On the Eve of His Restaurant’s 25th Anniversary (and Imminent Closing), a Conversation with One of America’s Pioneering Chefs
It’s been a busy summer here in Toqueland—two weeks overseas with Michael White, and a family vacation that just wrapped up a few days ago. It’s caused quite a backlog of interviews and features that are in the can, but not yet fully edited and ready for public consumption.
But there are two events that demand attention as the end of this sultry August approaches: As most readers no doubt know, this Friday, August 17, Charlie Trotter’s will mark its 25th Anniversary, and at the end of the month, the chef will shutter the restaurant in order to pursue a degree in philosophy.
In June, at his invitation, I sat down with Charlie Trotter at his home in Chicago. The interview was conducted following a memorable tasting lunch at the Chef’s Table in the restaurant’s kitchen. (Full disclosure: I was his guest, along with New York chefs David Waltuck and Rob Newton.)
It was a long and far-ranging interview conducted over a bottle of white Burgundy on the sprawling back patio of his townhouse. (From what I gather from blog coverage, it has some overlap with Jay McInerney’s Town & Country feature, which I just learned about the other day and have made a point of not reading. As that one isn’t available online, figured I’d run my piece as is, and then read and enjoy Jay’s.)
Herewith, Part 1 of my conversation with Chef Trotter, with Part 2 to follow between the anniversary and closing.
TOQUELAND: Can you please orient me as to where you are now? I would imagine that it’s a very heady time, a very emotionally interesting time for you. What feeling or feelings are you experiencing right now?
TROTTER: Well, some people say to me, “You must be emotional. Do you have any second thoughts? Any regrets?” And it’s the opposite of that. This is a decision. I’ve long been a guy that’s willing to jump over the side of a cliff without knowing what’s on the other side, whether it’s a grassy rolling hill or jagged rocks, and figure out how I’m going to land when I jump over the cliff.
I can’t believe I’ve been doing this this long. I’ve always been an impatient sort and have wanted to do different things. I forget what he was talking about, but it was one of the great writers who said, “If I had many lives to lead, I would devote one of them to you; however, I don’t, so I have to move on.” That’s what I feel. I mean, I pinch myself all the time saying, “I do this and make a living?” And this is unbelievable. And you meet the most interesting people. You drink the great wines, you eat food, you travel. But in the end, that’s not enough. I have to do other things. I almost did this at the 15-year mark and I really almost did this at the 20-year mark.
TOQUELAND: For the same reason you’re doing it now?
TROTTER: Yeah, yeah. Exactly. Exactly. To go back to academia and read books that sit unread still by my bedside, many, many, many of them. .. I mean, what’s the worst that can happen? If I go back to college and they flunk me out after a couple of months, I can always go back to the restaurant business. So there is no down side to this.
TOQUELAND: You said today at lunch that you may very well find yourself back in the business at some point?
TROTTER: I think ultimately I will be back in this field, this line of work, because I love it too much. But I do need a roughly three-year hiatus period to decompress, look at things differently, read the books. And frankly, there’s an ego element in it for me because I want to see if I can still hang academically with supremely cerebral 26- and 27 year-olds and then go from there.
TOQUELAND: I would think academia is one of the few places where you might feel an advantage being older.
TROTTER: Well, maybe. I remember being inspired by the Saul Bellow work, Henderson the Rain King, where the protagonist went to medical school at the age of 54 or so, and then by the time he was 60 and earned his medical degree, he went off to Africa, did his work. When I read that at 19, I always thought, “Hey, it’s never too late to try something like this.” I have no other agenda. People keep saying, “Oh, you want to be a professor, or teacher?” That’s not really my idea. It’s more of just learning for learning’s sake.
TOQUELAND: I’m struck that you as a chef are doing this. Because I’m writing a book about the chefs of the 70s and 80s, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the time when you came up. So many chefs of that era, including yourself, were to some extent what we would today call “career changers.” Two things strike me about that: One, it seems to me there was this real purity about it. People were getting into it because they loved cooking.They weren’t getting into it because they wanted to be a television star, or even really for the money in most cases. They just loved doing it.
TOQUELAND: The other thing that strikes me is that they were people who had followed another kind of education or professional track at some point so I think they tended to be very well rounded. Now, you know, now you have these kids who see people cooking on TV at a very young age. It’s more of a food culture.
TOQUELAND: Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but they’ve just always known they want to be in the kitchen, often to the exclusion of other interests. Do you feel that the men and women who came up when you did have an advantage in how they see the world, how they understand their customers, how they go through life?
TROTTER: That’s a big question. I think if you were to ask the top ten chefs in the world that all are, if you will, from my peer group–let’s just say Alain Ducasse, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Daniel Boulud, David Bouley, Thomas Keller, Tetsuya Wakuda. There are others. I’m just throwing off a few names. And if you ask them all, “All those many years ago, what was your ambition?” I think across the board they would have all said, “Well, I love this craft. I love this art. Maybe one day if I’m lucky, I might be able to open up a restaurant.”
I don’t think any one of these folks would have said, “I hope to open nine restaurants. I hope to have a TV show. I hope to have five cookbooks. I hope to endorse a product line.” And on and on and on. Along the way those things have happened. Today, it’s a little different. I interview people and they say, “Well, in five years I think I’d like to have a few restaurants and I hope to have two TV shows on the Food Network and this and this and this.” And I think the chefs that are kind of in their fifties today may have eight, ten more restaurants, may have TV shows, may have multiple cookbooks, and on and on, consult and other things, but that’s not why they got into this world that we’re in, this line of work.. . some things come your way and you can take advantage of those things, but you’ve got to have a pure kind of approach to all of it.
TOQUELAND: Can you take me back to when you started? One of the things you’re known for is bringing the tasting menu, the degustation menu, to America.
TROTTER: I thought you were going to say one of the things I’m known for is being an asshole.
TOQUELAND: Is that something you prefer to talk about?
TROTTER: In due course. But regarding [your question], here’s what happened to me along the way: I cooked for my roommates in college, never even dreaming that it would be an occupation or a line of work. And as I came to the end of my college experience, I thought, “This is really cool. I love food and wine so much.” And I had worked in some restaurants along the way as a waiter and a bartender and some other positions in the second-rate restaurants. And I thought, “What if I go into this?”
And so I got a job in a restaurant and I just kind of fell in love. I thought, “This is unbelievable.” Because I imagined myself as someone that would always want to celebrate the pleasures of the table and wanting to feed my family and my friends for the rest of my life.
So, I saw no downside to the experiment of working in restaurants as a cook for at least two years. I’d at least learn about cooking and be a better cook, then just one thing led to the next. So right out of school my first job was $3.10 an hour under Norman Van Aken and I kept pinching myself. I do this? This is unbelievable. And one thing led to the next.
So I never really had a big plan. It was more learn for learning’s sake. Did I completely not answer that question?
TOQUELAND: You didn’t.
TROTTER: All right.
TOQUELAND: But that’s okay.
TROTTER: Well, re-ask it then. I wanted to set it up with that.
TOQUELAND: I was actually going to ask you about some of those early days. It’s funny because I saw [fellow Chicago chef] Tony Mantuano yesterday and he told me he was one of the people you went and worked for early on, at Spiaggia.
TOQUELAND: I asked what you were like at that time. He said, “Head down, incredibly focused, a sponge. He just wanted to learn.”
TROTTER: Well, that’s how I’ve always been. And I’ve never once in my life said, “Well, what is the rate of pay? Or what is my position?” Or never have asked for a raise wherever I’ve worked. It’s always my mindset was when I work here, the day I leave, if they don’t have to hire at least two people to replace me, then I have personally failed.
So it’s been this sort-of intense approach to things. But that’s what you have to do in life. It’s beyond just gastronomy or the culinary arts. You bring that mindset to whatever you do.
TOQUELAND: I’m finding it hard for myself to move off of the thing you thought I was going to ask you. You said that you thought you I was going to say, “I’m known for being an asshole?”
TROTTER: Oh, gosh.
TOQUELAND: Is that something that’s on your mind? My question couldn’t have been further from that.
TROTTER: In the end, just put on my tombstone, “At least the guy had a sense of humor.” Just put that on my tombstone. No, I may have a little reputation here or there but –
TOQUELAND: Why do you think it is?
TROTTER: I don’t know. Because I’m very intense and I will do what I have to do to get it done . .. but the reports of my brutalness are greatly exaggerated.
TOQUELAND: Can I speak completely openly with you?
TROTTER: I wish you would.
TOQUELAND: You and I met once before. It was in Orlando and it was a very uncomfortable meeting for me.
TROTTER: We met face to face or . ..
TOQUELAND: Well, very briefly. Very briefly.
TOQUELAND: It was at the Bocuse d’Or USA in 2008. I was starting work on my book about the competition and before I headed down there, your publicist at the time had suggested to me that I interview you. The night of the gala dinner, I spotted you on the outskirts of the cocktail party and approached you, told you that she had suggested we speak. You had your arms crossed, kind of looked right through me, and said, “Very well.” And then you just looked away. I didn’t know what to make of it. I said,” Well, maybe later in the evening,” and off I went. We never interviewed.
TROTTER: Yeah, but I wasn’t being mean. I said, “All right.”
TOQUELAND: Let’s just say that it was a very different Charlie Trotter than I’m sitting with today. It was intense.
TROTTER: I’m an intense guy.
TOQUELAND: If I’m honest, I’ve heard about both Charlie Trotters over the years. I’ve heard about that guy the way I experienced you that night, and I’ve heard about this guy I’m sitting with right now, with whom I could sit for the next five hours and drink white burgundy and, talk about stuff on and off the record.
TOQUELAND: Do you feel like you have a public and a private self?
TROTTER: Well, first of all, I’m a very private guy and I don’t like chitchat. I don’t like small talk. I really don’t like to go to the dining room and visit with people, although I can do that. I mean, I’m happy to. If it just takes three minutes of stopping by a table and talking, and if that makes all the difference in the world . .. I’ve learned this over the years, that you can have wonderful food, you can have meticulous service, you can have a great wine experience happening for the table, but if the chef-slash-owner figure visits the table for just two or three minutes, it could make all the difference in the world. And I appreciate that. I don’t take that for granted and I don’t think lightly of it.
But I’m someone that, if you will, prefers my own company.
TOQUELAND: Have you always been that way?
TOQUELAND: Do you consider yourself shy or do you just consider yourself private?
TROTTER: No, I’m not shy. I’m completely private. I’m going to have to paraphrase the great Christopher Walken when he said something to the effect of, “I realized at a very early age, four-years old or so, that I was not exactly everyone’s cup of tea.” The minute I read that I said, “Well that’s me, too.” I mean, I like people. I’m a people guy. I’m in the hospitality business. But I like being alone. I lived like a hermit for three of my four years of college, other than when I had a couple of roommates and was cooking. I’d literally sleep on the floor in a sleeping bag. I had no telephone. I had no nothing. I just wanted to read. I was kind of a monkish figure in a way. And that has stayed with me to this day.
TOQUELAND: Here’s what I was going to ask a few minutes ago: I hate to use the word market about what you do, but how difficult was it, when you opened, to get people to buy into a tasting menu? Was that a hard sell?
TROTTER: Well, okay. That is a great question. And thanks for bringing that up.
So here’s what happened to me after working in some interesting restaurants. Chicago to start with. San Francisco for a year and a half. Jupiter, Florida for a period of time. Key West, Florida for a small period of time. And then saying, “Alright. I either have to work in New York City or I have to go to Europe and then I think I’ll be ready to open a restaurant.”
And I spent a little time in New York in some restaurants, not working but sort of trying out the jobs and different things. And I realized back then–this would have been 1985–I saw the food that was being done and I saw the kitchen dynamic and I thought to myself, “I think I can do this. I’ve got to go to Europe and not work, but see what it’s like over there.” Because I’d really never been to Europe. I’d been one time but that was to visit a girlfriend and go skiing for three weeks. But that’s a whole ‘nother story.
So went there and spent six months there and traveled everywhere. Based out of Paris. I’d go three weeks in that direction, come back. Go two weeks in that direction, come back .. . So I had a chance to explore marketplaces, casual restaurants, bistros, good shops, the grand restaurants. And then I finally made it to Restaurant Girardet in Crissier, Switzerland, and that’s when it kind of hit me. And that was the first time I’d had an experience where everything added up to something greater than the sum of the parts. So it was the cuisine itself, the service, the ambiance, the space itself, and the wine-beverage program. And I thought, “You know, this is exactly what I want to do. I want to have something where it’s all these things.”
So I came back home and set about opening the restaurant and started off with à la carte dining and about three months into it just went straight to degustation menus only. And the only rationale was, “This is the way I want to eat, so all I can do is try to serve people the most interesting way that I can imagine.” Nothing more than that, you know? Having not just, “Here’s the appetizer, here’s the big piece of fish or the piece of meat or rack of lamb, here’s the dessert,” but having that approximate quantity of food, but spelled out over eight, ten, twelve courses.
It’s more interesting because you’re having smaller bites of things and you’re trying a variety: “Here’s sweet breads, here’s lamb tongue, here’s sea urchin.” In all these different forms.
I’ve never really said it quite like this before, but I think part of my strength as an early chef and restaurateur was perhaps kind of an ignorance in a way, or lack of experience. I really had no agenda. It was more, “I just want to serve people what I would want to experience.” Nothing more than that.
[In Part 2 of our interview, coming next week, Charlie Trotter discusses life without the restaurant, how he came to love vegetables, and his fixation on "excellence."]
PS If you worked in a major American restaurant in the 1970s or 1980s (kitchen or front of house), I'd love to hear from you and possibly interview you for my forthcoming oral history of that era. Please reach me at email@example.com.