Sous chef Reginald Watkins gets to work at 5:30 AM, and by 9 the kitchen at Charlie Trotter's world-renowned restaurant is cooking, with stocks simmering, veal bones browning, fresh dough rising, pig cheeks searing, and vendors delivering everything from fresh herbs to oxtails to $5,000 magnums of French wine. Trotter's reputation for excellence rests on his use of exceptional products from sources worldwide. "Everything is about the ingredients--the length you go to get impeccable food products," says Trotter. "It's what sets one place apart from another." And his daily menu hinges on the timely delivery and close inspection of those ingredients. Trotter spent years training Watkins to take over this job, which he finally began to relinquish four years after the restaurant's 1987 opening.
Watkins faces his 20-foot-long workstation, his back to the cooktop, cutting vegetables for mirepoix, when there's a knock on the back door. He puts down his knife and greets a produce vendor, who loads several large boxes onto the floor. Watkins pours their contents out onto a large tray for inspection. First, there's the fennel, then the herbs--parsley, thyme, and rosemary. He checks for bright green leaves and firm stems. Next come celery and baby golden beets; he inspects their greens for any brown spots or signs of wilting and feels the beets to make sure they're firm. He slips each tray onto a shelf in the six-door reachin refrigerator, grabs the order list tacked to the top of his workstation, verifies it, and signs off on the invoice. "I make sure we get what we pay for," says Watkins. "The menu depends on the products that come in on a given day--I'm the guy who keeps the wheels turning."
Watkins started at Trotter's in July of 1987, after answering an ad for a part-time dishwasher. He was enrolled in community college at the time, having just finished a four-year stint in the navy, and his restaurant experience was limited to fast-food jobs in high school. From his first day at Trotter's, he was fascinated by the kitchen, and he began spending his off days and early mornings there, volunteering. His studies soon became secondary to his job and he dropped out of school.
After six months washing dishes, Watkins was promoted from the back sink to the pastry station. He stayed there for a year and a half, then moved on to garde-manger, where for four years he prepared cold foods like salads, garnishes, and appetizers. "With such high attrition in restaurant kitchens," says Trotter, "when Reginald expressed the enthusiasm and aptitude for cooking, we gave him the opportunity."
In 1993 Watkins became one of Trotter's three sous chefs, cooking on the line, working long hours and split shifts, and accepting deliveries. In 1997, Watkins took over the day shift, where he's responsible for getting the kitchen up to speed for dinner service. "Reggie's my anchor during the day," says Trotter. "It's the people behind the scenes that make this restaurant work. I trust him implicitly."
Back at his workstation, Watkins scrapes the bitter gills off lobster carcasses to be used for shellfish oil and then cracks off the knuckles--they'll go into a stock. He checks the veal bones in the oven, takes one finished tray out, and sets it aside. "You've got to be able to do five or ten things at a time or it'll never all get done," he says, as he quickly flips over some sizzling pork cheeks. Finishing the same turn, he arrives at his cutting board and rough-chops a few dozen onions. Later he'll butcher suckling pigs, bison, and rabbit.
There's another knock at the door--Federal Express delivering live lobster. Watkins takes out an electronic scale from an upper cabinet near the refrigerator. He weighs all fish and meat deliveries. "I have to make sure they're bringing the right amount," he says. "When there's only 28 pounds and we ordered 30, I write the actual amount on the invoice and you can bet that's all we'll pay for. We could lose thousands of dollars if I didn't do that. It's all about trust and loyalty. I have relationships with my vendors and I trust them but I still need to be sure we get what we ordered."
He places the seared pig cheeks onto a sheet pan, sprinkles them with salt and pepper, and then slips them into the oven. "I'm here because of my ability to produce," says Watkins. "I don't have a culinary degree I learned everything on the job. I've seen plenty of guys come here from CIA [the Culinary Institute of America] and they couldn't hang, but they look good on paper." Along with its reputation for high standards, Trotter's kitchen is known to be extremely competitive--the average cook stays for about six months. A 13-year tenure like Watkins's is practically unheard of.
He finishes cleaning the lobsters and dumps them into a preheated pan to brown. Next he adds the oil. "if I put the oil in first, it would be like proof--a huge fireball," he says. "You have to lower the temperature of the pan with the shells first, then add the oil." Next, he tosses in celery, fennel, and onions, stirring briskly. He says he spends time in Trotter's library, reading up on unfamiliar techniques, but "mostly, I've learned from the guys--this guy's a walking encyclopedia," he says as Matthias Merges, chef de cuisine for the past eight years, walks into the kitchen dressed in a suit. He runs an idea by Merges, gets the OK, and laughs. "See--this guy knows everything, but he lets me cook, too." Trotter arrives minutes later, also formally attired. Today there's a magazine photo shoot, so they're wearing sleek black, in contrast to Watkins's chef's whites.
As the morning progresses, Watkins cooks, preps, and greets one vendor after another. "We've got to get all the orders in by the time everyone comes in the early afternoon or it gets too crowded. The vendors know that they better bring it on time or we won't take it.
"This is not a job for me, it's a career, a lifestyle. This is my home I call it my home." In the same breath he says, "But I tell you, McDonald's is still my favorite restaurant. Except for special occasions. Then I really like to go to Heaven on Seven."
Charlie Trotter's is at 816 W. Armitage, 773-248-6228
Paje, a reincarnation of Avis Heard's southern restaurant Paige's Place, opened November 10 at 1332 N. Milwaukee in the old Okno space.
Rushmore, a swank American eatery, officially opened on November 9 at 1023 W. Lake.
Restaurant Development Group opened Lou Lou, a spin-off of its popular Bar Louie chain, on November 13 in the space formerly occupied by Coast at 2145 N. Damen. Lou Lou serves a casual menu of salads, pizza, and pasta.
On November 17 Debbie Sharpe (Feast, Tanzy) opened Commune, a casual contemporary American restaurant with late-night hours, in the space at 1616 N. Damen formerly occupied by her Con Fusion.
--LAURA LEVY SHATKIN
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.