Chicago Losing a Chef Who Refined Its Stockyards Palate
By MONICA DAVEY，New York Times Jan. 02 2012
CHICAGO — Charlie Trotter, a pioneering chef whose restaurant in this city helped transform American fine dining in the last quarter-century, will close his famed establishment this year.
The announcement, first reported on Sunday in The Chicago Sun-Times, was viewed as a bittersweet if inevitable end for an elegant restaurant. It spawned a more creative way of thinking about food when it opened in 1987 and propelled the careers of numerous up-and-coming chefs. And it kept right on going as elaborate modernist competitors, as well as places that cared less about luxurious surroundings, grew up all around.
When such practices were all but unheard of in America, particularly in the Midwest, Mr. Trotter created a European-style degustation menu, a vegetarian tasting menu and a raw-food tasting menu. He placed a table of diners in the kitchen to watch the process. He pursued local farm products.
If some saw the decision to close Charlie Trotter’s, which is in a townhouse in the Lincoln Park neighborhood on the city’s North Side, at the end of August as an acknowledgement that the spotlight had moved on to newer, flashier restaurants, Mr. Trotter said the choice had not been driven by finances in the least. He said business had been “off” a bit but largely unharmed by the economic downturn.
Mr. Trotter, who notified his staff members and the patrons of a New Year’s Eve event ($295 per person) on Saturday, said he wanted to travel, attend graduate school in philosophy and political theory and, perhaps, eventually return to open a new restaurant.
“I can do this forever, and it’s most gratifying,” Mr. Trotter, 52, said in an interview on Sunday. “That said, there are so many other things to do in life. Twenty-five years in this line of work is fantastic. It’s just time to step back, breathe deeply and do something different.”
Locally and nationally, people in the dining industry said they were surprised or, if not entirely surprised, sentimental about the closing. Acquaintances and former employees described Mr. Trotter as a quirky perfectionist, a constant boundary pusher (using unlikely items like pig ears, in the memory of one admiring former employee) and a sometimes difficult boss. He was also credited, even by his critics, for being a trailblazer whose influences can be tasted and felt in many newer restaurants and someone who helped put Chicago, once known mostly for deep-dish pizza and hot dogs, on the epicurean map.
“In the late ’80s and through the ’90s, he was on top of the food world,” said Curtis Duffy, who moved to Chicago more than a decade ago to work for Mr. Trotter and described him as probably his most significant professional influence.
Mr. Duffy, who went on to be the chef at Avenues here and plans to open his own restaurant, Grace, this year, added: “It’s hard to stay on top of something that’s evolving. I think he’s still on top. He wants to close on top.”
In the 1980s, Mr. Trotter emerged from a sea of fine dining restaurants that were narrowly focused on French-style cooking, said Mitchell Davis, executive vice president of the James Beard Foundation.
“But Charlie helped define a unique American perspective on it, rich with French tradition and also other traditions in the world,” Mr. Davis said. “He helped make Chicago a global food town.”
To hear patrons of the restaurant tell it, Mr. Trotter made dinner no longer just dinner, but an event. Servers were known for their scrupulous attention and care. The small plates came and went with careful pairings of wine. Fellow chefs described Mr. Trotter’s kitchen as technically perfect.
In more recent years, though, there were setbacks. When the Michelin guide came to Chicago for the first time in late 2010, two edgy restaurants (Alinea and L2O) got the highest ratings, three stars. Mr. Trotter’s received two stars. And while the world of television chef shows and buzzy online restaurant promotions blossomed, Mr. Trotter mainly focused on his kitchen — a place where, even as modernist approaches began flourishing elsewhere, “when you eat an artichoke, it still looks like an artichoke,” said the chef Mario Batali, a friend.
In a fast-changing culinary world, rare is the fine dining restaurant that lasts 25 years. “Almost impossible anymore,” said Alan Richman, the food and wine critic for GQ magazine. “I think you’ll see fewer and fewer restaurants accomplish that.”
Mr. Trotter said he had first considered closing 10 years ago, then again five years ago. “It’s not just like some overnight thing I’m doing,” he said. “I did feel some pangs of sentimentality and nostalgia. On the other hand, full steam ahead.”
Reflecting on a quarter-century in the food world, Mr. Trotter said he had watched the evolution of American cuisine and the evolution of the American eater — from someone who enjoyed a once-in-a-while night out to the foundation of a “food-savvy populace” that dines out constantly.
Responses came fast after word of the closing began spreading on Saturday, Mr. Trotter said. People were already securing reservations for the final eight months of dinners