Thursday, November 7, 2013

In Memoriam: Charlie Trotter

I was at the park with the progeny on Tuesday afternoon when I noticed that my Twitter feed had been erupting with a torrent of messages expressing dismay over the sudden passing of famed chef Charlie Trotter, found dead in his home earlier that morning. Only 54, the brilliant, but frequently maligned Chef Trotter laid down the template in the late 1980s for what was to become Chicago's modern haute-dining scene, helping to launch the careers of a hundred prominent chefs that passed through his kitchen along the way (just a sampling of his proteges - Rick Tramonto, Gail Gand, Graham Elliot, Curtis Duffy, Bill Kim, Matthias Merges, Mindy Segal, Grant Achatz, Dan McGee, Giuseppe Tentori - the list goes on and on). As the master architect of an activity that I love (experiencing unique cuisine) in the city that I love, I have a lot of admiration for the chef even though I never had the opportunity to meet him. Mrs. Hackknife and I were fortunate to have dined at his namesake restaurant in Lincoln Park twice before it closed in August of last year. Our first visit occurred in 2002 when I was just a fine dining greenhorn and, frankly, a bit uncomfortable eating in a place where the plates served were small/fastidious and an army of attendants would descend upon you like a SWAT team if you gave even the slightest indication that you might want to rise from your chair. Despite the stuffiness, the whole encounter awakened something in me, and I can recall saying to Mrs. Hackknife (then my girlfriend, not yet my wife) at the time about seeing how food preparation and presentation (such as the mango and macadamia nut brittle cake with kiwi juice and passionfruit ice cream you see below, my sole food photo from that evening) could be elevated to an art form in the right hands. Clearly, Chef Trotter had those right hands.

In the 10 years that passed until our second visit to Trotter's, the missus and I came to realize that we greatly enjoyed the culture of gastronomy (in no small part because of that first dining foray), inspiring us to seek out epicurean adventures both near and far, which eventually led to the formation of this blog in 2010 to help chronicle our experiences. I subsequently wrote about our amazing dinner at Trotter's kitchen table in August of 2011, a time that found both us (now married with children and solidly in middle age) and the restaurant (less pretentious and more relaxed, at least within the confines of the kitchen) in different places than before. Fortunately, the excellence in the cuisine had not changed one bit as Chef Trotter's expert staff continued to turn out eye-popping and tongue-tickling dishes (for example, the heirloom tomato terrine with white sesame and daikon below) the likes of which are still rarely found.

At the conclusion of the meal, our server told us we had been the first kitchen table of the restaurant's 25th year of operation (having just celebrated their 24th anniversary the day before). What we didn't know then was that the 25th year was to be the last, as Chef Trotter dropped a bombshell on New Year's Eve announcing that he would be closing down the following August. At the time, he made reference to a vague desire to travel, read, and get a doctorate in philosophy as his reasons for wanting to step away; however, rumors began to swirl about how the very proud and maniacally-driven chef may have felt like the rest of the city's dining scene had finally surpassed him, speculating that he'd rather pack up his toys and go home like a petulant child rather than change his well-entrenched ways. From there, things seemed to spiral out of control. There were a handful of run-ins with local media over how his legacy was being portrayed, even though much anecdotal evidence indicates a pattern of repeated vindictive behavior on his part, especially towards employees wanting to leave his inner circle. Then came the truncated auction of the shuttered restaurant's equipment and inventory, which he ended prematurely since bids on many of the items fell short of what he believed was their perceived worth. Another incident entailed an argument with some high school art students over whether or not they should be made to clean the dining rooms in return for using them as a temporary gallery for their exhibits. I personally encountered the consequences of his increasingly eccentric nature at the Norman's Anniversary Gala this past August in Orlando. He had been scheduled to make an appearance along with several other celebrity chefs and never arrived, citing an illness preventing him from flying as his excuse for the absence. I had chosen the gala weekend to be my wife's 10th anniversary present in large part because of the chance that we might get to talk with the chef a bit, and, as you might imagine, I was more than a little annoyed that he hadn't bothered to show (the tickets to this event were not an insignificant expense).

Given his recent history, when I got word of the chef's passing yesterday, my first reaction was that it had to be a suicide, as if there could be no more reasonable explanation (or, for that matter, apt conclusion) for the untimely demise of a ultra-demanding trailblazer whose life had seemingly followed the path of a Greek tragedy, attaining the highest highs for so long and eventually descending into torment/madness as his status diminished. However, as is often the case, reality isn't that tidy. Reading through the various tributes and news accounts of the chef's death, I discovered that Chef Trotter had actually been physically unwell for most of the year, suffering from seizures and small strokes, which he had kept quiet from the press. Doctors also discovered that he had an unruptured brain aneurysm, advising him not to fly or visit high-altitude locales to reduce the likelihood of its rupture. Given the obvious rigors of running a world-class restaurant for 25 years, it's no wonder that the man likely mortgaged his long-term health for the sake of his unrelenting vision. Perhaps he became aware that his body couldn't handle much more stress and found it necessary to walk away from the business to spend whatever time he had remaining with his wife and son. In any case, we'll never know what might have been in store for the Chicago dining public had Charlie Trotter returned for a second act (and I wholeheartedly believe that he would have popped up again after a few years away from the kitchen); much like the ever-present anticipation of a Beatles reunion was snuffed out by John Lennon's murder, all that his fans are left with now are the fading beams of a star that shined too brightly and was extinguished too soon. Speaking for myself, I know that, although my experiences with his food and his restaurant were brief, they infinitely expanded my world of what gastronomy could be. For that, Chef, I thank you. Godspeed...

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