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Charlie Trotter Dead: No Signs of Foul Play in Death of Acclaimed Chef, 54

By  Janet Rausa Fuller and Darryl Holliday | November 5, 2013 12:18pm | Updated on November 5, 2013 5:38pm

 Chef Charlie Trotter died at the age of 54, authorities said.
Charlie Trotter
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LINCOLN PARK — Charlie Trotter, the renowned Chicago chef known for his innovation, stern attention to detail and his eponymous Lincoln Park restaurant that helped put Chicago on the culinary map, is dead at age 54.

He was found at his Lincoln Park home Tuesday morning and taken in critical condition to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead, Chicago Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford said.

Paramedics treated him at his home in the 1800 block of North Dayton Street about 10:45 a.m. before rushing him to the hospital.

Police said there were no signs of foul play. A vigil was planned for 4:30 p.m. Tuesday outside his shuttered Lincoln Park restaurant at 816 W. Armitage.

Trotter's wife Rochelle issued a statement Tuesday evening saying the family was stunned by his death.

“We are incredibly shocked and deeply saddened by the unexpected loss of Charlie at our home in Lincoln Park," she said.  "He was much loved and words can not describe how much he will be missed. Charlie was a trailblazer and introduced people to a new way of dining when he opened Charlie Trotter’s. His impact upon American cuisine and the culinary world at large will always be remembered. We thank you so much for your kind words, love and support.”

In 1987, Trotter opened Charlie Trotter's, a restaurant that became known as one of the world's best, earning a two-star Michelin rating before he closed it in August 2012.

Trotter won a number of awards from the James Beard Foundation, including best chef in the Midwest in 1992, the nation's outstanding chef award in 1999 and the nation's outstanding restaurant in 2000. In 2000, he also was awarded best national television cooking show for "The Kitchen Sessions, with Charlie Trotter."

At the time of his death, Trotter was in the process of selling the building that housed his restaurant.

Tributes began pouring in Tuesday after NBC Chicago broke the news of Trotter's death.

Chefs were stunned and saddened by the news.

"It's a shock," said Matthias Merges, who worked for Trotter for 14 years as his second-in-command. "We could never devalue the enormity of what he accomplished and the changes he made to the face of American cuisine, and I think even though he had his own issues, the greatness of what the restaurant was trumps it all."

Merges left Trotter's and the fine-dining world to open Yusho, serving Japanese street-food; the cocktail bar Billy Sunday, and his newest restaurant, A10. Trotter's influence is in all three, Merges said.

"What was most innovative was this new way of thinking about food and service and restaurants in general," Merges said. "It's like an undying fire, to really create an experience for clients that transcends mediocrity. It's something we've always tried for."

Homaro Cantu of moto and iNG remembers the exact dates of his tenure at Trotter's — Feb. 1, 1999 to Feb. 1, 2003.

"I wouldn't be here. I wouldn't be married to my wife if it hadn't been for Charlie Trotter," said Cantu, who was a cook when his now-wife did a one-day guest-chef stint at the restaurant, a gift from a friend.

Both Cantu and Merges recalled Trotter's incredible drive and pursuit of perfection that put him ahead of his time.

The restaurant was doing emulsions and foams years before they became "so worldly and accepted," Merges said.

"Before Charlie Trotter's, there wasn't a restaurant around that cared enough to put all these cultures and ingredients under one roof. That basically started the flattening of the food world. Now we have Google, and it's easy to get any ingredient. But Charlie was the guy that did that manually," Cantu said.

Christine McCabe, who worked under Trotter as a pastry chef for three years "back in its heyday", owns InterUrban bakery in the alley about 15 feet from Trotter's old restaurant.

"He wasn't easy to work with, but I got to work with the best ingredients, the best equipment and the best chefs from around the world," McCabe said.

Trotter was last in the news in August when he booted out a group of high school students who were using his closed restaurant for an art show.

Trotter, in an exclusive interview with DNAinfo Chicago at the time, said all he asked of the students was a quick sweeping up of "four leaves and two cigarette butts" out front and a "wipe around the rim of the toilets.

"All I did was ask them to sweep some stuff up. Like, 'Hey, let's get this ready. This is your show.' The place is already pretty spotless," Trotter said. "I think the instructor was thinking I was trying to take advantage of the students."

According to Trotter, the students were "like fine, OK, no problem. But it was the instructor who said, 'You can't tell these artists to do this.' "

Video of Trotter trying to leave the restaurant that night showed him telling a WGN-TV reporter, "Should I do an Alec Baldwin or what?" before turning and going back inside.

A frustrated Trotter said he felt unfairly vilified after the incident, especially with the camera crew that surprised him and camped outside his home and restaurant.

Trotter had agreed to host the pop-up gallery for After School Matters, the nonprofit created by the late Maggie Daley, for which he served on the advisory board.

Trotter asked the group to leave, which they did, while their artwork and equipment remained inside the restaurant.

But on Tuesday, those issues didn't matter as people began stopping by his closed restaurant to leave flowers.

Danielle Human, 30, a Trotter fan, said she "grabbed some flowers and headed over here when I heard."

"Now there are chefs all over the world doing amazing things ... that's all thanks to him. I feel grateful more than anything," Human said.