My Lost Morning with Charlie Trotter
BROOKLYN, NY—On November 5 of last year, reports that Charlie Trotter had died, at the tragically young age of 54, ripped through the restaurant industry. In a quirk of timing, I was interviewing Jeremiah Tower in the lobby of the Stanford Court Hotel in San Francisco that morning. When he had to take a phone call, I sneaked a peek at my iPhone to see that my wife, Caitlin, had texted me the news.
Tower called it “a shock.” I agreed. It was shocking, but not as shocking as it should have been. I had visited Trotter in Chicago for an interview sixteen months earlier, in June 2012. He didn’t look well. I won’t speculate as to why because it would be just that–pure speculation–although on the heels of his demise, friends and the media pointed to both a heart condition and a brain aneurysm; a few weeks later, the Cook County Medical Examiner ID’d a stroke, resulting from high blood pressure, as the cause of death.
When I heard the news, and for days afterward, it wasn’t to my actual interview with Trotter that my mind traveled. Rather, it was to what had happened on its margins, our personal interactions when the recorder wasn’t running. It was an odd, at times infuriating, and ultimately heartening twenty-four hours, but it was none of those things for the right reasons.
I started writing this piece in November, then set it aside; it didn’t feel right to share it then. But I couldn’t get it out of my head, and enough time has elapsed that I wanted to now. Having finished it, I wish I had posted it back in the fall, because at the end of the day, it’s a positive yarn:
A few months before Charlie Trotter shuttered his eponymous restaurant, I had been invited to interview him for this website and made the trip to Chicago to do it in person. He was granting a great many audiences in those months, and I had just sold a book project about his generation of chefs and had been meaning to ring him up anyway, and to visit the restaurant before it served its last supper. Nevertheless, I was a bit hesitant to invest time and money in the trip because he was the only chef who’d ever stood me up for an interview, albeit just a phoner. I’d also had an uncomfortable encounter with him at the Bocuse d’Or tryouts in Orlando, Florida, in 2008. Nonetheless, having been repeatedly assured that a last-second cancellation — or, worse, a no-show — was out of the question, I bought a ticket and made a date via his publicist.
Part of the reason I decided to go was that I’d long been fascinated by what I referred to as the Two Trotters. Even those who were close to him, or admired his gifts from afar, acknowledged or had heard that he could be difficult. This was not a secret in the industry. On the other hand, he was a chef of great passion (see clip below) and relevance; counted among his best friends two of the most amiable guys in the industry, Norman Van Aken and Emeril Lagasse; was relentlessly philanthropic; and many people who once cooked in his kitchen—Marcus Samuelsson and Graham Elliot Bowles to name just two–cherish their time with him as invaluable and formative.
My plan had been to have dinner at Trotter’s during my Chicago visit, and to interview the chef while in town. By the time the trip came together, two chef friends from New York–one a peer of Trotters, one a contemporary of mine–had decided to come along for the ride. When Trotter heard who would be joining me, he invited us to be his guests for lunch. The plan, I was told, was that we’d dine at the restaurant and then the chef and I would spend the rest of the afternoon interviewing at his home around the corner. It wasn’t until I arrived in Chicago that I realized Charlie Trotter’s wasn’t open for lunch. I called the publicist, who explained to me that we’d be dining in the kitchen. This was just hours before our lunch, so I also took the opportunity to assuage my lingering doubts and re-confirm that the interview was on. Etched in stone, I was told.
It was an insanely generous meal at the famous kitchen table. Each chef de partie cooked a dish for us, personally presenting it. Veteran sommelier Larry Stone, back in his old stomping grounds for the final summer, was also on hand. Trotter himself joined us for a spell, sitting at the table’s fourth chair, then disappeared. It was a splendid, marvelous time, almost surreal in both setting and service.
It was after lunch that things got strange: The three of us were led on a tour of the wine cellars, then ushered to the front door.
“Is Chef meeting me here, or at his home?” I asked.
None of the be-suited staff knew what I was talking about. I explained about the interview.
“He’s going to call you on your cellphone,” somebody bluffed.
“He doesn’t have my number,” I said, gradually realizing that history was repeating itself and that I was about to be stood up once again.
A lengthy, awkward silence followed. Not wanting to shatter the halo of our lunch, I said goodbye and left. Outside, I called Trotter’s publicist and explained the situation. She was shocked, and hung up with me to try, fruitlessly, to find him. I told my friends to push off and that I’d meet them for dinner, then called the publicist, told her — among other things — that I was going to plant myself on a bench in a nearby park and not move until I heard from somebody.
And there I sat, in a suit and tie. In the June sun. For two hours. Periodically, the publicist called to update me: Nobody could find Trotter, not even his wife.
Finally, my phone rang. A private caller. I answered it.
“Andrew, it’s Charlie,” came the voice on the other end, excited and happy.
“Hello,” I said.
“Sorry, man. I had to put out a fire. Come on over to my house.”
I scribbled down the address and walked over. He met me at the door, led me inside.
“Let me give you a tour,” he said.
“I only have about ninety minutes,” I pleaded.
“It’s okay,” he said.
He showed me all over the house. In the basement, there was a rec room.
“You can stay here when you come to town to work on your book,” he said.
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “That’s awfully nice, but we barely know each –”
He opened a closet door, revealing multiple copies of his books.
“Do you have all my books?” he asked.
“Five or six of them.”
“Cause I can set you up with all of them.”
“I don’t know if I’d feel right –”
He ushered me out to the back patio and we sat down, a bottle of white Burgundy on ice before us. His wife, Rochelle, emerged, charm personified, and visited for a few minutes, then disappeared inside.
We began our interview, but it was by then a rushed affair. It was also difficult to move him off of long-perfected answers, many of which I’d read in the past and would read again throughout that summer. After about an hour, having only worked through about half of my questions, I had to cut things off.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I have a commitment. I need to go.”
Anger sparked in his eyes as they narrowed, fixed me.
“Well, I have all night,” he said pointedly, “But I guess you can’t adjust your plans…”
The truth was that I had a seven o’clock table booked at Alinea and didn’t want to disrespect them by being late. But I didn’t dare tell Trotter that because I’d read too much about the cold war between him and Grant Achatz, who once worked for him. Though the restaurant was walking distance from where we sat, Trotter had reportedly never set foot inside.
Over the years, I’ve concluded that it’s important to not cower at such moments, no matter to whom you are talking, or you will never earn their respect, or your own. I looked him in the eye and said, “I set aside seven hours for an interview and lunch. I think that was ample.”
After a brief staring contest, he softened: “Tell you what,” he said. “Why don’t you meet me at the restaurant in the morning, before your flight.”
“Great,” I said, and all the tension went out of the moment. He walked me to the door, we shook hands, and said goodbye.
The next morning, I showed up at 9am, sharp, and Trotter came instantly to the door. I only had about ninety minutes, but again, he insisted on a tour: he showed me the studio, in the house adjacent to the restaurant, told me about the Culinary Education Program, through which groups of kids visited the restaurant two or three times a week. Then he took me through the kitchen, explaining the layout, showing me how clean the floors were even in the restaurant’s final weeks.
The only cook on hand at that hour was the one making the bread. Trotter introduced us, and as we walked away, said under his breath, with a faux Italian accent. “This is Enzo, the baker.” I cracked up, getting the Godfather reference. He repeated it over and over as we walked into the dining room and took a table: “This is Enzo, the baker. This is Enzo, the baker.” Then he chuckled.
It’s the kind of thing I would do. I had never met this Charlie Trotter before, but I liked him.
We sat. I set my notebook and pocket recorder on the table. We chatted: He asked me what I had going on back home and I mentioned my son, Declan.
“He’s not named for Declan McManus, is he?” he asked, Declan McManus being Elvis Costello’s real name.
“Yes he is,” I said, and told him how, when my wife Caitlin was pregnant, we’d been stumped for a name until we saw Costello, a hero of mine, and Diana Krall at Babbo one night and inspiration struck.
“And your son is named after Bob Dylan,” I said.
“And you’re named after Charlie Parker.”
Nothing bonds men like the same taste in music. We stuck on Elvis Costello for a moment, quoting early, genius lyrics back and forth.
Charlie: “Don’t put your heart out on your sleeve, when your remarks are off the cuff.”
Andrew: “She’s been a bad girl, she’s like a chemical; though you try to stop it, she’s like a narcotic.”
Charlie: “The radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools tryin’ to anesthetize the way that you feel.”
I pushed aside my tape recorder. This was no interview, but the conversation was a lot of fun.
He asked me how I enjoyed being a parent, and I told him that we were dealing with a challenging time.
Charlie, who’d already seen a son into adulthood, listened patiently, asked for details.
I told him about the most questionable thing I’d ever done as a father: While out with my wife, Caitlin, my son, at age six, had done something morally and legally questionable. When he got home, I convinced him that the police were on the way over to deal with him and it drove him to hysterical tears. I had wondered ever since if I’d over-reacted, traumatized him.
Charlie nodded: “Scared Straight,” he said, referring to an old television documentary about how a group of hardened criminals intimidated the hell out of juvenile delinquents to scare them back onto the straight and narrow. “That was okay,” he reassured me. “He’ll never do it again.”
“I dunno,” I said.
“It was fine, trust me.”
I looked at my watch. I had to leave for the airport in thirty minutes.
“Listen,” I said. “This is great, but I have a plane to catch. We either need to shift gears and get back to the interview, or pick up by phone later this week.”
“The phone’s great,” he said. He gave me his cell phone number and personal email address.
We proceeded to talk about the ups and downs of parenthood. I can’t divulge too much here, out of respect for both of our sons, but it was a deeply personal conversation that covered all the bases–the delicate balance of nurturing and discipline, self-doubt, and all the cornball prideful moments. To this day, it was probably the best conversation I’ve ever had about fatherhood.
When the time came to leave, he got up and patted me on the back. Though only eight years my senior, I’d describe the gesture as paternal. And, having lost my own father just a year prior, I hadn’t been able to describe anything with that adjective in a very long time.
“You’ll be fine,” he said.
We walked into the foyer and chatted for a bit. He asked me about my website, said he was a fan, admonished me to “get the word out.” He also asked me about my then-nascent book project about him and his peers, lamenting the fact that a lot of young cooks in his kitchen couldn’t even name the great American chefs of the 1980s.
And that was that. We took the picture featured at the top of this post, shook hands, said goodbye, and reiterated that we’d talk in a day or two.
I called him the next day from New York City, finding his voicemail full. The day after that, I successfully left him a message, but didn’t hear back.
I emailed him one of my favorite You Tube clips of Elvis Costello, a soul-baring rendition of the disturbingly raw jealously rant “I Want You,” with EC joined by Fiona Apple. He wrote me back, sending along a clip of Elvis’ version of the Nick Lowe tune “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” calling it “his best song.” Tellingly, he didn’t choose a rendition by the angry, young, quasi-punk Elvis of the 1970s, but rather the middle-aged, contented, goofy Elvis of the mid-2000s:
I wrote back, telling him that song had been my personal anthem in college.
The next day, I got a voicemail. “Hey, man. It’s Charlie. I’ve been busy with things but you’re on my short list of phone calls. Try me back. OK, my friend, talk to you soon.”
The phrasing startled me. I played the voicemail back a few times, trying to analyze it. “My friend?” Seriously?
I did try him a few more times, leaving messages and sending texts.
The kicker is that, having seemingly connected over coffee that morning in Chicago, I never heard from him again. For two months, I sat on the interview in vain, then finally ran it the week he closed the restaurant, when it couldn’t wait any longer.
About a year later, shortly before Trotter’s death, video surfaced of an unfortunate incident involving Chicago high school students. I won’t post it here. It’s too awful and sad. It did strike me, though, that he was wearing pretty much the same outfit in the video that he was the morning I’d spent with him, more than a year earlier. Having flirted with low-grade depression myself years ago, there was something familiar about that fact, but again, I won’t speculate; it could have been mere coincidence on his part, or projection on mine.
It pains me to say it, but the video was the source of much derision among young cooks. The week it broke, I was out with a large group of kitchen professionals in New York City, one of whom pulled it up on his iPad. “The man’s lost it,” said one observer. “Totally bonkers,” said another.
I didn’t share in that schadenfreude, but I did have my lingering resentments about my visit with Trotter — those two hours in the sun, the simmering tension over my leaving for dinner, the unbidden offers of books and lodging contrasted with the un-returned calls and texts. The incomplete interview I’d spent time and money to obtain. I’m not proud of it, especially in light of what we now know, but I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t share those grievances with a few people in the trade when they asked me about my Chicago jaunt.
When there was time, I also told any inquirers about that morning we spent together in the empty restaurant, spit-balling lyrics back and forth like a couple of kids and kicking around the peaks and valleys of fatherhood like barflies. Those who knew him well tell me that I met the real Charlie that morning at the restaurant, and I have no trouble believing them. The Two Trotters were what drew me to Chicago, and — when I least expected it — I had finally met the one who’d eluded me on prior interactions.
During our interview, I had asked Charlie a question about his association with degustation menus and he, incongruously, replied that, “I thought you were going to say one of the things I’m known for is being an asshole.”
When I pushed him on that comment, he responded, “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.” He also said, poignantly in hindsight: “In the end, just put on my tombstone, At least the guy had a sense of humor.”
I don’t know what’s inscribed on the stone that marks Charlie’s resting place. I’m not even sure that reports of his brutality were greatly exaggerated. But he was an important and passionate chef, a generous soul, and surely had a sense of humor, and pretty damn good taste in movies and music, as well. And, when I needed it, he gave me an ear and a pat on the back, which probably don’t sound like much, but sometimes they can be.
Rest in Peace, Love, and Understanding, Chef.