March 30, 2011

Charlie Trotter

From the NYT, a story by David Kamp about a great artist who isn't trendy anymore:
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.

When we decided to leave Chicago a decade ago, my wife and I invited the founder of the big marketing research firm where I'd worked for most of my life in Chicago and his wife to a going-away dinner. It took a six month wait to get the kitchen table in Charlie Trotter's at 9pm on a Saturday night, but it turned out to be worth it. You don't order from a menu in Mr. Trotter's kitchen, you eat whatever he feels like serving you. There were 27 different servings (most small, of course), each remarkable.
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'!"

There were 30 chefs working in the kitchen, almost all between age 25 and 35, each one intent on learning from the master so he could launch his own restaurant. Mr. Trotter was not an easy taskmaster. When the chefs finished their cooking late on a Saturday night when a young man would like to get out, they then spent two hours cleaning their stoves. I'm sure it would be cheaper to hire help for that drudgery, but the lesson imparted about the importance of scouring away all aromas of past dishes was clear. From the intensity in the room, it was obvious that famous chefs of the new century were going to emerge from this group, as has happened.

Mr. Trotter yelled at one or two of his chefs for mistakes, but my friend across the table had yelled at me a few times in the years I had worked for him. (We didn't, however, invite clients in for ringside seats.) Can anyone perform at that high a level while winning the Mr. Congeniality trophy? Besides, I was so buzzed on the greatest meal of my life that a summary execution or two probably wouldn't have harshed my mellow.
“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. ...

From an HBD perspective, what was interesting was that, in the year 2000, 29 of the 30 chefs in his kitchen were men. Cuisine at this level is so far outside my field of expertise that I can't begin to speculate upon any specific reasons. 

You have the interesting situation in cuisine that the great American innovator the 1970s, Alice Waters, was a woman, but since then the top ranks of achievement continue to be male-dominated. Somebody should make up a list of the male dominated fields where a woman was the most important contributor historically. Film criticism (Pauline Kael) is one obvious one.


ziel said...

Nearly all the great chefs seem to be men, so the Trotter alumni are not unusual. Cooking, like clothing, would appear to favor women (better color-sensitivity, (presumably) better olfactory sense), but yet men dominate. The dominance of men in the upper-reaches of creativity seems to be the likely culprit.

Dahinda said...

Chicago has always been a great restaurant town. You can't have a city in the middle of one of the great agricultural regions where much of the food distribution and processing takes place without a great restaurant scene. For that same reason, Alice Waters discovered vegetables because she was from the greatest vegetable and fruit growing region on earth, California. Many of the cureent crop of Chicago chefs are rediscovering the fact that the Midwest-Great Lakes region is still a great ag region and are in the forefront of the locavore movement. Charlie Trotter did help put Chicago on the map though!

DougRisk said...

Steve, like you said, this is a field outside of your expertise. Alice Waters was absolutely influential, but she was not a chef. As far as I can tell, every single major (innovative) chef from the 70's and 80's was male. Including the chef that help put Chez Panisse (Alice Water's place in Berkley) on the map, Jeremiah Tower.

Even today, in 2011, when you start counting the Michelin Stars and New York Times 4-star list, very, very few (if any) female names appear. The Pastry world is slightly different.

However, some Gay Men, like Jeremiah Tower, have had some definite influence.

To complete my first though, Alice Waters major contribution was insisting on the absolute best ingredients.

anony-mouse said...

English royalty, Radiology, Objectivism

slumber_j said...

I once interviewed the developer and restaurateur Ken Himmel for a trade mag about Related Co.'s plans for the restaurants at Time Warner Center in NY. At the time, Charlie Trotter was supposed to be among the chef-owners, but no dice in the end.

I suspect the control problem may have had something to do with that misfire--and with Trotter's failure to "grow his brand" generally. Which is saying something: if you can out-control even Thomas Keller (whose Per Se is the centerpiece of Time Warner Center), then you're a freak Indeed.

Tim of Angle said...

"There were 30 chefs working in the kitchen..."

No. There were 30 *cooks* working in the kitchen; there is only one *chef*.

Anonymous said...

Somebody should make up a list of the male dominated fields where a woman was the most important contributor historically.

American poetry, Emily Dickinson

Algebra for the sake of algebra [? don't know what else you'd call it ?], Emmy Noether

Romance novels, Jane Austen

Crime, Eve [in the Garden of Eden]

Ray Sawhill said...

Great posting, and fun to learn that Steve pays attention to food.

A propos the why-aren't-more-women-in-restaurant-kitchens, here's a small tale. A foodie woman I knew wanted to bail out of the mediabiz and get into restaurant cooking. She went the whole nine yards: studied nights at a culinary insitute for a few years, did an internship at a super-fancy NYC eatery ... And finally decided to stay in the mediabiz. The main reason: restaurant chef-ery was too physically demanding. You're on your feet .. You're lifting, hauling, bending over, sweating ... People are fast and curt with each other ... Your days are long and your hours are crazy (and then, apparently, you go out for food and drinks with your co-workers afterward) ... And then it starts up again the following day ... "One thing that my food apprenticeship taught me was that I'm really, really glad to have a nice office job, with a computer, a phone, and air conditioning," she said to me.

She's a really good cook, by the way. As is my wife, as are many women I know. And home cooking is a wonderful art form in its own way. So my theory is: As in many cultural fields, women have more than enough ability do do the activity and do it well. But many of them don't have the fire, motivation, drive, ambition, (and/or maybe the physical stamina) to push their way to the top professionally.

My larger culture theory: success in the arts has four main components: talent, drive, luck and (to a much smaller extent) brains.

Anonymous said...

That's not a good example,but Ada lovelace importance in computer science is minimal but someone,who is not aware of the history of the field, would think otherwise based on what's usually written about her.

Sideways said...

No. There were 30 *cooks* working in the kitchen; there is only one *chef*.
Executive chef, sous chef, pastry sous chef, Chef de Cuisine, station chef, executive pastry chef, chef, Chef de Partie, executive sous chef,
pastry chef to name 10 different types of chef working at Charlie Trotter's. Yes, some of the people cooking are cooks and not chefs, but there are a bunch of chefs in that kitchen

Jamila said...

From an HBD perspective, what was interesting was that, in the year 2000, 29 of the 30 chefs in his kitchen were men.

From an HBD perspective, it might also be interesting to know that Trotter is married to a black woman.

Anonymous said...

I think anthropologists (honest ones) have realized that if you create any socially import field it will be dominated by men. Even the National Organization for Women ended up electing a man to head it (which the Onion satirically prophesied).

Anonymous said...

I once told my boss the story of how my wife and I had been frustrated in getting great food. We had waited for a long time for dinner at Masa's in downtown San Francisco. By the time we got a reservation Masa had been murdered. Then we tried to eat at another au courant eatery on the North Coast but before our reservation came up it had burned down.

My boss said, "Remind me never to invite you to my house for dinner".


Anonymous said...

Too many chefs and not enough Indians?

Anonymous said...

I don't know about her standing in the hierarchy of chefs, but Giada DeLaurentiis has had my attention for some time.

I have a faint memory of an interview with Charlie Trotter one time where he said something to the effect of "You tell me what wine you want to drink and I'll prepare the food that pairs with it." So maybe he was willing to concede that the customer was sometimes right (to the extent that he lets you pick your wine). Or maybe he was just going through the motions of pretending to care about what the customer wants.

Reg Cæsar said...

Somebody should make up a list of the male dominated fields where a woman was the most important contributor historically.

My cousin Ida Tarbell practically invented muckraking journalism. Lady Murasaki pioneered the novel, though I doubt she had any influence at all, outside Japan, isolated as she was. And don't forget Joan of Arc.

Then there are the Polgár sisters. They're not the "most important" in chess by a long shot, but the rapid rise and accomplishment of three girls in a field in which, like math, architecture, and classical music composition, one would not expect any woman to break into the top ranks, is pretty amazing nonetheless.

They enjoyed the same genetic advantage as did Mozart and Tiger Woods. (It's three letters, and begins with D.)

The Polgárs' training regimen is covered in Geoff Colvin's "Talent is Overrated", which is one of two books I hope Steve might read and comment on. The other is Daniel Coyle's "The Talent Code".

Both accept HBD, but find it of little help in explaining the higher reaches of genius. They lean toward what Coyle calls "deep practice" and Colvin "deliberate practice". Yes, it's the "10K hour" thing, but with extreme specialization-- e.g., Pelé's generation kicking a heavy ball indoors leading Brazil out of backwater status.

Whiskey said...

In addition to the physical demands, the leadership issue is paramount as to why few women dominate the lists of great chefs.

To be a leader in the kitchen, one has to instill a bit of fear. You see this in all the well known chefs, some more (Gordon Ramsey) and some less (Bobby Flay, Thomas Keller) but all have it. Generally most women don't want to do the intimidation thing to make workers in the middle of service do things they don't want to do.

Ray Sawhill said...

Hey all, if it's true that the world of high-end restaurant chef-ing is dominated by men, can't it also be said that the world of home cookery is dominated by women?

Anyone want to step up and try to make the case that high-end restaurant chef'ing is more "socially important" than home cookery?

Anonymous said...

Romance novels, Jane Austen

That's a male-dominated field? Wierd.

Anonymous said...

Steve, Did you ever eat at La Francais in Wheeling? It was supposed to be great. I think the original chef/owner in te 70's left and then came back. I heard people would fly into Palwaukee Airport just to eat there.

stari_momak said...

"English royalty, Radiology, Objectivism"

LOL -- I think

charlotte said...

Surprising number of women in cancer research in the first half of the 20th century (including one who identified a cancer-causing virus in 1904) who made discoveries. It was a woman who realized the original Salk Polio vaccine was infected with a extremely carcinogenic virus, SV40. I still recall that scare, adn the fact the pink cubes distributed later were supposedly new,improved, and safe. Pity the ones who got the original injections.
Dr. Alton Ochsner of Tulane Medical School, innoculated his grandchildren with the original batch, killing one of them and giving the other polio. In gratitude for her whistleblowing, the medical establishment removed Doctor Bernice Eddy from her post as safety-monitor for the vaccine. She "was taken off polio research and assigned to test a vaccine that was supposed to prevent colds. Meanwhile she began working with a fellow NIH scientist, SARAH STEWART, on a virus that Stewart had discovered, which seemed to cause leukemia (a blood cell cancer) in mice. Eddy worked out a way to grow the virus dependably in the laboratory."

In both mainstream and in the alternative health world, I've encountered quite a few females who have discovered and innovated, but if and when their ideas gain acceptance, the best-known practitioners do not tend to be female.

Dorothea Dix, mental asylum/prison reform, early 19th century; Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton, brought innovation to battlefield nursing; in fact a lot of 19th century "reformers"; Anna Sewell wrote Black Beauty which improved life for horses. In fact, the person who ended the cruel custom of cat-burning, apparently a yearly custom in Paris, was Louis XV's queen, Marie_Leszczynskya of Poland. She was not the first Frenchie to love the critters (Cardinal Richelieu was crazy for them and after his assassination they killed his dozens of kittens too), but she was the first one to prohibit a certain cruelty to them as a point of law.
Also, in religions women are in leadership roles in the beginning, although the founder is always male. Mary Magdalene according to Muslim, Baha'i and early Christian tradition was not a prositute. She kept the Christians on the straight and narrow after Jesus' demise and assumed a leadership role; ditto Muhammed's daughter Fatima and his wife Aisha, who were women known for their power and influence. In fact, there were many women in early Islam renowned for whatever learning brought renown in those days. In most religions, the women started out equal according to the teachings of the founders. Then, for some reason, they slid.

Steve Sailer said...

Florence Nightingale was a force of nature.

By the way, she may have invented the pie chart as a way to graphically explain to Parliament that more soldiers were dying of disease than Russian bullets in the Crimea.

Steve Sailer said...

"Steve, Did you ever eat at La Francais in Wheeling?"

Yes, in the late 1980s. My boss, the fellow I took to Charlie Trotter's was working me half to death one week, so he said he'd pay for a dinner for my wife and I. So, I picked the top restaurant in the Midwest at the time, which meant the bill was twice what he'd expected.

It was great, best meal of my life up to Charlie Trotter's.

I don't claim any level of discernment with cuisine at all, but some restaurants are simply so much better than the norm that even I can tell that the experts are right.

Dave said...

The CEO of arguably the top company in the nuclear energy business, the French multinational Areva, is a woman: Anne Lauvergeon.

Svigor said...

No. There were 30 *cooks* working in the kitchen; there is only one *chef*.

I happen to know a chef, one who is not head chef, and he says he's a chef. They have all kinds of titles at work that read "x chef," "y chef," etc.

And yeah, food and beverage people tend to be hard partiers and, er, eccentric.

Svigor said...

My larger culture theory: success in the arts has four main components: talent, drive, luck and (to a much smaller extent) brains.

I don't know about "the arts," but for graphic arts I put drive (as in, conscientiousness) ahead of talent or anything else. There's a talent threshold, obviously, but once past this relatively low bar, it's all about how badly you want it.

Svigor said...

One thing that my food apprenticeship taught me was that I'm really, really glad to have a nice office job, with a computer, a phone, and air conditioning," she said to me.

Yep. I'm telling you guys, if you want to really begin to understand any of these gender gaps people fret over, you have to correct for air conditioning.

charlotte said...

"(Cardinal Richelieu was crazy for them and after his assassination they killed his dozens of kittens too),"

oops -- Richelieu was not assassinated. I am thinking of someone else associated with him. But definitely there was a cat massacure involved. Recall reading that description vividly.

Anonymous said...

The "Blowhard" is on to something.

I eat out at least 3 times each week. I've become friendly with more than a few chef/owners, and enjoy the attendent perks. Only two women chefs out of the two dozen I know well, and they are both in the 5'7"-5'9", 150-175 lb. range.

As Bourdain wrote in Kitchen Confidential, a chef's life on the line pretty much ends in his mid/late 40s. Standing in a front of a stove 10-14 hours a day, 6 days a week is not for the weak.

We miss you and the boys, Ray.


Anonymous said...

An important part of being a great chef is organizational and managerial ability, which tends to be a masculine talent. There are plenty of excellent female sous-chefs and sauciers, but few outstanding female executive chefs, just as there are few (if any) oustanding female generals (the talents are not totally unrelated).

Charlesz Martel said...

I can state with some authority that many chefs are psychotic alcoholic cocaine addicts with meat cleavers. They party extremely hard. It is not a job. It's a lifestyle.
I have run nightclubs (very late night ones) for over 20 years. I know many service people.
It's a wold the average Joe cannot even imagine exists.