Some long-ago meals I remember as if I’d eaten them yesterday. My first meal at Charlie Trotter’s 15 years ago, when it was generally acknowledged to be the best restaurant between the coasts, skitters in and out of focus like a scene from a surrealist Guy Maddin movie -- a smart Lincoln Park townhouse that somehow opened up into unbounded if art-encrusted space; waiters who sounded as if they’d written their doctoral dissertations on sunchokes; and an endless procession of plates that all seemed to contain tiny, precise juxtapositions of ingredients from everywhere in the world.
I was dining with a vegetarian friend who had ordered his own menu -- his mind was quietly blown by presentations of a quality he had never before contemplated -- which may have been the first vegetarian tasting menu I had ever seen. I may have for the first time tasted crosnes, butter-absorbent, corkscrew-shaped tubers from a plant in the mint family. There was definitely a box of chocolates at some point, and a cold bottle of Rully, and a bit of old vielle prune at the very end. The impression was of utter professionalism, and of rigorous control over ingredients, and of an experience that was controlled in every detail. What you took away from the meal was precisely what Trotter meant you to take away. I think he may have even anticipated the grilled Polish dog I ended up getting at Weiner Circle on the way home.
Like everybody in the food community, I was shocked at the news of Trotter’s death Tuesday morning. He had accomplished more than anybody thought possible in his life, including his restaurant, 14 incredibly detailed specialist cookbooks, a television series, three books that translated his philosophies of excellence into business-world instructionals, and a legacy of rigor in the kitchen that may have terrified as many young cooks as it inspired. He opened, then closed, perhaps the first modern fine-dining restaurant in Las Vegas. (It was perhaps before its time.) Nobody I talked to this morning had quite realized he was only 54. It seemed he had been a major presence for far longer than that.
I once wrote that his cooking could be described as local only if you counted O’Hare International as part of Chicago’s terroir, and while I didn’t intend it as a compliment, I grew to believe that it might have been. Trotter’s vision extended beyond the kitchen, beyond Chicago. He helped define what it was to be an American chef.