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Chef Charlie Trotter’s Last Supper

After 25 years, the Chicago chef abdicates his throne.

I am not sure if this is actually an old saying, but it should be: Yesterday’s revolutionaries are today’s strongmen. Surely history has borne the truth of the aphorism: Cypselus, the first tyrant of Corinth; Russia; Cuba; first-wave feminism; Charlie Trotter’s eponymous Chicago restaurant.

When Charlie Trotter’s opened 25 years ago, the Windy City was still a town known primarily for its dirty politics, smoked meats, and stockyards. Almost single-handedly, the then-28-year-old chef fomented a foodie revolution, not only in Chicago, but throughout the country. Trotter proved there were more ways to get to fine dining than through Paris. Although he used classic French technique, Trotter aped no man. He tapped American farms for American flavours, combined them boldly, and executed them perfectly. He was to cuisine what Thoreau was to poetry: a transcendental, revolutionary, authentic American voice. Over a quarter century, Trotter has won nearly every award there is to win, and from the day he opened, his culinary ripples have been felt from sea to shining sea.

But last August, Trotter closed his restaurant. “I want to go to graduate school to study philosophy,” he explained recently, sitting on the back porch of the elegant 1908 brownstone that still housed the restaurant’s offices as all the loose ends were getting tied up. “I want a chance to read all the books I’ve always wanted to read.” Though it is hard to give credence to a man closing a successful business to pursue a better understanding of Nietzsche, Trotter maintains business was still good, that the thirst for knowledge rather than a drought of profit had led to his decision.

Yet as much as Trotter might try to deny it, time had passed him by. Mention Chicago to anyone who eats seriously and they’ll moan about the online ticket system used to get a table at Next, Grant Achatz’s newest restaurant, or compose hosannas to Stephanie Izard’s casual Girl & the Goat. Very few would mention Charlie Trotter’s. The Trotterian plate is a historical specimen of ornately prepared luxury foodstuffs of a bygone era of decadence.

So too is his restaurant a tableau vivant that might as well be titled “An Example of Fine Dining in the 1980s and mid-1990s.” By the time he closed, the white tablecloths that covered each of Trotter’s tables had gone from shibboleth to expletive. The pastel wallpaper and corporate carpeting have given way to exposed brick and hardwood floors. The double-breasted suits worn by wait staff have largely been shed to reveal tattoos and musculature. Yet there was reason behind Trotter’s blandness. “The intention,” Trotter said, “is to ensure that what is on the plate is the focus.” For 25 years, it was.

Last August, Charlie Trotter closed his restaurant. “I want to go to graduate school to study philosophy,” he said, “I want a chance to read all the books I’ve always wanted to read.”

Since Trotter had announced the closure in January, he had eight months of ceremonial farewells. These often took the form of living memorials during which invited chefs were asked to contribute courses and to kneel at the altar of the outgoing monarch. These included a $2,500-a-plate (U.S.) dinner featuring chef Trotter’s cuisine, as well as that of Nathan Myhrvold, author of the six-volume, $625, 21-kilogram tome Modernist Cuisine, and Sean Brock, the heavily tattooed chef of Charleston’s Husk Restaurant.

One would be hard pressed to locate two more disparate chefs or unlikely supplicants than Messrs. Brock and Myhrvold. Brock, an up-and-coming chef—whose restaurant won first place on Bon Appétit’s 2011 Best New Restaurants in America list—serves deceptively complex riffs on Southern classics in a decidedly casual restaurant. Nathan Myhrvold, a former chief technology officer at Microsoft, is the undisputed master of the sort of techno-cuisine that has been the scourge and the supplanter of Trotter’s style. But as Brock told me, “When chef Trotter calls, you answer.”

Since the dinner was both sentimentally and logistically demanding, staff from years past were called in. Among them were Larry Stone, Charlie Trotter’s original wine man, and David Myers, now a well-known SoCal chef, who had worked in Trotter’s kitchen. They gathered in a very touching pre-service meeting with all the staff. “Obviously this is very emotional,” said Christian Giles, the dining room manager, “but never forget: we’re professionals.”

Most of the guests were regulars, though their loyalty beggars the term. Jim Graby, a jolly man from Washington, D.C., has eaten at the restaurant roughly 250 times. This was the 424th meal for Ray Harris, a brokerage manager of Morgan Stanley, who flies in from New York. I sat at a table with a neurologist and her husband, a preventive radiologist, who had flown in from Las Vegas, and a music marketing guy who wore two skull rings on his chubby fingers and loved Elton John.

Yet of the 12 courses, only three were served by Trotter. Six were prepared by Myhrvold and his impossibly handsome chef, Maxime Billet; two were served by Brock, and one was by the Sydney-based Japanese chef Tetsuya Wakuda. It didn’t take long for the fissures to be felt. The first two courses, prepared by Myhrvold, included a liquid Caprese salad served in a shooter, and a cryo-shucked oyster that blossomed open with almost hydraulic ease after being doused in liquid nitrogen.

When Trotter’s courses came, executed by his quiet executive chef, Michael Rotondo, they were precise, creative, and decadent. Lobster came with a veal sweetbread tempura and a sauce made of chicken livers instead of foie gras (Trotter has long forsworn that delicacy). Beer can squab—a riff on beer can chicken, in which the beer can was replaced with mini-cans of Francis Ford Coppola winery’s Sofia Blanc de Blancs sparkling wine, poured down the drain and refilled with a local brew called Matilda—was accompanied by tripe ravioli. Toothsome though the courses were, after Myhrvold’s and Brock’s deep philosophical cuisine, they seemed conceptually flaccid.

Alas, what befell chef Trotter is sort of the opposite of Cassandra’s curse. Call it the Polaroid Paradox, after that great bygone company that pioneered digital photography only to be doomed by it later on. The future that chef Trotter envisioned 25 years ago—where American chefs would reach the culinary empyrean without merely aping the French—had arrived. By now, it’s as much of a truism as “clean sleeves, good chef” that one needn’t look to the Old World, neither for technique nor for ingredients, for culinary validation.

Eight hours and a dozen courses later, I left my last meal at Charlie Trotter’s. His restaurant had become an institution, I reflected as I made my way down Halsted Street, and wise was he to close it before it became a mausoleum. Trotter was too proud a soul, I suspect, to watch his dining room become embalmed, and too wise to allow the children of his revolution to destroy it. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, and so, 25 years after his usurpation, Charlie Trotter took it off.



Photos by Huge Galdones.