Charlie Trotter died on Tuesday, November 5. He was a famous chef in Chicago, and one of the most famous in the world. Reservations to his restaurant had to be made months in advance, the menu changed every day, and dinner was not cheap. I went in 1997 as a once in a lifetime experience, and it was, I have to say, worth it. Usually when you eat something, it tastes good or bad, or at best, delicious. Maybe because I was paying so much, I also paid a different kind of attention. In any case, it changed my way of thinking about food. We’re a culture that in general is more concerned with quantity of food, and with relative sweetness and/or calorie count. His dishes were a cascade of flavors, worthy of exploring and savoring. Eating at Charlie Trotter’s was like a condensed education in the art of eating, for which I will be forever grateful.
My oldest daughter Cerisa was six at the time. She wanted to go to with us. I laughed but then, after much haranguing, eventually promised her that if she was in the top ten percent of her graduating class, I’d take her. We talked about it over the years, and Cerisa ended up with a 4.0. I’m sure the desire to go to Charlie Trotter’s was the only motivation for her spectacular academic career in high school. Once again, months in advance, I made the reservation and she, Heather, and I finally made the pilgrimage to Chicago.
The restaurant was in a converted house on Chicago’s Near North Side, not far from where I was raised. Elegant but not formal. Every course was served on a completely different set of dishes, and the food was once again excellent.
Partway through dinner I had to go outside to plug the parking meter.When I came back in, Charlie Trotter himself was sitting at the bar in the front room. I introduced myself, explained why I was there with Cerisa, and asked him in he’d come up and say hi to her. He gladly agreed, and I went back to the table.
As I watched him approach I couldn’t contain my grin. Cerisa turned, and the look on her face filled me with complete joy. He sat down with us, fist bumped Cerisa, and proceeded to be completely charming. He asked Cerisa about her life, talked about his own son, who had, shall we some, some problems in school. We also asked him about his own creativity, and learned that he was able to imagine flavor combinations in his mind, kind of like how I can imagine melodies and harmonies. Charlie, as I now call him, had gone to school in Madison, and we talked about the arc of his career. He ended up giving Cerisa a hat and bag and some other swag. I think she was in shock the whole time, and it made the extravagant bill worth it.
I know Charlie Trotter wasn’t always the nicest person. His desire for excellence was unrestrained. Watch the first few minutes of “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” where he plays himself. It’s a quandary; so often there are stories of people who achieve great things but who don’t have patience or compassion at times for those around them. At the same time, he was very civically minded and raised a lot of money for good organizations. He closed his restaurant in 2012, saying that it was time to change directions, and he wanted to pursure a Masters in Philosophy.
What I do know is that his authentic kindness to us, and his unrelenting drive to create something spectacular made the world a better and more delicious place. I am grateful for the chance to have eaten there, for his kindness to us, and for having given Cerisa a reason to be a good student.