Saturday, August 31, 2013
Time to stick a fork in Charlie Trotter.
When Charlie Trotter's restaurant was named "the best restaurant in the world," or something close to that, we were still living in the city, not far away. I told my wife, "I'm not living within walking distance of 'the best restaurant in the world' and never going there." So we went. The place was so pretentious it was disorienting: it felt like the floor was a few degrees off kilter. All the other diners were languid Eurotrash, like the background characters in a James Bond movie. My central memory of the evening was counting 18 $20 bills onto the table and wondering what had possessed me.
That informs a bit of this column, which is slated to run in the paper Monday but got posted Friday. I've met Charlie on a few occasions, and to be honest always got along well with him. The me-me-me closing last year set my teeth on edge. I've had a number of high profile chef friends who chose another route. Not just Sarah, but Gale Gand, the mastermind of Tru, who steps away from the restaurant to explore other options, teaching classes, working on a farm, without making a huge deal of it. You can be great without believing yourself the font of all greatness.
That isn't to say I'm not without sympathy. I have an ego myself, and it gets inflamed at times, and I feel neglected, and have to re-calibrate myself. I hope this episode leads Trotter to perhaps do the same, though it probably won't. If not, he told another reporter he was going to go the Yukon. I guess we were all supposed to blanch and shout, "No, Charlie, no!" Me, I thought that might be a good idea, and wished him Godspeed to Alaska. We'll get on fine here without him. We already are.
There are two types of chefs. There is what I think of as the "Sarah Stegner Chef," so named after my first glance of Stegner, in a tall white toque, standing dignified in her kitchen at the Ritz-Carlton, arranging the artisanal cheeses she championed, quiet as beauty, still as a river, entirely focused on those gorgeous orbs of fromage, as if they were land mines she was defusing.
And then there's the "Charlie Trotter Chef"—think of the chefs in Bugs Bunny cartoons, snarling, screaming, flailing, an inflamed, overcooked ego in chef's whites. Those chefs do well on the Food Network. They become stars. The reality, however.
"He's gone off . . . it's weird," said an associate of Trotter, who knows him well.
On Thursday, Trotter had some kind of ugly encounter with a group of high school students participating in After School Matters. Trotter allowed them to use his now shuttered namesake restaurant at 814 W. Armitage as a gallery to display their photographs, but became offended, it was reported, when the instructor supervising the students refused to order them to sweep floors and plunge toilets. Trotter also made inappropriate comments to a female student, suggesting she get a Charlie Trotter tattoo.
So has Trotter gone around the bend?
"He is . . . a . . . difficult person," said the associate, who didn't want to be named so as to not endanger their relationship. "He comes across like, 'Once you get to know me, I'm a good guy, a funny guy, but everybody hates me, I don't know why.' "
I do, Charlie, so let me explain it to you.
People hate egomaniacs. They see the self-regard flowing like wine and naturally want to stop it up. When you closed your restaurant—one year ago; time drags when you're doing nothing, huh?—with maximum drama, it was a curtain-clutching death scene worthy of "Tristan und Isolde," complete massive, three-part hagiography in the Tribune. The observation I bit back—why rain on the man's victory lap?—was: Closing your restaurant was self-immolation, tossing your whole staff out of work in a recession, and why? New chefs were rising, being lauded in the Chicago scene.
Attention was straying from the only chef worthy of attention—Charlie Trotter. If other restaurants are going to be praised, then you were just going to close yours down, take your ball and go home. You said you were going to read philosophy, which made me laugh. I almost sent you the passages of Seneca where he tells us to welcome loss, because someday life will snatch back every single thing it gave to us, and so the smaller deprivations before then are reminders and practice. But I figured it would be lost on you.
Charlie took his ball but wouldn't go home. There you were, stomping around the auction of your restaurant's effects, shutting the thing down a third of the way through. A man with any grace wouldn't even have been in the room. If you're going to close, then close.
And Trotter's still there, rattling around your empty, shuttered restaurant, terrorizing schoolchildren. It's a scene from a tragedy.
OK, Charlie, you and I are about the same age. And at this point, you're saying: "If you're so smart, why aren't you rich, like I am?" To which I'll retort, "If you're so rich, why aren't you smart?" It's never too late.
You might want to use this embarrassing public spectacle as a wake-up call; if not, there are more down the road. Trust me on that one. If you can control yourself, do it.
A little humility might help. I asked your friend: Would you call Charlie a humble man?
"No, not humble," the friend said. "He knows he's not a humble person. At the end of his run his perception was, 'Where did the respect go? I was the one who brought Chicago fine dining, gave it its reputation.' He kinda started a lot of it, and at the end he felt, 'What the hell, where did the love go?' "
It goes where everything goes, Charlie. Into the Bonfire of Time. Everything ends.
It's a shame you never read that philosophy, because it may have helped you now. "A generation of men is like a generation of leaves," Homer writes. We have spring, shine greenly for a summer. It feels like forever. Then autumn comes, Charlie, and we wither, even great chefs like you, and fall off the tree or, in your case, jump—there's a drawback of being rich, you forget that there's a purpose to work beyond making money. Work is joy, if you're lucky. You may have forgotten that.
But never too late to remember. When Sarah Stegner tired of the Ritz, she quietly re-invented herself and opened the excellent Prairie Grass with husband Rohit Nambiar and partner George Bumbaris. Time to reinvent yourself, too, Charlie, if you can. Grab a spoon, stop talking and start cooking. The respect you seek is waiting for you there.