With the New Year comes new hopes and wishes, and sometimes news; some news good and some bad. One piece of alarming news that came with this New Year was the closing of Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago. With Charlie’s 25-year legacy coming to an end, naturally I knew I had to pay tribute to one of my greatest mentors to date. As we’ve heard, Charlie Trotter is closing his famed Chicago restaurant by choice in order to pursue a graduate degree and continue with his travels. The fact that a three star restaurant is closed solely for personal reasons and not economic after a 25-year reign, speak volumes for itself. While many restaurants close every year, very few close voluntarily or much less after such praise for its continuous tenure. Upon hearing the news, I wanted to point out what Charlie did not only for the American dining culture but what he accomplished as an individual throughout that same time span in celebration of his next career goals.
What can I say, besides that Chef Charlie Trotter is one of the most inspirational American chefs that I have ever encountered. There are very distinct culinary giants in American food, including Thomas Keller, Tom Colocchio, and Daniel Boulud, and of course the aforementioned Charlie Trotter. But while these other chefs were all located in the food meccas of New York and California, Charlie set himself apart by leading the way in food by himself in Chicago. He planted a high level of gourmet food in America while practically putting the whole city of Chicago on the dining map! Not only did he do a lot for Chicago cuisine, but he also helped form what we know as American cuisine today.
Even before I made it into the US, while growing up and learning how to cook in Europe, I would look for inspiration and insight into American cuisine, and time and time again I came back to Charlie’s cookbook. His book was my lens into American food at the time. I found his cuisine extremely complex and sophisticated, with its likes only being found in France. Charlie also led the way in the locally grown and healthy food movement before it ever even caught on in the US. He was also the first to teach inner city kids about healthy eating through local community gardening lessons- something that inspired me to this day since my installment in Harlem.
Not only did his skills excel far beyond any other American chef at the time, but wherever he went he brought an air of influence on. I remember when he came to Sweden and took the country by storm. When I finally arrived in the US, Charlie Trotter quickly became one of my culinary inspirations. Each time he would come into New York, Charlie made it a habit to visit Aquavit during my stint. Seeing him brought me and my staff such great joy and encouragement.
Then in 1996, I was able to send of my Sous Chefs at the time, Nils Noren, to intern at Charlie’s. What Nils learned there has followed him to this day, as was my own experience. I went on to send five other chefs to train with Charlie and each one took back lifelong lessons. Mentoring chefs was only one way he helped transform kitchens. Charlie Trotter was also one of the first chefs to highlight diversity in the kitchen and applaud it. It was motivating to me as a black chef, to see Charlie name Reggie Watkins as his Sous Chef and number one employee. That spoke volumes in kitchen conversation and moved me to aim towards empowering minority chefs throughout my career as well. What is even more remarkable is that Charlie not only celebrated racial diversity, but I was also astonished to find out that he once hired a blind cook to work the line at his restaurant. Hence, nothing prevented Charlie from giving anyone a chance who truly wanted it.
From beginner chefs to well known culinary giants, Charlie Trotter’s hosted more world-class guest chefs than any other restaurant I know. It was at Charlie Trotter’s that I met the greats Ferran Adria, Norman Van Aken, and Tetsuya Wakuda from Sydney, Australia. Throughout my culinary career I knew that cooking alongside Charlie would be confirmation that you arrived in the culinary world.
Over the years of having the pleasure to call him a friend, I noticed that Charlie Trotter was always the first to lend a helping hand. When I first started planning UNICEF benefit dinners and I needed guidance, Charlie was the first to help. The same can be said of him when our colleague and fellow innovator in American cuisine, Chef Patrick Clark, passed away in 1998 of heart disease. It was Charlie once again, who gathered all of the chefs together to participate in Tavern on the Green as a fundraiser for Patrick. From there Charlie went even further to write the cookbook, Cooking with Patrick Clark: A Tribute to the Man and His Cuisine, as a standing ovation to the great chef that Patrick was; proof that Charlie is above all a great friend as well as chef.
I can go on about Charlie Trotter and his influence in my life and my cooking, but his fame, friendships, and food speak for itself. With the closing of Charlie Trotter’s in August, let us not think of a loss of a great American institution but instead celebrate its nearly impossible long stint and be hopeful for what Charlie’s career can bring us in the future. After such a successful reign in American cuisine, Charlie Trotter deserves a standing ovation for a job well done and best wishes for his future endeavors. Who knows? Maybe after a few years of study and travel, Charlie might surprise us all by coming back with a restaurant that can leave Charlie Trotter’s in the dust. He’s capable of that and much more! Until then, be sure to make your final reservations to eat at one of my favorite restaurants, Charlie Trotter’s, over the next eight months before its closing. And to Charlie himself, I say ‘Thank you and good luck… You deserve it!’