Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
A Chef Whose Touch Will Last
By JODI RUDOREN
THE first thing the chefs in Charlie Trotter’s kitchen had my father do was peel a big pile of pearl onions.
“They told me a little secret: if you put them in a little warm water, it comes off easier,” he would recall years later. “Then they let me pick some parsley leaves off the twigs of parsley. They said, ‘Charlie doesn’t like any of these stems.’
“I said, ‘You know, I’ve had a knife in my hand before.’ ”
Indeed, my father’s first job was at Cohen’s Deli on Nantasket Beach, near Boston, where he started as a busboy at 15 but soon graduated to counterman. He met my mother slicing corned beef at the Langley Delicatessen in Newton, Mass. (and proposed to her in a booth). He drove trucks for food companies, had his own butcher business for decades, gives lavish dinners for holidays. He practically lives with a knife in his hand. But, no, he had never peeled pearl onions before that afternoon in the summer of 2006.
That was when Dad became one of some 4,000 people over the years to serve as Chef for a Day at Charlie Trotter’s, part of a charity program that has raised millions of dollars for Chicago causes.
So when Mr. Trotter announced on New Year’s Day that his legendary restaurant would close in August, on its 25th anniversary, it seemed to me that Chicago might feel the absence most at its galas and balls. During my five years living there, Chef for a Day was auctioned at virtually every charity event, for autism and affordable housing, museums and mammograms, this synagogue or that sports league. But I can hardly remember anyone I knew talking about actually eating there.
There is no doubt that Mr. Trotter, 52, has had a huge and lasting impact on the city’s culinary landscape, if not the nation’s. First, by pioneering the meticulous, indulgent and seemingly endless degustation menus that are now a staple of high-end dining, then by training legions of innovative cooks — Grant Achatz, Graham Elliot Bowles, Giuseppe Tentori, Michael Carlson — who spawned the restaurants where everyone I knew did eat.
But about 60 percent of Trotter’s patrons live outside Chicago. Ray Harris, who has consumed more than 400 meals there (“And never had the same dish twice,” Mr. Trotter loves to point out), is an investment banker in New York.
The food is still sublime, the service impeccable, the overall experience astounding (if astronomically priced). And yet, as a 40-something friend who has lived almost his whole life in or around Chicago but has never been to Trotter’s, put it, “It seems like he’s been yesterday for so many years.”
Jeff Ruby, Chicago magazine’s restaurant critic, summed it up this way: “In the Mount Rushmore of Chicago, his face would probably be up there: Michael Jordan, Al Capone, Charlie Trotter, Mayor Daley — and they’d all be scowling. The irony is, people haven’t been there in a long time. People have kind of moved on in a way.”
Many such people viewed Mr. Trotter’s plan to trade his monogrammed chef’s coat for elbow-patched tweed and pursue a graduate degree in philosophy as evidence that the culinary moment had passed him by — proof that this chef who had revolutionized the American restaurant experience could no longer keep up with his protégés, that the recession had indeed hit hard, that he was getting stale.
In an interview, Mr. Trotter acknowledged that business has been down 15 to 20 percent in the last few years, after what he described as “20 consecutive years of growth,” but insisted his decision was about none of these things.
“On our worst day, we’re still in the top three restaurants in America,” he said (then added, “I don’t want to sound arrogant when I say that”).
“I love what I do. It’s very glamorous. It’s unbelievably lucrative. But that’s not good enough.
“I don’t ever want to lose that mind-set where you’ve got to be able to realize different ideas-slash-fantasies-slash-possibilities in your life.”
Stories abound of Chef Trotter as a tyrant in the kitchen; this is not one of those stories. To me and my dad — who lives in Newton but has eaten at the restaurant perhaps a dozen times over the last two decades — he has been utterly charming and generous.
“He took me all the way through to every station in the kitchen and all the way down to the wine cellar,” Dad recalled of an early visit that included a guided tour. “He had a different refrigerator for vegetables and for meat, because he keeps the vegetables at a different temperature.”
When my dad turned 60, in 2000, I compiled a cookbook, asking for recipes from foodies and chefs he knew or admired, writers and restaurants he favored and frequented. Mr. Trotter sent one for grilled lamb loin and balsamic red onion salad with artichoke vinaigrette, with the handwritten message, “You’re not getting older, you’re getting better!”
I moved to Chicago the next year, and shortly afterward was roundly outbid for Chef for a Day at a charity event. And so it went at umpteen auctions for the next five years, with bidding always starting above my pay grade and sometimes hitting five figures. Then I went to my nephew’s public-school auction, where my sister and I managed to steal the prize for $600-something.
“I could see when I got there that the average person that buys this thing, they’re worried that they don’t know anything about the kitchen,” Dad recalled. “They kept asking me if I wanted to sit down, if I wanted to relax.”
After the pearl onions and the parsley, he stood at the appetizer station, helping assemble a dish he remembers as having “seven or nine steps,” with “a piece of tuna poached in a bag, chopped parsley, soft-cooked egg.” They gave him a white coat, poured him Champagne, took lots of pictures. And then seven members of our family joined him for a dinner that cost about as much as a small car.
Mr. Trotter said he came up with the Chef for a Day concept early on, out of concern for the bottom line: Charities were constantly asking him to donate dinners for six or eight, when he was doing maybe 100 covers a night. “Do you call General Motors and say, ‘Can you donate 6 to 8 percent of your business?’ ” he asked.
As with so many of Mr. Trotter’s innovations, other restaurants soon adopted the practice, and wealthy would-be chefs were picking up paring knives all over the place. Next, Mr. Trotter started auctioning Dinner in Your Home: he and his team would fly around the country to cook for the highest bidder. He has done maybe 150 of these in the last four years, plus 30 more in his town house a couple of blocks from the restaurant. They go for five- or six-figure sums; once, he said, after a bidding war to $180,000, he agreed to do two dinners, netting $360,000 for his friend Emeril Lagasse’s children’s foundation.
“We’re in the mind-blowing business,” he said. “Always have been.”
Most nights when the restaurant is open, Mr. Trotter also hosts 15 to 20 students from local high schools, who are served the Grand Menu (current retail price: $195) in a private dining room as they watch the action next door on large screens.
And then there are the quieter acts of kindness. Once a week or so, Mr. Trotter said, he or one of his employees will spot a bedraggled person in the neighborhood and extend a lunch invitation.
“We put their carts in the garage,” he explained. “We make sure they wash their hands. We sit them down at the kitchen table. We give them an eight-course meal.” And, yes, offer a glass (or three) of red or white. “They’re out there in the cold weather, scrounging through Dumpsters,” Mr. Trotter said. “Why not give them a little wine?”
Ah, wine. Mr. Trotter has 26,000 bottles at the restaurant (plus another 1,500 in the cellar at home, where a couple of cans of Pepsi and a partly drunk bottle of blue Gatorade share the shelves). What will become of the collection when the restaurant closes, I wondered?
“I did a mathematical calculation,” he said. “If I live to the average life expectancy of the American male — 78.9 — and I consume one bottle of wine every day, I should consume the last bottle on my last day on this planet.”
Is that how he timed the decision to cut bait? “That factored into it,” he said.
Mr. Trotter’s math is way off, but the fact that he seems to have made no moves to sell the wine — or, for that matter, the twin town houses he bought in the 1980s for $3 million apiece that house the restaurant and offices — has many foodies wondering if this philosophy thing isn’t just a brief hiatus before he returns with a newfangled establishment.
The chef insists he is serious about school, but he is by no means giving up food. He plans to continue giving corporate speeches (“This is like printing money,” he said); writing cookbooks (he has done 14); and maybe making Dinners in Your Home (or his).
“It’s always there,” he said of the restaurant business. “What if I do something for two years and I don’t like it? I can always get back in.”
Since the announcement, Mr. Trotter said, there has been an uptick in reservations, though the night I was there, one of the three dining rooms was dark. He said he had received a call from Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who said he had never eaten at the restaurant and wants to. Mr. Emanuel’s predecessor, Richard M. Daley, who has dined at Trotter’s, promised to bring the family in one last time. There’s talk the Obamas might even come, though it’s a very 1 percent venue for an election year.
Mr. Harris, the dean of the regulars, has taken a table for every night of the last week and asked to be the restaurant’s final customer: “If he seats people at 9 o’clock, I want to be seated at 9:02,” he said in an interview. Steven Greystone, a Boston wine consultant who has logged some 200 meals, plans to use the occasion to open a melchior — that’s an 18-liter bottle, the equivalent of two cases — of L’Ermita, one of two 1995 bottles from the Spanish vintner Palacios that he gave Mr. Trotter years ago.
My dad, my sister, her husband and I went back recently for our own farewell dinner at the kitchen table, where there were 19 courses for $250 a head (plus $175 a person for the wine pairing). Each plate had innumerable components, dust of this and pickle of that; I seem to recall pearls of some sort. Each was presented by four servers with immaculate precision, and the chefs came around to chat whenever we had questions.
It was a delightful evening, remarkable, special — although not at all unlike the other meals we’ve had there, and in that way, inevitably, less astounding. A little yesterday.
“Is this the end?” my dad asked the executive chef, Michael Rotondo, as the third panoply of desserts — criollo cake with merlot jelly and candied vanilla; guava and caramelized white chocolate with pink peppercorn meringue — landed in front of him.
“It’s never the end,” Mr. Rotondo said.