Charlie Trotter's Wife on His Last Days: He Was 'So Full of Joy'

By Janet Rausa Fuller on January 17, 2014 6:56am 

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 Rochelle Trotter has taken up the work of the Charlie Trotter Culinary Education Foundation after her husband's death.
Rochelle Trotter's life after Charlie
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LINCOLN PARK — Charlie Trotter left little doubt about what he wanted in life — and in death.

The renowned chef, who died of a stroke in November, was cremated according to his wishes, his widow said.

The lively champagne and canape reception after his funeral, attended by some of the nation's most famous and respected chefs, was his idea.

And he was adamant that his foundation, under her direction, live on.

In her first interview since her husband's death, Rochelle Trotter talked this week about her plans to carry out his vision of an "institute of learning" and library in his name and publish a "tribute book" by year's end, the proceeds of which will go to the Charlie Trotter Culinary Education Foundation.

"This is going to be a really aggressive year of capital-building for the foundation," said Trotter, designated by her husband to be its director and treasurer. "This is my full-time job for 2014."

Trotter sees the Charlie Trotter Center for Excellence as a place for seminars and lectures targeted to at-risk youths interested in the culinary field and built around his lessons on service and leadership. He had often talked about expanding the scope of his foundation since closing his eponymous restaurant in August 2012, she said.

She said the center and library won't necessarily be stand-alone buildings, nor will they be housed in the adjoining buildings at 816 W. Armitage Ave. where his world-class restaurant was for 25 years until it closed. The property is on the market for $3.2 million.

Trotter said she "eventually" will sell their nearby Lincoln Park house, from which she already has moved, as there is no need for such a big place. Just being in the neighborhood, passing the now-shuttered restaurant, is "still very raw," she said.

"Charles made a decision after 25 years to move on from those buildings. If he wanted this to manifest itself there, he wouldn't have put them up for sale," she said.

She said the center and library could instead operate as "floating" entities, perhaps tied to culinary schools or an organization such as the New York-based James Beard Foundation, which in 2012 honored Charlie Trotter with its Humanitarian of the Year Award.

The library will consist of his cookbooks, which number about 1,400, and his eclectic collection of 600 fiction and non-fiction books on a range of topics and genres, from restaurant management to poetry ("He was a crazy Charles Bukowski fan," Trotter said).

Memorabilia will have a place in the library as well, she said: notes from his student years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; sketches he drew while working on cookbooks, and countless audio and video recordings, including the PBS series "Kitchen Sessions with Charlie Trotter" on VHS tapes.

For the tribute book, Trotter hopes to compile commentary from his friends in the culinary, wine, business and design worlds on "the lessons they learned from him when it came to their area of expertise." Proceeds from the sale of the book would go to the foundation.

Her inspiration for the book: a cookbook Charlie put together after his close friend, the chef Patrick Clark, died at age 42. Proceeds from "Cooking with Patrick Clark: A Tribute to the Man and His Cuisine" went to Clark's family.

Final Moments

Trotter, 47, sometimes catches herself talking about her husband in the present tense.

"I'm coming to terms with the word 'bittersweet,' selfishly, because he's not here in the flesh, but also, so many people have so many good memories of him," she said.

The two met in 2000. What started as a business relationship — she had her own restaurant consulting firm — turned into romance. In 2010, they wed.

The details of Nov. 5, the day he died, and Halloween morning, the last time they saw each other, still play out vividly for her.

On Oct. 31, she had an early-morning flight to catch. She was headed to New York to run the marathon. He was asleep in bed. As was her habit, she'd written him a note and left it on the cutting board in the kitchen. She was nearly out the door but at the last minute, turned and ran back upstairs to kiss him.

"I said, 'I love you, crazy man.' He said, 'Go win, champ. I bet a lot of money on you,'" Trotter recalled.

They didn't say "bye" but rather "see you later," another of Rochelle's habits. Charlie Trotter had his own trip planned for that weekend, to speak at a conference in Jackson Hole, Wyo.

Back in Chicago on Nov. 4, Trotter headed straight to her downtown studio to catch up on work. Charlie called her from the airport on his way back. He was tired but happy. He hadn't done an appearance like this "for the better part of a year," she said.

"He said it went really well. He sounded so full of joy," said Trotter, who told him she was staying overnight at her studio to finish her work.

She called him once more that night, but he didn't pick up.

The next morning, his son, Dylan, 22, found him unresponsive at home. He had suffered a stroke as a result of high blood pressure, according to the Cook County Medical Examiner's office. He was 54.

Trotter rushed home in a cab. She recalled screaming hysterically as emergency personnel held her back in the foyer, and again outside as they wheeled him on a stretcher into the ambulance.

"I reached out to touch him and I pulled the cover off a little bit. He just looked so peaceful," she said.

Trotter can't help but draw parallels between his death and her mother's. Her mother also had high blood pressure and died of a stroke on Halloween, and it was a young Rochelle who found her.

Moving forward

Trotter has wasted little time since her husband's death. She took inventory and put into storage his books and memorabilia, and started talking to potential new board members for the foundation. She expects to have the new board in place by February.

"It was my safety mode I went into when he passed away, because it was so shocking and completely unexpected. And I haven't stopped. I'm just grateful that he was very specific in what he wanted," she said.

Fundraising for the foundation will take the form of monthly events held across the country, with two in the works for outside of the United States.

The first event, a dinner prepared by his friend and acclaimed chef David Bouley, took place last week at the James Beard House in New York. The dinner raised $12,500, Trotter spokeswoman Robin Insley said.

A February event is planned for Miami; the April tribute will coincide with the annual Pebble Beach Food and Wine Festival. The fundraisers will culminate in a dinner in November in Chicago.

"I would love to get what I call his A-list people who worked with him who are here in Chicago," Trotter said.

Trotter continues to run marathons; her next race is in March in Little Rock, Ark. But instead of running to raise money for different charities, as she has done for years, the proceeds this year will go to the foundation.

"I know it's something he would not like to see me stop doing," she said.

A Tchula, Miss. native, Trotter grew up on Chicago's West Side, started working at 14 and has a culinary degree and an MBA. She said she has yet another book in her, something she was working on last year that she would like to pick back up.

"People still ask me, 'What was it like?' There's a sort of latent voyeurism related to life with him," she said.

Sadness comes and goes. When it hits her, Trotter said she thinks about all the work yet to be done.

"I trust this would not have been left to me if I was not equipped to the best of my abilities to do it," she said.

And, she said, "I just remember. I'm grateful for the memories."

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