisine. He earned 10 James Beard Awards and provided a training ground for some of the country's other best-known chefs, such as fellow Beard Award-winner Grant Achatz of Chicago restaurants Alinea and Next.

Charlie Trotter's earned two stars when the highly respected Michelin Guide debuted 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.

He was also known for a sometimes abrasive manner and his demand for perfection.

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."

Trotter, who never went to cooking school, wrote more than a dozen cookbooks and starred in a PBS series, "The Kitchen Sessions with Charlie Trotter." He credited the development of his signature style to his travels in the U.S. and Europe after college and dining at the best restaurants.

He was famous for his reverence for details and he insisted his staff also be sticklers for exactness.

Such laser-like precision and military-style organization was on display a few days before his restaurant closed in August of last year.

In a behind-the-scenes look for The Associated Press three days before closing night, the Charlie Trotter's staff held a typically detail-laden pre-dinner meeting, discussing specifics down to the exact dates when diners last ate at the restaurant and reminders about when to use certain wine glasses.

Dishes from the final week of menus included poached white asparagus with charred broccolini, manchego cheese and red pepper essence and root beer leaf ice cream with vanilla cremeaux and birch syrup-infused meringue.

Staff members recited the evening's menus, and Trotter — relentlessly demanding — took one employee to task.

"You're not reading, are you?" he asked. "When you go to the table do you have a piece of paper?"

Mayor Rahm Emanuel released a written statement Tuesday honoring Trotter as someone who "changed Chicago's restaurant scene forever."

"Charlie's personality mirrored his cooking — bold, inventive and always memorable," Emanuel said. "Charlie Trotter will be remembered for serving the finest food and his generous philanthropy, and he will always have a seat at the table among Chicago's legendary figures."

Trotter did not grow up in a family that was focused on food. Rather, he became captivated by the culinary world thanks to a college roommate who was crazy about cooking, according to Trotter's website.

He also hit the road for real-world lessons on food after graduating from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Trotter traveled around the U.S. and Europe, eating at the finest restaurants he could.

Upon his return, he went to work testing his food in catering parties for family friends.

His first job in a kitchen was at a restaurant in Chicago's North Shore area called Sinclair's, where he worked under now well-known chefs such as Norman Van Aken and Carrie Nahabedian.

"The minute I started working in a restaurant formally as a cook or on the road to becoming a chef was like the greatest day of my life," he told the AP in 2012.

He opened Charlie Trotter's in 1987 with his father, Bob, as his partner. Over the next quarter century he became known for menus crafted with fine ingredients: naturally raised meat, line-caught seafood and organic produce.

He favored light saucing on dishes that did not, as he put it, "mute or block" the basic flavors of ingredients the way using a lot of butter or cream can. So, he turned to vinaigrettes based on vegetable juice and light emulsified stocks and herb-infused meat and fish essences.

"I completely love what I do," he said in reflecting on his career in the August 2012 interview. "I pinch myself every day going, 'I make a living doing this?' This is unbelievable."

His own legacy of training other chefs was a particular source of pride.

"One of my joys over the years has been to have seen the folks that have come through, matriculated through this restaurant and have gone onward and upward to do other things," he said.

His own love of learning was evident. Trotter had degrees from the University of Wisconsin in political theory and philosophy.

"It's learning for learning's sake," Trotter told the AP last year in laying out his plans for further study of philosophy. "Reading some of the great books that are unread still. Only studying for studying's sake. It's sort of a lost thing."

Some might have thought the move risky. Not Trotter.

"What's the worst that could happen?" he said. "Life's too short. You may be on this planet for 80 years at best or who knows, but you can't just pedal around and do the same thing forever."