Leave it to Charlie Trotter to inspire mourners to think more about the second word of “memorial service” than the first.
The much-celebrated chef, who died last Tuesday at age 54 from as-yet-to-be-determined causes, certainly was memorialized Monday in Fourth Presbyterian Church’s “Service of Witness to the Resurrection in Celebration of the Life of Charles H. Trotter.” But the theme that kept coming up in the eulogies and food-and-Champagne reception afterward was service: Trotter’s sense of obligation to serve not only those who paid a premium to enjoy his superlative food, but also public-school students, neighbors and homeless people to whom the chef opened his restaurant’s doors.
Trotter also served the city, making it a culinary destination soon after his self-named Lincoln Park restaurant’s opening in August 1987, and he served the greater food world, leading an American revolution in fine dining that emphasized robust, clean flavors; the finest, most painstakingly sourced ingredients; and an ever-restless creativity in composing his never-to-be-repeated dishes.
On Monday, Trotter’s world — which stretches from Chicago to Australia and other continents — paid service to him, even as these guests once again were treated to the kind of hospitality for which the chef became renowned. The sanctuary, with a capacity of about 1,000, was almost filled and boasted a large contingent wearing chef’s whites bearing Charlie Trotter’s insignia.
The Trotter’s alumni present spanned the restaurant’s 25-year history, including the two chefs who oversaw Trotter’s kitchen for many of its earlier and later years, respectively — Guillermo Tellez (now in Philadelphia) and Matthias Merges (Chicago’s Yusho and the new A10) — and other key figures who went on to success elsewhere: Giuseppe Tentori (GT Fish & Oyster, Boka), Bill Kim (BellyQ, Urban Belly), Della Gossett (Spago in Beverly Hills), Graham Elliot (Graham Elliot, TV’s “MasterChef”), Homaro Cantu (Moto, iNG), Michelle Gayer (the Salty Tart in Minneapolis), Rick Tramonto (R’evolution in New Orleans) and Gale Gand (formerly of Tru).
Acclaimed chefs Norman Van Aken (Norman’s Restaurant in Orlando) and Carrie Nahabedian (Naha, Brindille), who oversaw his work at Sinclair’s in Lake Forest in the early 1980s and remained close friends, were there (“He let me be his older brother,” Van Aken said before entering the church), as were Gordon Sinclair himself and Bradley Ogden, for whom Trotter worked in San Francisco in 1983-’84.
Prominent Chicago chefs such as Rick Bayless (Frontera Grill, Topolobampo) and Art Smith (Table 52), attended, as did some of the world’s most renowned chefs, including Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, Tetsuya Wakuda, Alain Ducasse, Todd English and longtime Trotter friend Emeril Lagasse.
In an industry largely composed of journeyman chefs who travel from city to city, Trotter was “one of a kind,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel eulogized.
“He was born here, he made his mark here and he will be remembered here fondly,” Emanuel said. “He turned Chicago into the world-famous culinary capital it is today.”
Noting that Trotter and he were in the same New Trier High School graduating class, the mayor said the two of them shared “in-your-face styles” as well.
“His style may have been an acquired taste to some, but his food was definitely not,” Emanuel said, adding of the restaurant: “Each visit was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, because Charlie never made the same dish twice. Each dish was original, just like him — ever bold, never boring, always memorable, never forgettable.”
Trotter’s younger sister, Anne Trotter Hinkamp, described growing up with the future chef as “exciting, mind-expanding and at times challenging” — qualities that didn’t much change when they became adults. She recounted how the high school’s Olympics-size trampoline wound up in their north suburban backyard at her gymnast brother’s behest; how young Charlie used their dad’s camera to make such amateur films as “Jaws vs. the Six Million Dollar Man”; and how hard her eldest brother worked to overcome dyslexia.
This was the type of commitment he would come to expect from others. Then again, Hinkamp was used to his issuing orders, given that, she recalled, “his first words to me were, ‘Baby Anne, get up.’”
“Charlie used to say that he raised my brothers and me,” Hinkamp said. “I don’t think it’d be too far for me to say he raised many others in this room as well.”
Hinkamp and Sarah Sarchet Butter, who is mother Dona-Lee Trotter’s pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Wilmette, also spoke of Trotter’s love for and devotion to his wife, Rochelle, and son, Dylan. Rochelle’s father, St. Matthew’s Church pastor Robert L. Smith, delivered a reading.
Butter (and, yes, some attendees did note the coincidence of a pastor named Butter speaking at Trotter’s service) also addressed the uncertainty surrounding his untimely death; although Rochelle Trotter has stated that her husband was being treated for seizures related to an aneurysm, the Cook County medical examiner’s office announced last week that an autopsy was inconclusive, pending additional tests, including a toxicology analysis.
“The truth is we don’t know what caused his death, and that makes us feel very vulnerable,” the Wilmette pastor said.
Butter also noted that, although Trotter wasn’t a churchgoer, he shared Jesus’ sense of hospitality. Whatever the source, this hospitality was on full display in the reception immediately following in the adjacent Anderson Hall.
Glasses of Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Reserve Champagne were passed, and there was a spread of canapes, including a chicken liver mousse with strawberry jam and shortbread, small cups of maple-pumpkin bisque with granola and cranberries, and a takoyaki ball filled with squash and fermented garlic miso. Servers also passed a lobster bruschetta and an avocado-pistachio-caviar bite.
After others gave him credit for overseeing this effort, Tentori said he’d rounded up Trotter’s alumni — Merges, Cantu, Elliot, Kim and Mindy Segal (of Mindy’s Hot Chocolate) plus Art Smith — to provide the food, though “this is just a touch of what he would want.”
The reception had the air of a bittersweet college reunion, with many hugs and tales being exchanged by veterans of intense culinary trenches. Former Trotter’s pastry chef Gayer called it “this club, with all these people side by side (for) hours and hours. We all shared the same passion.”
That Keller and other out-of-towners flew in to celebrate Trotter’s life was a no-brainer, the French Laundry/Per Se chef said. “Who wouldn’t fly in for Charlie?” Keller said.
Dona-Lee Trotter, who has said her son will be cremated, commented that she was overwhelmed by the number of people who “came up to me and said, ‘You don’t know how he changed my life.’”
Some couldn’t help speculating how the ever-demanding chef might have viewed these few hours spent in his honor.
“I don’t know if you noticed, but the programs were all folded wrong,” Gayer said, pointing out that the top half jutted out farther than the bottom half. “The chef would not be happy about that.”
“I think he’d be approving,” Ogden said. “As a matter of fact, he’s probably here right now enjoying some Champagne.”
“I think he would’ve hated it, and he would’ve loved it,” Nahabedian said. “I think he would have loved this party and loved celebrating with everyone. He would have hated, first off, the occasion, but he never liked to be the center of attention. He liked to gather people together.”
Even two hours after the service had ended, many of these people showed little sign of being done talking with each other, and the line of mourners to greet Rochelle Trotter still had not been exhausted. Meanwhile, Lagasse stood with his arm around his wife wiping tears from his eyes as they watched snapshots from Trotter’s younger days projected onto a screen.
“Heaven is eating better, my friend,” Lagasse said.
Tribune reporter Ellen Jean Hirst contributed.
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