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 that fateful week 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….