Charlie Trotter on 20 years at his Chicago restaurant

28 March 2008 by
Charlie Trotter on 20 years at his Chicago restaurant

Charlie Trotter celebrated the 20th anniversary of his famous Chicago restaurant with a meal cooked by some of the world's best-known chefs. Among the diners there was Fiona Sims, who talked to him about his plans for expansion, what the press and the guidebooks think of him, and nurturing future talent

Caterer: So tell us more about your new Chicago restaurant - what direction will the food take? Will it be toned-down Armitage Avenue, or at the same level?
Charlie Trotter: We will prepare the food for the signature restaurant, which will be dinner only; the casual restaurant, which will be breakfast and lunch; the spa; and all of the in-room dining. The signature restaurant - as yet unnamed - will be seafood-focused, and will very much be fine dining in nature, but will not emphasise the degustation-only format that has been on at Armitage Avenue for the past 20 years.
Caterer: You must have been offered countless deals by hoteliers all over the world - why this one?
CT: The Elysian hotel, which is currently under construction, is a unique, one-of-a-kind, ultra-high-end boutique hotel. Their care and attention to detail is similar to our approach here at Charlie Trotter's.
Caterer: And why Las Vegas? Are you planning to roll out Restaurant Charlie worldwide? If so, how do you expect to maintain that consistency?
CT: We've had many offers to open in Vegas over the years and the opportunity to open at the Palazzo in the Venetian was the right thing at the right time. I don't know about worldwide, but we certainly wouldn't rule out another. After 20 years of Trotter's in Chicago we've developed a remarkable stable of talent. By placing home-grown chefs and dining room leaders in key positions it allows us to take on additional projects.
Caterer Future openings - are you tempted to look at the UK again? And what's happening with New York?
CT We would love to do a project in the UK. London has one of the world's great restaurant scenes and it would be an honour to be part of it. Regarding New York, well, it's official, we're opening in a residential building called One Madison. It's probably about 18 months away. In fact, it was announced in yesterday's New York Times. The restaurant will have roughly 80 seats, but beyond that I can't say much. We're still very much in the preliminary planning stages.
Caterer:Time Out Chicago wrote last October that the city's relationship with your restaurant has changed dramatically; that the style of cooking and "obsessively attentive service" lost its lustre years ago; that people had moved on to the molecular inventions of Moto and Alinea. What do you say to that?
CT: Yes, but Golf Connoisseur, a nationwide luxury living magazine named Charlie Trotter's the best restaurant in America that same month. Time Out Chicago definitely had an axe to grind, and as you know people always like to take aim at the big shots. On another note, the Mobile Guide, the US's closest thing to the Michelin guide, just named us a five-star [its highest rating] restaurant for the 13th consecutive year. Only the Inn at Little Washington has held that distinction longer. And there are 15 such restaurants in all of America.

Caterer: Have you had to change direction in any way to accommodate that mood swing, if it's true? And if so, does that make you feel bitter? You made the Chicago restaurant scene, after all.
CT: Charlie Trotter's is a better restaurant today - in every regard - than it's ever been. Restaurants come and go. We've been here, and on the cutting edge, for - at least in restaurant terms - a near-eternity. Every two or three years another two or three restaurants come on to the scene and it's good for everybody, especially the consumer.
Caterer :You've nurtured so much talent. Do you ever feel like they are coming back to haunt you? Who are you most proud of?
CT: No. In fact, it's gratifying when one of our former chefs or dining room leaders or sommeliers go on to do something impressive. I couldn't be prouder of many of our former staff members. Most proud of? Well, certainly Grant Achatz, and probably David Myers, of Sona in LA, even more so. David spent quite a bit more time with us. We've also produced at least a dozen master sommeliers, partially because of our emphasis on food and wine pairing.

Caterer: In a New York Times article about Chicago's burgeoning molecular gastronomy scene, you were quoted as calling the movement "nonsense on stilts". Did you really say that? What do you think about Achatz's approach? Is this a direction in cooking that you find interesting, or appalling?
CT: Grant is an extraordinarily talented chef who has made a fantastic contribution to the Chicago dining scene. My comment was, with the exception of just a few chefs in the USA, Grant certainly being one of them, that in the wrong hands molecular gastronomy was nothing more than, to paraphrase Jeremy Bentham, "nonsense upon stilts".

Caterer: How do you get the most out of people who work for you?
CT: By convincing them that they, in fact, don't work for me, but rather for themselves.

Caterer: Where are you looking for inspiration these days? Japan? China? Have you ever visited the Orient?
CT: Well, I've always been drawn to Asian minimalism. These days, though, I find myself more than ever drawn to the flavours of India, though I've only been to Shanghai and Singapore. I found the food in both places to be clean and boldly flavoured.
Caterer: How do you maintain your creativity and edge?
CT: I suppose by never settling for the easy road, always maintaining a sense of wonder, and never really taking myself that seriously.

Caterer: Where are you on the whole raw food movement thing now? Are your raw menus in Charlie Trotter's in Chicago still going down well?
CT: At least one or two tables order the raw menu nightly. And we've incorporated a number of raw food preparations into our spa food menus down at One&Only Palmilla in Los Cabos, Mexico.
Caterer: What about the whole food miles issue? Do you still use seafood from Maine and wild boar from Texas?
CT: We do try to use as much local product as possible, but sometimes we bring things in from afar.
Caterer :Are you still inspiring the kids? Do they still come for supper?
CT: Yes, the Excellence Program is coming up to nine years. Three nights a week we host 20 Chicago high school students for dinner where they also hear a number of our staff discuss excellence and what it takes to go to the top - in any field.

Caterer :Have any of them grown up enough to be inspired enough to come and work for you?
CT: Indeed, a few have come to work for us, but the program is really not about that. It's meant to inspire excellence in any endeavour.

The event

Only Charlie Trotter could have pulled it off. On 7 October 2007, seven of the world's best-known chefs gathered to cook at his famous Chicago restaurant to celebrate its 20th anniversary.

Some of the 80 diners had paid $5,000 (£2,500) per person for the meal, with proceeds donated to the Charlie Trotter Culinary Education Foundation. The rest had been invited by Trotter personally - including me - flying in from as far away as Australia for the event.

We're talking chefs Ferran Adrià, Tetsuya Wakuda, Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud and our very own Heston Blumenthal included in the line-up, and gossip that went on for weeks after - did the Big Man lose his famous cool? Would one of them sneak foie gras on to the menu (Trotter banned it eight years ago)? Who would trump whom?

Yes, of course Trotter lost his cool - not in front of the guests, you understand, and anyway, who could blame him with such heavyweights descending. And yes, someone - Daniel Boulud - did sneak a sliver of the much-maligned liver, unadvertised, into his dish - which he announced with a cheeky Gallic grin as diners were tucking in.

But it was Blumenthal who took unofficial gold for the event. His Sound of the Sea dish - accompanied by 80 iPods loaded with the sound of crashing waves that were jetted in specially for the event, hidden at the table in conch shells - was voted the best course judging by the sound of the applause and the comments around the tables - upstaged only by the roar that greeted Trotter himself at the end of the dinner.

Yup, he's the man around these parts, all right - forget what Time Out Chicago says. And his stock just increased further, with a new restaurant in Las Vegas, and another in Chicago opening later this year, plus one in New York in 2009.
Is Trotter losing ground? I think not.

Trotter to date

Charlie Trotter's Chicago opened in 1987 and was named Best Restaurant in the World for Wine and Food in Wine Spectator in 1998.Trotter won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef in the Midwest in 1992 (nine more James Beard awards followed), and was named fifth-best chef in the USA in 2007 by Restaurant magazine.

He launched Trotter's to Go in 2000, an upscale deli and catering store in Lincoln Park, Chicago, and a take-away, Trotter's to Go Express, in 2006 in Chicago's downtown.

In 2004, he opened ‘C', a seafood restaurant in One&Only Palmilla, Los Cabos, Mexico.

In 2005 he won the Humanitarian of the Year accolade from the International Association of Culinary Professionals for his work with his philanthropic Charlie Trotter Culinary Education Foundation and other causes. He invites groups of public high school students into his restaurant as part of his Excellence Program on three nights a week.

In February, Trotter announced the opening of Restaurant Charlie at the Palazzo Hotel and Resort in Las Vegas.
And he will be opening in the Elysian Hotel and Private Residences in Chicago later this year, looking after all food and beverage operations, including an exclusive restaurant open for dinner only.

And last but not least, he will be opening a restaurant in New York next year, in a residential building called One Madison.
Trotter has also published books galore - the latest is Lessons in Wine Service, part of his management book series, and next autumn he will bring out a book for home cooks.

By Fiona Sims

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