Charlie Trotter Dies at 54; Chef Made Chicago a Must
Published: November 5, 2013
Charlie Trotter, a chef whose flagship restaurant, Charlie Trotter’s, helped establish Chicago as a serious dining city, died on Tuesday. He was 54.
M. Spencer Green/Associated Press
Sally Ryan for The New York Times
A family friend, the chef and restaurant owner Carrie Nahabedian, said that Mr. Trotter was discovered unconscious at his home in the Lincoln Park neighborhood by his son, Dylan, and taken to Northwestern Memorial Hospital by the Fire Department.
A spokesman for the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed his death and said an autopsy would be conducted on Wednesday.
Mr. Trotter’s local reputation took wing quickly after his restaurant opened in 1987 on West Armitage Avenue in Lincoln Park. His cookbooks, a shower of James Beard Awards and his PBS television series “The Kitchen Sessions With Charlie Trotter” made him a national, if somewhat idiosyncratic, figure.
Mercurial, driven and temperamental, Mr. Trotter was largely self-taught. After pursuing a whirlwind education that took him to 40 restaurants in five years, by his count, he decided to set up on his own, determined to elevate American cooking and the style of service to the heights he had experienced at Frédy Girardet’s three-star establishment in Crissier, Switzerland, near Lausanne.
His restaurant, backed by his father, a wealthy entrepreneur, was an overnight sensation. Mr. Trotter’s inventive, refined take on American cuisine, his near fanaticism about cooking fresh from the market and his integration of all aspects of the dining experience into a seamlessly orchestrated whole made every other restaurant in Chicago an also-ran.
“He would dazzle you with his sourcing, way ahead of the locavore movement,” said Phil Vettel, the restaurant critic for The Chicago Tribune. “It sounds quaint now, but he was the first to bring in quinoa, and the first to create an all-vegetable tasting menu.”
In the blink of an eye, the city’s lagging restaurant culture, dominated by tired, old-line French restaurants, took a giant step into the future. A new generation of chefs, many of them now ensconced at the city’s top restaurants, trained under Mr. Trotter and found in him a brilliant, if frightening, teacher.
“Charlie Trotter changed Chicago’s restaurant scene forever and played a leading role in elevating the city to the culinary capital it is today,” Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago, said in a statement. “Charlie’s personality mirrored his cooking — bold, inventive and always memorable.”
Charles Trotter was born on Sept. 8, 1959, in Wilmette, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, the son of Robert and Dona-Lee Trotter. His father was the founder of a recruitment firm for computer professionals. Charles attended New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill., and earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Wisconsin in 1982.
In his junior year at college, he told People magazine in 1995, his roommate challenged him to a multicourse cooking competition. “That’s when I got the bug to cook,” he said.
His first steps were faltering. “I thought cooking out of a cookbook and following a recipe was not unlike doing a math problem: You had to measure everything out; you had to follow the directions meticulously; you couldn’t deviate; otherwise the recipe wouldn’t work,” he told The Chicago Tribune last year. “So I cooked that way for about six months, and then I began to realize: Hey, tomatoes are out of season, so I’m not going to use tomatoes — I’m going to find something else to use. Or, I don’t want so many mushrooms in the dish, so I’m going to cut back on the mushrooms.”
He found work as a busboy at Sinclair’s in Lake Forest, Ill., where the chefs, Norman Van Aken and Ms. Nahabedian, took a chance and allowed him to work in the kitchen. He went on to work at restaurants in San Francisco, studied briefly at the California Culinary Academy and, after reuniting with Mr. Van Aken in Florida, trained at top restaurants in France.
Mr. Trotter’s first two marriages ended in divorce. In addition to his son, he is survived by his third wife, Rochelle Trotter; his mother; two brothers, Thomas and Scott; and a sister, Anne Hinkamp.
At his restaurant, Mr. Trotter dispensed with à la carte menus after a few years and devoted his energy to tasting menus, which gave him more freedom to improvise. He was fond of drawing comparisons to jazz, especially Miles Davis, when explaining his culinary philosophy.
“He liked to claim that he never repeated a dish,” Mr. Vettel said. “Every tasting menu, especially in the early days, was spontaneously created that morning.”
Although friends knew him as extravagantly generous, he was also high-strung and volatile. In the 1997 Julia Roberts film “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” Mr. Trotter appeared as a lightly disguised version of himself, yelling at a cook, “I will kill your whole family if you don’t get this right!” The previous year, he was annoyed to come in second in Chicago magazine’s ranking of the city’s meanest people, just behind Michael Jordan. The top spot, he said, should be his.
Mr. Trotter’s many cookbooks include “Charlie Trotter’s” (1994) and “The Kitchen Sessions With Charlie Trotter” (1999), based on his PBS series. After closing his delicatessen and catering business, Trotter’s to Go, last year, he closed his restaurant on its 25th anniversary, saying that he needed a break. He wanted to travel the world with his wife, he said, and pursue graduate study in philosophy and political theory.
“I just had to put the flag in the sand and say I’ve got to go for this; otherwise I never will,” he told The Chicago Sun-Times last year. “If I don’t go for something while I’m in the prime of my life and I have the means to do it, well, why wouldn’t I?”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: November 8, 2013
A correction in this space on Thursday for the obituary of Charlie Trotter, a chef and restaurateur, misstated his wife’s given name. As the obituary had correctly noted, she is Rochelle Trotter, not Rachel.