I was 6 years old when Charlie Trotter opened his restaurant.
While I was chomping on PBJ school lunches in 1987, he was creating elaborate multi-course meals that would earn countless awards and put Chicago on the map as a fine-dining destination.
The first time I remember seeing Trotter's name was on the wall of a friend's aunt and uncle's home, where they had framed the menu from a special anniversary dinner they ate at his famous restaurant in Lincoln Park. From the autograph on the menu and the reverent way they spoke about it, I knew at that moment that he was a big deal, but I didn't understand why until I started writing about Chicago restaurants more than a decade later.
As news of his death spread Tuesday, several of my friends confessed that they didn't know who he was. Perhaps that's because they weren't old enough to dine at his restaurant—or weren't in the market to blow a bunch of cash on a special-occasion dinner—when it was really in its heyday. Sure, Trotter wasn't all over reality shows like so many chefs who have attained celebrity status, but his impact was incredibly far-reaching. Not only was his restaurant on the bucket lists of foodies all over the world, but his influence continued to shape the Chicago dining scene as chefs he employed left his kitchen to break out with their own restaurants.
So many of the chefs behind the city's hottest restaurants are alumni of Trotter's kitchen. Grant Achatz of world-famous restaurants Alinea and Next, Graham Elliot of “MasterChef” and Lollapalooza Chow Town fame, Mindy Segal of Hot Chocolate in Bucktown, Bill Kim of the Belly restaurant empire—I could go on and on.
But his success was not without controversy. Those he worked with described him as notoriously hot-headed. Since his restaurant closed in August 2012, he landed in the news for shutting down an auction of his restaurant's furniture and artwork without explanation and for booting art students from his restaurant when their instructor declined Trotter's request for them to clean the toilets and floors before an exhibit they were presenting there, according to a Tribune report.
I can't count myself as a regular at Trotter's restaurant and I didn't know him personally, but I'll remember him for the interactions I had with him that didn't show signs of that ego.
I remember leaving a message at his restaurant seeking comment for a story I was working on for RedEye about how Park had changed over the years. I was caught off-guard when he returned my phone call personally. No publicist or advanced arrangement—it was just Charlie calling me up, no big deal.
I also remember hearing him speak about the closing of his restaurant at a Tribune event last year. He made light of his bad-guy reputation, almost like a stand-up comic would. He also said that 25 years was a long time to do one thing, and that he was ready to move on from the restaurant business and do other things he's always wanted to do, like study philosophy.
I'm certainly grateful that he spent those 25 years doing what he did, and I hope he'll be remembered for the indispensable role he played in Chicago's dining scene.
Lisa Arnett is RedEye's Eat & Drink editor. email@example.com