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Remembering Charlie Trotter: A Food Writer's Insights

By Janet Rausa Fuller | November 11, 2013 6:41am
 Chef Charlie Trotter died on Nov. 5, 2013, at the age of 54.
Remembering Charlie Trotter
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LINCOLN PARK — Mad chef.

That was the nickname my daughters bestowed on Charlie Trotter after seeing his picture next to a story I'd written months ago about him.

In the photo, he's looking at the camera through his wire-frame glasses, arms folded, a slight furrow in his brow. It's a look I'd call intense. To a kid, he simply looks mad.

We all get to choose how to remember Charlie Trotter based on snapshots, snap judgments, conversations, time spent working with him or that one unforgettable meal at his restaurant.

He was publicly memorialized Monday at the Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago at Michigan Avenue and Delaware Place, nearly a week after dying at age 54.

Chefs talk about his tenacity and temper, his vision and seemingly superhuman work ethic, and how excruciating yet rewarding it was to make it through his kitchen, even if that realization didn't come until much later in their careers. I'm certain his best buddies Emeril Lagasse and Norman Van Aken have yarns to spin of the perfectionist in his off-hours.

Loyal customers — one gentleman I met once was such a frequent diner, he'd been given business cards printed on the restaurant's stationery — can tell of evenings fueled by the rarest wines, the most pristine ingredients and the attention of a man who made their lives feel richer than they already were on paper.

Teens in Chicago's underserved neighborhoods such as Garfield Park and Humboldt Park have their own Trotter story to tell of sitting in the nicest dining room they have ever seen, pressed napkins on their laps, quiet as mice.

Others who had never met the guy, or maybe had seen him on the street once, quickly filled the Monday morning quarterback role in the comments section of various news sites the day of his death. Still others have little to say about him, or nothing at all.

Charlie called me a friend. I was always reluctant to call him the same. Your sources and interview subjects are not supposed to be your friends.

But I liked him. I respected him. I found him fascinating, wry and smart. I called him Charlie while others called him "Chef" (though I often used the two interchangeably). I watched him do two rounds of cartwheels under a white tent at his 2010 wedding to his wife, Rochelle, while guests hooted and clapped him on.

I also understood there was a purpose to our relationship that had developed over the years I spent writing about him, and I felt a certain privilege in this, a boundary to keep.

He gave me the scoop, published on Jan. 1, 2012, in the Chicago Sun-Times, that he would close his restaurant in August 2012 after 25 years. Months earlier, he had dropped me hints about big news to come and said he would call when it was time.

"You have my word," he said.

I was a features reporter at the Sun-Times the first time I ever called him, for a fluffy little story I was writing about chefs and their cookbook collections.

The last time we spoke, in August, it was Charlie who called me. He wanted to tell his side in an incident involving him and a group of high school art students he welcomed into and subsequently kicked out of his now-empty restaurant after asking them to do some cleaning. Not such a warm and fuzzy story, this one. Video of the evening showed him looking rumpled and acting strangely in the glare of a TV camera.

"I'm getting hammered by the media again," he told me, baffled.

I don't choose to remember Charlie that way, though unfortunately, the video image is lasting. But it is in the dozen or so years between those two calls where my mind lingers.

In that time, I guess you could say he took a liking to me. He returned my calls and put me on his holiday card mailing list and New Year's Eve party list. He invited me to events at the restaurant, and kept inviting me even as I kept declining. The times I saw him at events outside of his restaurant, I would say hello and chat briefly with him, noticing that not many people were coming up to him to do the same.

At a dinner celebrating the restaurant's 19th anniversary in 2006, for which Grant Achatz, Wylie Dufresne and others cooked, Charlie put me and another writer from New York in white chef coats so we could watch and take notes from the kitchen. My name on my jacket was misspelled, but I didn't bother pointing it out. No need to watch someone get their ass handed to them for that mistake. I remember him spending time with us writers — more than I thought he should have, given all the heavyweights there that night — to make sure we had all we needed.

The 20th anniversary dinner was bigger and brighter — Ferran Adria, Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, Heston Blumenthal, Tetsuya Wakuda and Pierre Herme, all under one roof. Charlie was on fire, moving from room to room as storyteller and host, his culinary dream team grinning behind him.

Charlie was quotable and kept it relatively succinct when speaking in front of a crowd. One-on-one interviews were akin to taming a runaway train, as they twisted and turned, picking up speed.

In recent years, he talked less frequently to the media, especially local journalists — or maybe it was that we called him less. If I needed someone to talk about the small-plates trend or how to make stock, I could call on any number of younger chefs in the city whose names had more buzz.

But Charlie still had plenty to say. He was still jetting around the world for charity events and hosting inner-city kids in his dining room. And every so often, he'd call.

In 2011, he asked me to meet him at the restaurant. We sat in the light-filled foyer at a small round table set with flowers, pastries and tea. Charlie asked how things were going at the paper (not well; there had been layoffs). We talked about the story published that spring in the New York Times under the headline, "Charlie Trotter, A Leader Left Behind." He felt burned by it, he said. He'd been at this nearly 25 years. Who else could say the same, he wondered.

He joked that he should close the restaurant, move it a block and reopen it. I told him, seriously, to take a stab at Twitter and Facebook.

"What would I say?" he asked.

He also asked me to help write his next book. That kept me on a high for the next few weeks, as we chatted back and forth about the project. He had a clear vision, as always, of how to go about it and insisted I use his agent, but I told him I felt strongly about finding my own agent. From there, the project fizzled. I left the Sun-Times at the end of 2011. The news of his restaurant closing made a big splash and kept him in the spotlight for the next year. Life went on.

The last time we met in person was in March at his home. The restaurant had been shuttered for seven months. I was there to interview his wife, Rochelle, who'd auditioned to be the host of "Check, Please!" the restaurant review show on PBS. She is a force, a talker, bubbly and loud and as quotable as her husband, whom she called "Charles."

Rochelle and I sat at the kitchen counter as he drifted in, out and finally, back into the room. He couldn't stand not being in it.

Their banter was charming, and the way they talked over each other was amusing. She ribbed him for giving up his daily run and letting his hair grow too long for her taste. He complained of her dipping into his stash of rare olive oil to use as moisturizer ("This is, like, the most expensive olive oil in the world," he said).

At one point, his son, Dylan, walked in through the back door, which prompted Charlie to talk to me about him in that embarrassing, third-person way parents tend to do with their kids.

And then he gave me a tour of his house, from the basement to the top floor, where all his books live. He pulled three off the shelves that he wanted me to take home and read: "Siddhartha" by Herman Hesse, "A Confederacy of Dunces" by John Kennedy Toole and "To The Edge: A Man, Death Valley, and the Mystery of Endurance," by Kirk Johnson.

"I like giving stuff away," he said.

Charlie gave of himself for decades and I — we all — took. We continue to craft our own versions of him — as mad chef, temperamental genius, lagging leader, whatever fits. He always made good copy, but I remind myself that beyond the story, he was a husband, father, brother and son, too, someone I was close to but never really knew. I will never forget him.