The Chicago Chef on the Food-Music Connection, His Preoccupation with Vegetables, and the Politics of Foie Gras
Here’s part 2 of our recent interview with Charlie Trotter, who’s closing up shop at the end of the month. If you haven’t read Part 1, you might want to have a look before proceeding.
TOQUELAND: So, you’re not going to have the restaurant.
TOQUELAND: But do you think you’ll keep a toe in the water of the industry over the next several years?
TROTTER: Oh, I consult for some companies and I’m working on some other projects. I love food, you know? Of course I’m going to be involved in a number of ways in the world of food and wine . ..
TOQUELAND: You also told me that you’re going to travel. Is there an itinerary on your mind?
TROTTER: I’ve got to take care of my wife. I’ve got to take her on a few trips. Well, we’ve traveled extensively anyway. We’ve had a chance twice to go around the world for three weeks at a crack. One time we went one way; the other time we went the other way.. . I’m going to take Mrs. Trotter on a number of trips this fall.
TOQUELAND: You’re going to keep the property, is that correct?
TROTTER: I’m not sure yet. I may sell the two properties that house the restaurant, both built in 1908 as single-family homes, twin buildings. I’ll have to see what makes sense. .. People ask me often, “Why are you doing this?” And my response is very simple. And I don’t want this to come off the wrong way, but, “Because I can.”
TOQUELAND: There were a lot of firsts in the history of this restaurant.
TROTTER: We were the first restaurant in America to ever have a kitchen table other than one or two places that had a table that was reserved only for the chef’s friends but not for the public. First restaurant to literally go no smoking. We only allowed smoking in the bar for the first two months, then I just said no more smoking. And then I’d get calls from the Chicago aldermen saying, “Oh, gosh, this is great. We’re trying to legislate that we should have no smoking sections. .. and we want you to come and testify that it hasn’t hurt your business.” And my response was, “If I come down and testify, I’m going to testify the other way. The government can’t get their grubby hands involved.” I made this decision. Clients can decide if they want to come or not come. Employees can decide if they want to work there or not work there. We can’t legislate everything.
We were the first restaurant to offer a vegetable degustation menu. Back then if you even saw a vegetable or vegetarian dishes, it might be at a hotel and there would be a heart next to it like a “heart-healthy” dish. And my rationale had nothing to do with health. Health, it’s a byproduct of serving exquisite vegetable items, or non-vegetable items, but it’s going to be healthy anyways because we use virtually no cream or butter. We serve mainly organic product, natural product.
TOQUELAND: Was there a revelatory moment when you got turned on to vegetables, or realized you wanted to focus on them to the extent that you did?
TROTTER: I’ve always loved vegetables and I think I was one of these guys, like maybe even yourself, who went through one of these phases in college where I was a vegetarian for, like, six months. I liked to eat everything, but I’ve always thought that vegetables are the most interesting element of food and gastronomy.
TROTTER: Well, because there’s more variety in terms of texture and flavor. You can have a two-ounce piece of fish, but if it’s supported with a puree of cabbage, purple cabbage, and sweet and sour cucumber pieces and this and this, it makes it more interesting. The fish is sort of uni-dimensional in terms of texture or flavor, and meat is, too, whereas vegetables provide this vast variety of possibility. So, for me, it’s never really been about the health element; it’s always been about the aesthetic element, the flavor element.
TOQUELAND: You’ve also pointed out that if the vegetables are in a greater ratio to protein than they are on most menus, you may be significantly more comfortable by the time it’s over.
TROTTER: You had lunch today with us. It’s very light food. It’s very clean food.
TOQUELAND: You use the word excellence a lot. I saw you do it today at lunch with your staff. When did that as a concept become so important to you?
TROTTER: I’m a big believer in language and using language properly. And I believe when you talk about things in a certain way, they become foremost on the mind.. . I used to be, I believe wrongly, accused of being a perfectionist. I’m not a perfectionist. It’s a word that I’ve made up, but I’m an excellencist. And there’s a big difference between the two. Being an excellencist is you’re willing to absorb and celebrate, if you will, quirkiness. So a la Miles Davis, a la Bob Dylan. Artists that never really did it the same way twice.
There are some in my world, chefs, that have devised a developed a repertoire of dishes. And they might be fantastic dishes but they don’t really deviate. The examples I always like to refer to are Joël Robuchon versus Frédy Girardet. Robuchon had these amazing dishes but there was no deviation: “This is how it’s done. It takes me nine months to evolve the dish and here it is. It’s perfect. It’s never going to change.” Whereas Girardet was always in the moment. I think of Girardet like Miles Davis, like Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan never played Like a Rolling Stone the same way twice. Miles Davis never played My Funny Valentine the same way twice.. . And so I’ve always been comfortable, if you will, being in the moment. It’s pursuing a type of precision in a way but not worrying that it has to be so exact. You’re willing to walk on a high wire without a net.
TOQUELAND: Can we talk for a minute about foie gras?
TROTTER: Of course.
TOQUELAND: It’s in the news obviously with California.
TROTTER: Yeah, but for me this is old news. I mean really old news.
TOQUELAND: That’s why I bring it up. What are your feelings these days? You did quite a bit of talking about it to the press around 2005.
TROTTER: I did no talking about it. I was outed. We stopped serving foie gras in, I’m going to say 1998 or thereabouts.
TOQUELAND: I didn’t realize it was that early.
TROTTER: Oh, yeah, yeah. But we did it under the radar.
TOQUELAND: You just did it.
TROTTER: We just did it because I had at that point in my life visited three different foie gras farms: One in the US, one in Canada, one in France. And what I witnessed was not pretty. And I just decided, you know, there are too many other great things you can eat. I’m not exactly Mr. PETA champion, but I just decided, “Nah, I can’t support this.” But never said a word about it.
TOQUELAND: So you felt like you got drawn into that whole thing?
TROTTER: I got sucked into it. A journalist came and basically said, “I know you guys change your menu every day and it’s always different and I know sometimes you don’t see things, but I’ve been here a number of times and I haven’t seen foie gras in a long time. And one of the service staff members said something to the effect of, “We haven’t served foie gras here in about six years.” And then this journalist went out and about town and interviewed other chefs and said, “What do you think about this?” And some chefs said, “Well, that’s fine, whatever Chef Trotter wants to do.” [But] one chef said something to the effect of, “Charlie’s a hypocrite if he serves [foie gras].” [Note: It was Rick Tramonto and his comments led to a public and very nasty feud between the chefs; a ban on foie gras in Chicago was in place from 2006 to 2008.]
TOQUELAND: I have the article in my bag. I know the whole story.
TROTTER: Well, Rick Tramonto and I have made our peace. And he used to work for me; anyway, who hasn’t? He said, “Charlie’s a hypocrite if he serves veal.” But my thing is the veal that we serve is free range, hormone-free, antibiotic free veal that’s humanly slaughtered. It’s wildly different. It’s not apples to apples. I said, “Well, that guy, he’s not the smartest guy I’ve ever seen.”And then it turned into a pissing match that was a front page Chicago Tribune story for a few days.
Then I had Chicago aldermen, this one guy in particular, saying,“Chef Trotter, this is amazing. You need to come down and testify that we need to ban foie gras.” I said, “If I come down, I’m going to go the other way.” I’m not preaching. We don’t serve foie gras. I’m not saying we have to legislate against it, you know? I’m not judging other people if they want to eat it or serve it or whatever.
TOQUELAND: That anticipates my question which is what you think of the ban in California?
TROTTER: You’ve got to make your own decisions. You don’t have to outlaw the stuff.
TOQUELAND: Have you been pressured recently to get into it one way or the other?
TROTTER: No, because I come out on the other side. That’s what people don’t understand. It’s just too bad my guy didn’t get the Republican nomination for president. That would be Ron Paul. I’m the ultimate libertarian. Just live your life, do your thing. Insofar as you hurt no other, then fine. There are bigger things to conquer than these issues.
TOQUELAND: You make a lot of musical comparisons, like your PBS show, The Kitchen Sessions. The very name is a musical reference.
TROTTER: Well, I ripped that off from Miles Davis.
TOQUELAND: Right. You’re named for a musician, correct?
TROTTER: Charlie Parker.
TOQUELAND: When you started to find your way as a chef and figure out who you were on the plate, did you play a lot of music when you would cook, when you were teaching yourself to cook, and cooking in college for people? Was that part of your development? Was there a musical component to that?
TROTTER: I wouldn’t go that far. My one regret in life is that I’ve never learned to play any kind of instrument.
TOQUELAND: That’s an interesting fact, isn’t it, if you think about it?
TROTTER: Well, I tried to play the trumpet and I just wouldn’t practice and I never went to lessons other than once in a while, and so it didn’t really pan out for me.
TOQUELAND: You’ve done something like fifteen books. Why so many? A lot of chefs have written just one book because they do it and they realize it’s a lot of work and it’s hard to do it while you’re running a restaurant or three or four.
TROTTER: The first book I wrote, I did the entire thing myself.
TOQUELAND: Even the recipe testing?
TROTTER: Did every single thing. I plated every dish. I wrote every recipe. I tested every recipe. It took me three years to do it.. . Nothing was styled or doctored.. . It was meant to be a document of what the restaurant was all about. That took three years. And I realized I could rock another book out. So I took this one gal out of my kitchen who was kind of losing interest in being a line cook, and I said, “I’ll tell you what: I’m ready to start the next book, a vegetable cookbook, but if you can write the recipes, I’ll show you how to do it, I’ll plate it, I’ll show you everything.”
So the vegetable book took one year, and so then I figured out the process of it all. So then there was the seafood book, the meat and game book, the dessert book and then a home book . ..
TOQUELAND: What keeps you going with the books?
TROTTER: It’s like what keeps the Beatles going with their albums? It’s like documenting a moment in time in terms of what you represent. This is where I was with food here. This is where I was with food here. This is where I was with food here . ..