Charlie Trotter dead at 54

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Charlie Trotter addressing staff at one of his farewell dinners in 2012.
  • Michael Gebert
  • Charlie Trotter addressing staff at one of his farewell dinners in 2012

In news that is shocking without being entirely surprising given his troubled recent history, the most influential fine dining chef in Chicago history, and arguably America's, has died. NBC Chicago first reported that Charlie Trotter was found unresponsive in his Lincoln Park home by his son Dylan, and was pronounced dead at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

No doubt there will be a lot of relinking of past journalism work on Trotter, a fascinating and mercurial figure, with the most attention doubtless going to Mark Caro's piece last year at the Tribune, which to my mind knew everything about Charlie Trotter except why he mattered. I don't feel like plugging any of my own work, but the Reader published an excellent piece by Martha Bayne some years ago on what it was like to experience Trotter's sort of dining for those not used to that life, and I can at least link this two-part interview with Northwestern professor Gary Alan Fine, a sociologist of restaurant culture, who explains why Trotter mattered and how he changed dining in America:

While restaurants such as Everest, Ambria, and Tru were well known in the city, it was Trotter's that had a national reputation— a justified reputation— and it was Trotter's with a few other similar minded restaurants— that created a style of cuisine. It was a cuisine that might be described as 'post-fusion' (post-Spago, perhaps). Rather than combining odd ingredients for the sake of combining (a weakness of early innovations, similar to the weaknesses of early molecular cuisine), Charlie Trotter took the critical next step. This was the essential step of deciding what flavors would actually go together to produce a harmonious, but novel combination of flavor and texture. The dish was a work of art that relied on an intellectual harmony. The dish is not simply a production, but a revelation. Whether this perspective of food as philosophy is a function of Trotter's upper-middle-class background and a college degree (whereas many chefs were of working-class origins) I can't say, but certainly the dishes at the time I dined at Trotter's (a decade after its opening) were subtle and original.

It was a brilliant first act for most of a quarter century, and it is sad that we will never know what the second act could have been.

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