Charlie Trotter says he first thought of closing his namesake restaurant after his plane sat on the tarmac at LaGuardia Airport on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
“I realized really how fragile the world is,” he reflects. “I love what I do, and it's gratifying in every way, but then it occurred to me — it was sort of an existential moment — it's sort of meaningless compared to something like this.”
Word got out that he was considering shuttering the restaurant, and some public hand-wringing followed in October, but the restaurant remained open. What changed his mind?
“The show must go on, I guess,” he says.
Charlie Trotter's certainly had been riding high up to that point and would resume doing so as people eventually returned to fine dining after the terrorist attacks. In 1999 the James Beard Foundation named him the nation's outstanding chef, and his “Charlie Trotter's Desserts” book won for best food photography. The following year he scored a Beard hat trick: Charlie Trotter's was named outstanding restaurant, his PBS series “The Kitchen Sessions With Charlie Trotter” was deemed the best national television cooking show, and the “Kitchen Sessions” cookbook won in the chefs and restaurants category.
“It was like going to the Emmys or the Oscars,” Sari Zernich Worsham, who worked in Trotter's kitchen and on his books and TV show for 13 years before becoming executive director of chef Art Smith's company, says of the team's 2000 trip to the Beard Awards. “I think he took like 10 or 12 of us. I hadn't put on a pair of heels in years. It was just the coolest thing. He took us all to New York and put us up in hotel rooms, and we got a cool late-night dinner after the awards. He was like the king of the town. You were very proud to say you worked at Charlie Trotter's.”
Matthias Merges, Trotter's chef de cuisine and then executive chef and director of operations from 1996 to 2010, places the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks at about the midpoint of what he considers to be the restaurant's peak period, when the kitchen team at times included Giuseppe Tentori (GT Fish & Oyster, Boka); David LeFevre (MB Post in Manhattan Beach, Calif.); Bill Kim (Urban Belly, Belly Shack and Belly Q); Curtis Duffy (former Avenues, soon-to-open Grace); Della Gossett (French Pastry School); Graham Elliot (Graham Elliot, g.e.b.); Homaro Cantu (Moto, iNG); and John Shields and Karen Urie (both currently between projects on the East Coast). He says the restaurant clicked into place in the years before 9/11, and “between 2002 to 2006 we had a lot of influence, we were breaking new boundaries, the team was tight, the food was tight, the service was on, the package was full.”
Trotter had other ventures that came and went under various circumstances, including two restaurants in Las Vegas and one in Mexico, and some that never materialized, such as proposed restaurants in New York and London and inside Chicago's Elysian Hotel. Regardless, the team was constantly on the move as Trotter would accept far-flung invitations to cook for charity events or high-profile dinners on the restaurant's off days, Sundays and Mondays.
Before airline travel became more restrictive, he would wait until the last minute to reveal who would be joining him, so Worsham recalls that late Saturday night after service, “He'd hand out airplane tickets. They'd say ‘Trotter A,' ‘Trotter B,' ‘Trotter C,' ‘Trotter D.' You wouldn't know if you're going on that trip till he passed you that ticket. You'd run home. You'd pack. You'd be back at the restaurant in two hours.”
Many of the world's best chefs also cooked in Trotter's kitchen; his 20th anniversary dinner alone featured dishes by world-renowned chefs Tetsuya Wakuda, Thomas Keller, Heston Blumenthal, Daniel Boulud and Ferran Adria. Naha chef Carrie Nahabedian says she enjoyed one of the best meals of her life when Marc Veyrat, a French chef specializing in foraging, co-presented a meal with Trotter in 1999.
“I still can taste the pine cone consomme,” she says. “I mean, pine cone consomme! It was like drinking Christmas.”
But every restaurant has a life cycle, and as of Saturday morning Trotter's will have reached its end.
The chef revealed the news in typically unpredictable fashion by telling guests at the restaurant's New Year's Eve dinner that Trotter's would be closing in August, the month of its 25th anniversary.
“I need about a three-year hiatus to study and read books that are unread still and figure things out, see what I want to do,” says the almost-53-year-old chef, who married public relations specialist Rochelle Smith in 2010 (his third wife) and has discussed perhaps returning to school to study philosophy. “Five years of learning the craft and the business, 25 years of running this couldn't be more gratifying. But you can't do the same thing forever, or your head might just explode.”
Speculation in Chicago's food-scene fishbowl commenced immediately. One theory went that Trotter's was past its prime, surpassed by newer restaurants such as Alinea, run by onetime Trotter's chef Grant Achatz, whose more avant-garde cooking, Trotter implied in a 2005 New York Times story, amounted to “nonsense upon stilts.” (Trotter hadn't, and still hasn't, eaten at Alinea, Achatz says.) This narrative gained traction when Alinea snagged the coveted three-star rating in the first-ever Chicago Michelin Guide for 2011, while Trotter's received just two, a fine ranking for just about anywhere except a place forever obsessed with being the best.
The salt in the wound was a March 2011 New York Times story with the headline “Trotter, a Leader Left Behind.” Trotter hated that piece and disputes that his restaurant ever peaked.
“On our worst day we're in the top three restaurants in America,” he says. “But I feel there's a point where what's the new hot thing (gets the attention). I remarked before in an article, and I firmly believe this: If we were to close this down and six months later open Charlie Trotter's a mile away from here, with a different look but serve the exact same food, it would be like, ‘Oh, my God, this is the toast of the town. The food's never been better. The service has never been better.'”
Tribune food critic Phil Vettel, at least, has never noted a drop-off in quality, giving the restaurant four stars on each of his repeated visits, including those with current chef de cuisine Michael Rotondo.
Some also concluded that Trotter's was feeling particular pain in this crummy economy. More than a few restaurant biz folks noted that by giving the public eight months' notice of the closing, he guaranteed eight months of stuffed reservation books and spiked revenues.
“Some people will speculate that, oh, business must have been down or whatever,” says Norman Van Aken, the acclaimed Florida chef and longtime friend for whom Trotter first worked at Sinclair's in Lake Forest. “That's bull. … We talked about it 10 years ago, that he would be closing and changing, but he always felt an obligation to some of the staff that had been with him a long time. Charlie is not even 60 yet, and he knows that for him to accomplish other things, he needs to do what he's doing.”
Nahabedian, another Trotter friend since Sinclair's, agrees that the other factors drove his decision, though she notes, “I think he was unhappy with the way the dining scene and the way the recession had hit restaurants in general. I think he didn't like the casualness of it all and the fact that everybody wanted a deal. He didn't want to change anything that he had worked so hard for over 25 years to achieve.”
Still, some things had changed in recent years, as key members of the kitchen team peeled off, among them sous chef Tentori in 2007, pastry chef Gossett in early 2010, Merges later in 2010 and Reginald Watkins, Trotter's first hire, last year. Trotter says the wind-down to his restaurant's closing has not been difficult or particularly emotional for him, but his endings with former employees haven't always been so tidy, as his 2005 public dust-up with then-Tru chef Rick Tramonto over foie gras indicated (“Maybe we ought to have Rick's liver for a little treat …”), though that fence has been mended.
Mark Signorio joined as a waiter in the restaurant's second month and became Trotter's point person on major projects over his 20 years there. But while working on Trotter's second Vegas venture in 2007, he accepted another job, and, he says, his efforts to have a face-to-face meeting with his longtime boss and friend ended with Trotter slamming the door in his face.
“There was no communication,” says Signorio, now interior design director with the Las Vegas Sands Corp. “I became a persona non grata in his book.”
Says Trotter: “My response is if you leave one way, it's fine, but if you leave another way, as in walk off the job and give a two-week notice, well, you've got to be effin' kidding me.” Still, he adds: “Mark's a great guy. He's unbelievable. Hugely talented.”
For Ben Roche, who worked in Trotter's kitchen for about 15 months and later became Moto's executive pastry chef, the end came on a Saturday afternoon when, he says, Trotter burned his hand on a hot tray, and Roche reflexively laughed, apologized and ultimately disobeyed Trotter's order to go home because he didn't want to leave his station short-handed.
“It was kind of a dumb reason to get fired,” he says.
Mindy's Hot Chocolate chef Mindy Segal had been pastry chef at Trotter's for eight months in the early '90s when her mission was aborted. She says she'd been chatting with a guest chef in the kitchen about her experiences there, and she thinks he must have said something to Trotter because “Charlie, a couple of days later, he took me into the dining room to have a talk with him, and he said, ‘I accept your resignation.' And I was like, ‘OK.' It was like I was being fired, but he was letting me resign.
“I was very angry with him, and I did not talk to him for years — 10 years probably. I really felt cheated.”
Cantu suspected his Trotter's days were numbered after a fellow chef told Trotter of Cantu's desire to open his own restaurant someday, and Trotter subsequently transferred him to the Trotter's To Go store on Fullerton Avenue. Yet Cantu stuck around because, he says, Trotter asked him to be the opening sous chef for a new London restaurant. Cantu says he even moved up his wedding to Katie McGowan, whom he met when she was a Trotter's guest chef, from May to March 2003, and McGowan quit her job and put her condo on the market in anticipation of the April move.
But when he found Trotter and the other managers assembled in the front salon on what happened to be his fourth anniversary there in February, “I just knew that was it,” Cantu says. “He's like, ‘So, London's not going to work out for you.'” (The restaurant would never open.)
For 90 back-and-forth minutes, Cantu says, Trotter tried to get him to quit. “He would just point out the window — it was snowing — he'd be like, ‘What the (expletive) do you think is out there for you? What do you think you're going to do in this business? Do you honestly think you're going to open up your own restaurant and compete with me?'
“He would say, ‘Are you sure that you can make it at this restaurant, at my restaurant?' When your boss tells you that, you're ready to quit. But what I was worried about was: How am I going to pay my bills? My wife doesn't have a job. We have no place to live. I need unemployment (compensation).
“At the very end he's like, ‘So you're saying that this place isn't for you.' And I'm like, ‘Well, if that's what you're saying, I guess this place isn't for me.' He's like, ‘Well, I guess that's it. There's nothing else to discuss.' I got up. I grabbed my (stuff) from my locker, and I went right to the unemployment office. Called my wife, said, ‘Look, I just got fired. There's nothing that I can do.' Went home. We cried on the couch together. We wound up getting married a month after that. She cried the morning of our wedding.”
“There's a mantra that I used to say to all the cooks, and the mantra is ‘I will not become distracted,'” Merges says. “And you will say it to yourself over and over a thousand times in a day in order to stay focused on your task at hand. There was a point when the (restaurant's) overall direction became distracted.”
Among those who worked in Trotter's kitchen over the past 15 years, no figure may be more widely admired than Merges, who had been a Trotter's cook for two years in the early 1990s before leaving, opening his own restaurant in Salt Lake City and returning at Trotter's behest in 1996 to run the kitchen. (Elliot gave one son the middle name Matthias in tribute.) But by May 2010, Merges says, he had a bad feeling about where the restaurant was headed.
“I was willing to help save it and do something with it, but there was no reciprocal focus,” he says.
So he says he gave Trotter three months' notice, and Trotter asked him to stay on to work on more events — and then more after those. It was October in Diamond Creek, Calif., when Merges thought he had worked his final event and thanked his boss of the past 14 years.
“He says, ‘What? This can't be your last day,'” Merges recalls. “He asked me to stay and work until the end of the year. At that point I knew I needed to start working on my own stuff. I told him I'll work; I need to do my own stuff too. I'm going to work from home sometimes, but I'll come in when it's busy, and I'll work for all the events and all the administrative stuff that I needed to do.
“I got home. It's Tuesday. I remember this vividly. I'm working from home; I'm doing all this stuff for him, this event in Montreal that had to happen, one in New York, another one in LA or something, and I was coordinating it all. I get a call from him that afternoon. I told him what I was doing, and he's like, ‘Well, I thought I'd see you in the restaurant today.'
“I'm like, ‘You know I'm not going to be there today. We talked about this on Sunday.'
“And then he's like, ‘Well, make this your last day.' So that's the last time I talked to him. That's him. That's Charlie in a nutshell.”
Trotter says he bears no hard feelings toward Merges.
“He was great. He's unbelievable,” Trotter says. “We spent a lot of time together, and he did a great job, and I know his restaurant is fantastic. I think he did the right thing to finally move on and do his own thing.”
Merges did not hear from Trotter when he opened Yusho to much acclaim in December and was not invited back for any of Trotter's farewell events.
Not all of the exit stories are so painful.
“My last day leaving, his mom hugged me and said to me, ‘Thank you for believing in my son,' and gave me a gift,” says Michael Taus (Zealous), who worked there more than 20 years ago.
Tentori says he gave Trotter about two months' notice, got out clean and has helped Trotter at some events since then.
Even Segal, who in May won the James Beard Award for outstanding pastry chef, has made up with Trotter and will be among those serving food at Friday's farewell dinner, along with fellow alumni Elliot and Bill Kim, although the alumni who haven't been asked to participate in the final events far outnumber those who have. “I wanted him to be proud of me,” Segal says. “His approval of me means an enormous amount.”
Cantu has returned to Trotter's to cook at a James Beard Foundation dinner and to eat in the dining room; he says he just wishes he hadn't seen so many fellow staffers driven anxious or worse by the work environment. “No job should be that way,” the Moto chef says. “I think you can be nice to people and run the world's greatest restaurant.”
Trotter bristles at the notion that he traumatized workers — or that traumatizing someone necessarily is a bad thing.
“Maybe it's good to be traumatized in your youth, to make you think differently and step outside the box,” he says. “Anybody can be comfortable, but if you get your world rocked, shaken as it were, then maybe it causes you to really go to a whole other level in a different way.”
He adds in a voice suffused with rare emotion: “As tough as I've been on anybody, as hard as I've ever been on anybody, I have been harder on myself. By far. So that's that.”
Says LeFevre: “I think that you can have that level of food and everything without it being crazy; I mean, other people are doing that. But I think that it wouldn't have been Trotter's then.”
What's next for Trotter and his property is anyone's guess. All he'll say about his enormous wine collection is, “I did a mathematical calculation, and if I live to the average age of an American male, which I think right now is 78.2 years, and if I average one bottle a day, on my last day on the planet I'll be able to drink the last bottle of wine.”
As for whether he's going to hold on to the two town homes that have housed his restaurant and business, he says he hasn't decided.
“That's the beauty of me,” he says. “I never know what I'm going to do.”
His mother, for one, doesn't think he's hanging up his chef's whites for good. “I honestly can't see him sitting back,” Dona-Lee Trotter says. “I can't. I think he really needs a rest, but I wouldn't be surprised if he didn't try something else.”
Says chef/old friend Van Aken: “I think he'll be back in some form of the restaurant business before long. But I hope that he gives himself enough time to accurately reflect on where he wants to be in it.”
In the meantime, memories of all of those meals will linger in the minds and on the palates of the guests who enjoyed them.
“I don't think the city knows how much they're really going to miss having the power and influence of a chef of this caliber in the city,” Nahabedian says. “To be in the city for 25 years at the top of his game, that's unparalleled.”
Trotter notes that Michael Jordan won three NBA championships after he retired the first time, and followed up his final retirement by becoming a team owner. The one Chicagoan whom Chicago magazine ranked as meaner than Trotter in 1996 has shown how to go out and return as a winner (his Charlotte Bobcats' record notwithstanding).
So maybe this is the end, or just the beginning of a three-year pause before an “I'm back” fax. Regardless, it's a fitting time to ask: Did the restaurant and its perpetual ascent up the mountain of excellence make Trotter happy?
“I don't know if Charlie's happy,” his mother says. “I don't know if he's happy. It's hard to tell. He's a complex person.”
OK, Charlie Trotter, did the restaurant make you happy?
“Well, yeah, I guess,” Trotter says with almost a roll of his eyes. “But I'm not interested in happiness. Any fool can be happy. What I'm interested in is satisfaction. There's got to be more to life than just being happy. You've got to be fulfilled. You've got to be satisfied; philosophically satisfied is what I mean. You've got to say, ‘Life is a puzzle, and what I do as a pursuit is going to be a puzzle, and so am I fulfilled?'”
So was there ever a point when you said, “I'm fulfilled now”?
“No,” he says. “Well, yeah.”
Or is it like “I'm almost fulfilled, and I'll never quite be fulfilled”?
“Well, maybe that's where I am right now.”