Charlie Trotter, a Leader Left Behind
Though [chef Charlie Trotter] can be genial and very funny, he has never been able to shake his label as a tyrant of fine dining. In fact, it’s the main way his name has been coming up of late. Grant Achatz, the chef and an owner of the Chicago restaurant Alinea, devotes an entire chapter to Mr. Trotter’s scariness in his new memoir, “Life, on the Line.”
Otherwise, Mr. Trotter hardly seems to figure in the national food conversation anymore. In the very years when Chicago has gloried in newfound recognition as a major restaurant destination, with the spotlight trained upon alumni of Mr. Trotter’s kitchen like Mr. Achatz, Homaro Cantu (of Moto), Giuseppe Tentori (of Boka), and Graham Elliot (of Graham Elliot), the man who put the city on the fine-dining map has somehow fallen below the radar. ...
It’s a curious fate for a chef who turned a page in American culinary history. Charlie Trotter’s opened in 1987 in the Lincoln Park town house it still occupies. ... Mr. Trotter was a homegrown talent who saw no reason an American restaurant couldn’t offer the same experience that gastro-tourists enjoyed in Europe: the tasting menu of multiple small courses, each audacious in its inventiveness and exquisite in its ingredients. And he pulled it off — at 27.
Yet Mr. Trotter never quite cracked the code of how to expand his brand.
But there remains a perception that there’s more to these off-site fizzles — that Mr. Trotter is a perfectionist control freak, temperamentally ill-equipped to delegate and collaborate. ... Mr. Trotter grants that control is exceedingly important to him, and that there is an inherent contradiction between the nature of his business — hospitality — and the radical extent to which he takes his quest for excellence.
“You know the old adage that the customer’s always right?” he said. “Well, I kind of think that the opposite is true. The customer is rarely right. And that is why you must seize the control of the circumstance and dominate every last detail: to guarantee that they’re going to have a far better time than they ever would have had if they tried to control it themselves.”
That was certainly my experience. My attitude during the meal was, "Chef, bring us some more of whatever you got cookin'!"
“Alice Waters may have discovered vegetables, but Trotter was the first man I know who cooked them beautifully,” said Alan Richman, the longtime restaurant critic for GQ. ...