Remembering Charlie Trotter

The late great Chicago chef Charlie Trotter brought improvisation to the menu.

click to enlarge BITTERSWEET: Charlie Trotter passed away on Tues., Nov. 5, at the age of 54. - Facebook
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BITTERSWEET: Charlie Trotter passed away on Tues., Nov. 5, at the age of 54.

The unexpected death of Chicago superstar chef Charlie Trotter last week hit me hard.

You see, every week as I write about food and wine, Charlie stares down at me from the walls of my den. In addition to a picture with him, I’ve got a framed menu from the sublime meal I experienced at his eponymous restaurant in 2002. Adjacent to the grand tasting menu that fuses French traditionalism with Asian minimalism is a photo of the intense young chef.

He’s dramatically lit in his gleaming chef’s whites, his cuffs turned up as he leans forward over a series of pristine china plates being sauced by a sous chef. Like an eagle intently scanning its prey, Charlie lets no detail escape his glance. He’s focused on a simple mandate: guests “must feel cared for” and “have the dining experience of their lives.” He gazes perpetually over my shoulder, pushing the pursuit of excellence.

Charlie was one of the first chefs in the country to insist on sourcing fresh, local products. He developed tasting or “degustation” menus, presenting a progressive series of ethereal jewel-like presentations unfolding over a three-hour experience. He introduced a vegetarian degustation, which at the time was considered shocking. And most importantly, he didn’t believe in signature dishes but always wanted to cook spontaneously while never serving the same dish twice. The very idea of repetition was an insult; he likened cooking to jazz, fully embracing the improvisatory nature of each discipline at its best. Asking him to repeat a dish was the equivalent of asking Leonardo to paint another "Mona Lisa." He taught me that the “best food is cooked in the moment.”

Charlie produced a series of stunning cookbooks to document his unique style — even arranging his seafood cookbook by wine pairings, rather than by type of fish. He established such high service standards that his methods were chronicled for business as lessons in excellence.

The peak of Charlie’s fame in the culinary world came at the end of the 20th century when Wine Spectator named Trotter’s the Best Restaurant in the World for Food and Wine in 1998. This was followed in short order by James Beard Awards (the culinary Oscar) for Outstanding Chef 1999 and Outstanding Restaurant 2000, an accolade also echoed by Wine Spectator that same year.

I’m grateful to have met Charlie and listened to his impish wit several times at the New York Wine Experience. A highlight of this amazing event is a tasty and exceptionally entertaining food and wine pairing seminar that is a bit more in style like tag team wrestling. Our guides, in addition to Charlie, are three famous chefs with huge personalities: Mario Batali, Emeril Lagasse, and Wolfgang Puck. Each chef prepares a dish paired with two wines. One wine match is by a chef teammate, the other by the magazine’s editor, Tom Matthews.

I’ll never forget one year when Charlie decided to pair a dish with Trefethen Chardonnay from the Oak Knoll district of Napa Valley. He presented a slow roasted Tasmanian ocean trout (looking more like salmon) topped with shredded pork belly. As I took a bite and brought the wine to my lips, magic happened. Every single flavor was totally in sync. The fish and pork melded with the rich Chardonnay to produce an unparalleled sensory experience. “My God,” I thought, “this is perfection.” The rest of the crowd was also impressed. Editor Tom Matthews asked Charlie a simple question. “How many bottles of wine, Charlie, did you go through to tweak this match?” The chef smiled a puckish smile, leaned toward his mic and, with a little chuckle, simply exclaimed, “Only nine cases.”

Another fond memory is Charlie commandeering the microphone from host Andrea Mitchell and prevailing upon his fellow superstar chefs (including Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud) at the Inn at Little Washington’s 30th anniversary to force the charity auction bids to stratospheric six-figure levels. If Julia Child is the queen of haute cuisine for Americans, Charlie Trotter is our prince of culinary poetry.

And as I sadly bid him farewell, I can think of no more apt words than the verse of Shakespeare: “Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince, And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!”

About The Author

Jon Palmer Claridge

Jon Palmer Claridge—Tampa Bay's longest running, and perhaps last anonymous, food critic—has spent his life following two enduring passions, theatre and fine dining. He trained as a theatre professional (BFA/Acting; MFA/Directing) while Mastering the Art of French Cooking from Julia Child as an avocation. He acted...
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