Charlie Trotter: The Next Chapter

Charlie Trotter: The Next Chapter

Pioneering chef Charlie Trotter talks about closing his Chicago restaurant, which raised the bar on American cuisine, and what’s next for him.

On New Year’s Eve, Charlie Trotter revealed his decision to close his eponymous restaurant after nearly 25 years in business. Trotter, who wants to travel and study philosophy and political theory, says he might return to the restaurant business some day. He dismisses the notion that the economy influenced his decision. Still, it’s hard to ignore the suggestion that formal, fussed-over concepts have lost some of their mojo—consider Trotter contemporary Per Se, which New York Magazine recently relegated to a #3 spot on its annual list of the city’s top restaurants.

A trailblazer and detail fanatic, Trotter has always aspired to perfection, and the venerable Lincoln Park spot racked up scores of awards and launched the careers of other celebrated chefs in its quarter-century. Trotter branched out—into several spinoff restaurants, cookbooks and broadcasting. This interview combines conversations from before and after his announcement.

RH: You have thought about walking away from the restaurant before, but relented. Why now? Are you having a midlife crisis?

Trotter: Actually, I thought about doing it at the 20-year mark, but when that rolled around I hadn’t completely formulated the thought process that went into this decision. So I decided to wait until 25 years, a quarter century, and go on from there.

I could do this forever, and it would be most gratifying, but there are other things I could do in life and I need to try them now.

I’ve been lucky because I haven’t worked a day in my adult life. I do whatever I want and make every decision, so it’s hardly work, it’s fun. I pinch myself. I meet amazing people, travel all over the world, work with great team members, do charity events—and people say, you’re making a living? It’s work in a sense, but not drudgery.

RH: How have you adapted your food and service to changes in the market over the years? What are some of the most significant changes?

Trotter: The most important thing is that the food I serve has always been the food that I like to eat, rather than figuring out what the marketplace wants. My palate wants lighter, cleaner; more seafood, vegetables and more Asian, and that’s where we’ve gone. I have continued to limit the use of cream and butter to emphasis the vegetables and seafood elements and an Asian minimalist aesthetic to the food, which is still rooted in a western palate paradigm. Everything is designed to balance with wine. It’s not too spicy. I’m drawn to Asian palate but still anchored to a western European palate.

RH: What is the secret to exceptional service?

Trotter: Really, it’s trying to read the guests’ minds. It’s not unlike playing chess: You have to be thinking 5-7-9 moves in advance and interpret what the guest’s desire is. It’s always been about the art of subtlety. I would say one of my strengths is that I’ve had about three solid years of dining room experience. So I can completely relate do being a server, a back waiter, sommelier, host, bartender, because I’ve held all those jobs. That informs me as a chef and culinarian as to how the ebb and flow goes during the evening. That’s one of the reasons we rotate the culinary people through the dining room; if you want to be good at either, you have to experience the other side.

RH: Is your guest profile today the same as or different from when you started?

Trotter: We’ve always had more out-of-town than in-town guests. About 60 percent of our clients on any given night come from outside metro Chicago. Some are straight-up foodies that will go anywhere for a meal, while others here on business. A certain percentage are special occasion people. For another percent it’s a straight out business meal. They want to impress clients after closing a deal. It’s about the ambiance and prestige of where they are—the celebration aspect of it.
In terms of our age demographic, that hasn’t really changed much. We see folks between 30 and 60. Once in awhile we see young kids (as young as eight). You’d be surprised how many 10- or 12-year-olds understand food and are eating things like sea urchin or tripe.

RH: What has been the most rewarding aspect of your work?

Trotter: There are two things. First, our number one rule is that the client has to leave basically saying, “we had high expectations, and this exceeded them.”

The other thing is when we can have someone work here for two to five years, train them, show them our point of view, instill in them the mindset of what excellence is all about, and they can go on to something else, that’s very gratifying. In some ways it’s like sending your kid off to college.

We sort of have a family tree. I was told recently that Chicago city council is about to pass a law that you can’t open a restaurant unless you’ve worked at Charlie Trotter’s.

RH: What has been the biggest headache, and how have you dealt with it?

Trotter: I’ve maintained for years that if it weren’t for the employees and the customers, restaurants would be the greatest business in the world. In some senses it’s true. Headaches? You have to take things as they come. I’ve been around long enough to deal with anything.

Better way to put it: if you really want to run a restaurant, I would advise you to read The Myth of Sisyphus, an essay by Albert Camus. Like Sisyphus, you are pushing a boulder up a hill, and if you slip or tremble, the boulder falls and you have to start over again. If you really want to go for it, you need to understand that might be your fate. Basically in the end you never really get to the top in that exercise. The easy part is the first 80 percent, but the last 20 percent takes time.

RH: Recently, what have been your biggest food or cooking passions?

Trotter: I’m drawn more than ever to the slow food process. It takes a lot of time to braise or cook something sous vide or a slow steam oven for hours. You can really extract the flavor and affect the texture. I’m learning more about it.

With food: I like miniseasons for foods. Right now it’s heirloom tomatoes, chanterelles and eggplant.

RH: What was your last memorable meal?

Trotter: It was at Tetsuya’s in Sydney—Tetsuya Wakuda is from Japan. Everything he does is like poetry. There is an element of Japanese, but a western influence. Among the dishes I had were a slowly cooked Tasmanian ocean trout with its own roe and a type of game bird slowly cooked and browned at the end with the blood/juices used to make a sauce.

Another recent brilliant meal was Alain Ducasse’s 55th birthday celebration at a restaurant in Paris. It was out of control. He pulled hits from his various restaurants, and it was a study in brilliance. This is why I’m in this world of food and wine and service.

RH: Where and what do you like to eat when you’re not working?

Trotter: I recently went to local place about a block from my house called Sono. They make amazing pizza in a wood-fired oven.

RH: Any guilty food pleasures?

Trotter: I love licorice. Not just Twizzlers, the real intense kind that turns your tongue purple and your teeth black. I sometimes wake up at 2 in the morning and eat it.

RH: A number of prominent chefs have worked for you at one time. What do you think about mentor/apprentice relationships? Did you have mentors?

Trotter: I believe the idea of inadvertent mentorship. You just fall into something. I consider someone like Norman van Aken to be a mentor of mine. I don’t know if he set out or I set out to do that. Our relationship has been more about literature and thinking and leadership than about food. I worked with him at three places. He didn’t say, “I’m going to show you all my tricks.” The ultimate mentorship is you must mentor yourself. To be exceptional you have to have the strength and ability to mentor yourself. You have to say, “I’m going to exceed my own expectations.”

RH: What will you miss the most?

Trotter: Probably mentoring some of the young folks who come through the restaurant. It’s nice to see someone grow into a leader. It’s even more interesting to groom people to be their own toughest boss, and to go out and open their own restaurants.

I’ll also miss the interaction with some of the clients. We have had all kinds of interesting people and so-called famous people eat here. It’s fun to meet some of them and know that you’ve taken care of them.
Finally, I’ll miss the excellence program. On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights we host Chicago high school students. They have the same menu as other guests, and they hear our staff members talk about excellence and can ask them questions. We’ve been doing that for 12 years. It shows young folks that in life you get what you give. It’s not about recruiting. It also shows our team that it’s beyond cooking, beyond service, beyond ambiance, beyond a wine program. It’s about how to make a difference.