Chef Charlie Trotter dies at 54

November 5, 2013

Award-winning chef Charlie Trotter died Tuesday, a year after closing his eponymous Chicago restaurant that is credited with elevating the city’s cuisine and providing a training ground for some of the nation’s best chefs. He was 54.

Chicago Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford said rescue crews were called to the chef’s home in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. They found Mr. Trotter unresponsive.

Langford said an ambulance crew took Mr. Trotter to a hospital, where he died after unsuccessful attempts to revive him. An autopsy is planned.

Mr. Trotter is synonymous with gourmet cuisine. He earned 10 James Beard awards and trained such chefs as fellow Beard Award-winner Grant Achatz of Chicago restaurants Alinea and Next. He was also known for his charitable efforts, including his creation of the Charlie Trotter Education Foundation to provide scholarships for culinary students.

Charlie Trotter’s earned two of a possible three stars when the respected Michelin Guide debuted in Chicago.

A self-taught chef, Mr. Trotter wrote more than a dozen cookbooks and starred in a PBS series, “The Kitchen Sessions with Charlie Trotter.” He credited the development of his signature style to his wide travels and dining at the best restaurants.

“His restaurant shaped the world of food,” said Dana Cowin, editor-in-chief of Food & Wine magazine. “He was so innovative and focused and intense and really brilliant. When he opened Charlie Trotter he was so original.”

He was famous for his reverence for details and he insisted his staff also be sticklers for exactness.

Such precision and military-style organization was on display a few days before his restaurant closed in August of last year.

In a behind-the-scenes look for the Associated Press three days before closing night, the Charlie Trotter’s staff held a typically ­detail-laden pre-dinner meeting, discussing specifics down to the exact dates when diners last ate at the restaurant.

Dishes from the final week of menus included poached white asparagus with charred broccolini, Manchego cheese and red pepper essence and root beer leaf ice cream with vanilla cremeaux and birch syrup-infused meringue.

Staff members recited the evening’s menus, and Mr. Trotter — relentlessly demanding — took one employee to task.

“You’re not reading, are you?” he asked. “When you go to the table, do you have a piece of paper?”

Charlie Trotter — named after the jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker, was born Sept. 8, 1959, in Evanston, Ill., and raised in Wilmette, Ill. He was a political science graduate of the University of Wisconsin at Madison but, inspired by a college roommate who loved to cook, Mr. Trotter changed his ambitions.

For five years after graduating in 1982, Mr. Trotter apprenticed in restaurants around the United States and in Europe. His first job in a kitchen was at Sinclair’s, a restaurant in Chicago’s North Shore area where he worked under now well-known chefs such as Norman Van Aken and Carrie Nahabedian.

He opened Charlie Trotter’s in 1987 with his father, Bob, as his partner. Over the next ­quarter-century he became known for menus crafted with fine ingredients: naturally raised meat, line-caught seafood and organic produce.

He favored light saucing on dishes that did not, as he put it, “mute or block” the basic flavors of ingredients the way using a lot of butter or cream can. So, he turned to vinaigrettes based on vegetable juice, light emulsified stocks and herb-infused meat and fish essences.

The jazz-loving Mr. Trotter often compared food preparation to making music.

“I think food is a lot like music in that you have to understand the structure, the precedent and the history that is classical music before you can create modern music, otherwise it’s all just punk rock,” he once told the Sydney Morning Herald. “The only valid departure, the only valid innovation, comes from an understanding of the history and the precedents, and the type of food we practice here is a lot like the late-1950s, early-1960s jazz greats.

“Someone like Miles Davis never performed ‘Stella by Starlight’ the same way twice. In 100 different performances, there are 100 interpretations. Sometimes he picked up the tempo, sometimes he emphasized the saxophone over the trumpet, sometimes he muted the saxophone, but it was always different. I think our food is a lot like that. We’re always tweaking and adjusting, doing our riffs.”

Mr. Trotter’s first marriage, to Lynn Thomas, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife, Rochelle Smith, and a son from his first marriage.

Mr. Trotter closed Charlie Trotter’s in 2012, saying he planned to travel and study philosophy and political theory. He ran into legal troubles and was criticized for tirades, including one in which he kicked a reporter out of his restaurant auction and berated audience members.

This summer, he was sued by two New York wine collectors who say he sold them a bottle of wine for more than $46,000 that wasn’t what it said on the label.

— Associated Press

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