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.

  
    

29 comments:

  1. I also visited Trotter's restaurant and was not impressed. I have to say that the food was beautifully arranged but tasted insipid. For example, one of the servings was cold meat inside of a block of jello. The name used to describe the dish was far fancier but that what's it added up to. I had to stop at a fast food place on the way home since Trotter's food wasn't even filling. I wondered why people especially rich people put up with this travesty. And, then it occurred to me that rich people like to distinguish themselves from what they consider to be the "great unwashed". By that measure, Trotter's restaurant was about as far away from a good, homestyle meal as you can get. Enjoying Trotter's and being willing to blow big bucks was about as good an example of conspicuous consumption as you'll see. Marisa Mayer's $31K playhouse for her son comes to mind as well. As a chef, Trotter is like the Emperor who had no clothes. However, his devotees can't admit they've been taken in and made fools of by a culinary con artist. I still sympathize with the gentleman at the other table who loudly asked the waitress if there was anything to eat after he went through the menu.

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  2. His actions were reprehensible. He appears to be in dire need of a psychiatric evaluation. That wasn't just "drunk/high and stupid" - that was truly f-ed up behavior toward those kids. If he wanted to stomp around and cancel an auction a third of the way through, whatever. When he is abusive and, yes, a complete and utter a$$hole toward kids after he AGREED to let them use his space to display their art? No dice. He owes everyone involved a sincere apology, if his monstrous ego will allow, of course. Don't hold your breath.

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    1. He was definitely drunk on the WGN report I saw.
      But before a psych evaluation, I would suggest a neurological one.
      As his actions have become more & more bizarre over that last couple of years, I'd also want to see if he has a tumor in the brain.

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    2. It may very well be neurological. He needs to be evaluated by someone and SOON. I don't know if he has family or friends to help him, or if he'd even accept their help, but his behavior needs to be addressed.

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  3. I remember the Trib series, and it wasn't hagiography. It was pretty clear when they were interviewing the chefs who had gone on to great things after leaving Trotter's restaurant that, while they loved what they learned and respected and in many instances loved the man, nevertheless to a person they all had decided to treat their workers, their diners, and their public much differently than Trotter did. And that sense of "where did the love go? Have I been passed by?" was strong in the article, which I thought did a good job of weighing accomplishments against hubris and not dismissing either. Was Mark Caro the author of that piece? (asks the lazy internet commenter...) I remember being very impressed by it, and remember how I went from feeling somewhat disappointed that I had never made it to the restaurant to feeling that I was glad my money never passed into Trotter's hands.

    David P. Graf, I'm not rich and I don't want to get into an argument about what and when constitutes conspicuous consumption, but fine dining can easily be about the sensory experience, and what might be pretense in one person's eyes isn't experienced as "look at me!" in another's. Your "Cold meat in a block of jello" example: unless you mean actual fruit jello and not, say spiced gelatin, this is a technique been a part of French cooking for well over a century, and once was part of everyday cooking as well as fine dining. The gelatin and fat preserve the meat.

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    1. You're right. "Hagiography" was unfair, content-wise. I was thinking mostly of the three-part treatment. It was the profile you'd write for Jesus if he were retiring to Samara to raise figs. Mark Caro did tweet me about it, so maybe he was the author. I didn't want to start reading it before I wrote the column yesterday because I'd have blown my deadline by the time I finished.

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    2. Bill,

      Considering that it wouldn't be hard for a table of three to run up a tab close to $1K including wine at the prices he charged, if eating there wasn't an example of conspicuous consumption, then nothing is. I appreciate that spiced gelatin was a way to preserve food but a small thing happened in the last hundred years called refrigeration. And no matter how fancy a title you give it, it was still cold meat in a block of jello. If that's fine dining, you are welcome to it.

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  4. My first thought on this was, "Oh, just another egotistic chef pouting" since I never had the "pleasure" of dining there. However, this is so much more, and the man has definite problems. Hope he gets some help. Wonderful article Neil.

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    1. (Oops, didn't type my full blog name.)

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  5. I don't know if mental health issues are involved, but I've seen this syndrome before. Charlie Trotter likes to think he achieved perfection in culinary art -- ergo he's perfect -- ergo a god. The rest of us are lesser beings. Martha Stewart has this same problem.

    I guess it's hard to deal when facing reality; the world doesn't revolve around you.

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  6. In the WGN video on Thursay Night he appeared tobe distraught. 15 years ago, he was at the top of his game at his restaurant. We dined there 5 days before he closed forever and Charlie was not even In the restaurant. Clearly he announced the closure of his restaurant a year in advance to make some big coin filling the place for a year. Charlie was innovate for many years but in recent years has been surpassed by the likes of Alinea and Amoto. Neil, hit it on the head. Charlie took his ball and went home. And now he mightily regreats the decision. Think about how wired and freaky is was for Charlie to be skulking around the closed restaurant in the first place looking disheveled and on drugs with the for sale signs on the building and high school kids hanging ther art. Trotter needs some serious mental help or I predict he becomes suicidal very shortltly which would be a tragic fall from the greatness he one achieved and has clearly fallen from.

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  7. One other thing - you can still read reviews of Trotter's restaurant online. The overwhelming majority of them were extremely negative leading credence to my belief that Trotter's was a culinary equivalent of a Potemkin village promising much but delivering little. However, it was a favorite of conspicuous consumers but eventually they went off to the latest "new" thing and left Trotter to wonder what happened. There's nothing sadder than a fallen idol.

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  8. If you want to experience the hubris of Trotter, just go to his website at https://www.charlietrotters.com/restaurant/ and read some of his comments. There's no indication at all that the restaurant has been closed for awhile. Isn't that strange?

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  9. With lots of bashing of Charrlie Trotter going on, it is worth it to point out that Charlie Trotter created the fining dining scene in Chicago 25 years ago. He at his restaurant created the concept of a multi-course stating menu, and for many years this was the height of fine dining in Chicago. At some point about 5 or so years ago, Charlie Trotter stopped innovating and his restaurant became stagnant. And During that time, a restaurant opened two blocks away by the name of Alinea which also starves multi-course tasking menu, which blew away the offering from Charlie Trotter and has recently been named the Best Restaurant in the world. Now that’s amazing..

    You can always debate on if pay9ing $250 a plate for a tasting menu is worth it. If you have the cash, then its an amazing meal. If you can''t afford it, then you can say disparaging things about the snotty people who can afford the meal.

    So lets describe what I think happened at his restaurant on Thursday night. Charlie not having anything to do, opens the restaurant for the art kids to hang their pictures. He goes into his office and takes a little nap because he either had a bit too much to drink or his partaking of drugs had him being a little bit out there. Make no doubt about it, when watching the WGN video, he either looked to be a bit tipsy or on drugs, and not in a very good place.

    So Charlie was taking a little nap in his office, wake up, walks to the part of the restaurant to see how the art kids are doing and what does he see> Oh My God, the Art Kids were smoking cigarettes in his restaurant and left a few cigarette butts on the floor. It amazes me that cigarette smokers typically believe that the world is their ashtray. Its quite disgusting. Charlie then walks into the bathroom and finds that one of the Art Kids has pissed all over the seat. SO Charlie then walks over to the teacher and asks if they art kids could sweep up the cigarette butts off the floor and wipe the piss off the toilet seat. The teach says NO.

    Carlie becomes upset, asks the art students and their teacher to leave and the rest is history.

    I can tell you first hand that my wife who is not a world renewed chef hates piss on the toilet seat and boys forget to lift the toilet seat when taking a whiz, there is pandemonium. Imagine if you are a mercurial perfectionist chef who found his toilet seat at his beloved restaurant covered with piss, and students being an easy target. Nothing good would come of it.

    Is Chef Trotter a perfectionist. Yep. Mercurial. Yep. Egomaniac. Yep. And another terms you can of for the Big Chef.

    Trotter should get the heck of out his closed restaurant and out of town. Because as an ex-chef, Trotter is clearing not going to be afford the respect and admiration that he believes that he so richly deserves now that his nae-sake restaurant is closed and a year later remembered as a once interesting chef, and now a forgotten nobody,

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    1. No, Louis Szathmary with his Bakery Restaurant & Jovan Trboyovic [sp] with Le Perroquet were doing fine dining & cuisine long before Trotter.
      As were several other restaurants on the Near North Side.

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    2. Exactly. Edie and I had the pleasure of eating at the Bakery. Chef Szathmary came around, made the rounds, greeting and thanking patrons, humble, dignified, the opposite of the brat star that Trotter has come to epitomize.

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  10. "Bashing" is the word people chose when they want to excuse whoever's bad behavior is coming under criticism. I see, by your email, we agree, generally. I'm not sure how his louche actions now relate to his doing well on the culinary scene then — he can only be credited with inventing it if you are suggesting it wouldn't have occurred without him. Other cities managed.

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  11. Neil. I completely agree with your blog and sun times article on the downfall of Charlie Trotter. I think that when he opened 25 years ago and during the course of his tenure at his restaurant, he was one of the original innovators of the concept of the multi-course tasting menu. If there was no Charlie Trotter would there be fine dining in Chicago. Sure. But, I will still give the man credit for being an innovator during the earlier course of his tenure at his restaurant. This does not justify that as a person Charlie Trotter is a completely self absorbed egomaniacal circus freak. The Mark Caro series of articles about Charlie Trotter a year ago was spot on documenting that Charlie terrorized chefs that worked for him over the years. I'm a bit torn here on my thoughts about the chef because during the tenure of his restaurant I had some amazing meals including one of the best dining experiences of my life at his kitchen table, which came at an obscene price, and then years later to find Charlie not in attendance at the restaurant when I dined there "one more time" 5 days before he closed. And there was absolutely no justification for Charlie Trotter verbally attacking and abusing Art Kids at his restaurant whom he agreed to host, even if the Art Kids left cigarette butts on the floor and pissed all over his toilet seats. Charlie exhibited no common sense negativing engaging with the youngsters.

    I believe that Grant Achtaz who opened Alinea only 2 blocks away form Charlie Trotter drove Charlie Trotter off the deep end and caused Charlie to close his restaurant. If you are an egomaniac and believe that you are the most amazing chef ever and your tasting menu concept to be the best in the world, even though nobody else thought that about Charlie Trotter lately, it drove him crazy that another chef opened up a restaurant 2 blocks from yours that expanded on the concept of multi course tasting menu's, improved on the concept to the extent that Alinea is literally rated as the best fine dining restaurant in the world, while Charlie Trotter had problems getting diners to fill one of the four dining rooms at his restaurant on any given evening. In fact, if you would like to join me at Alinea for dinner some night to see why Grant Achtaz and his restaurant are considered the best fine dining establishment in the world, I'll send you my email address. You can let me know if you would like to try the restaurant and see why Alinea is amazing. Grant Achtaz is absolutely the Willy Wonka of Fine Dining.

    Charlie Trotter got away for far too long being down right mean and nasty to his employees, and it finally caught up with him.

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  12. Anonymous,

    If spending hundreds of dollars and even more than that on a single meal isn't an obscenity when kids are going to bed hungry even in Chicago, then go ahead and spend your money with a clear (or should I say "seared") conscience. Of course, in a day when the better off have embraced the virtue of selfishness, it's easy for you to dismiss the concerns of others on how you spend your cash.

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    1. Note: Edited to try and get this posted. Version 2 of response.

      The condescending tone of your post demonstrates that you are an extremely jealous and distraught individual who has a chip on your shoulder that you believe was placed there by others based on your perception that you know we are more successful then you are. It's comical.

      I work hard. I run three businesses. Companies pay me large piles of money. I am extremely fortunate in that regard. I donate a substantial portion to charity. I also donate to my church and support the religious. I have three children and a wife that I support in a style that you are not accustomed to.

      After that I enjoy fine dining. I have traveled the world to sample some of the finest restaurants in the world. It's pathetic that you generalize and attempt to justify your hatred and jealously of those that are successful to negativity because we have the opportunity of attending a fine dining establishment.

      I have a completely clear conscious regarding attending a fine dining establishment and paying the price associated with the meal. The generalization that you get what you pay for holds true.

      Since you are tossing around unsolicited advise I shall return the favor and urge you to figure out how to better yourself and tell you to worry about bettering your own pathetic existence instead of casting blanket aspersions against your betters who have achieved a more productive level of existence then you while you scream and weep about how cruel the world has been to you.

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    2. Note: Edited to try and get this posted. Version 2 of response.

      The condescending tone of your post demonstrates that you are an extremely jealous and distraught individual who has a chip on your shoulder that you believe was placed there by others based on your perception that you know we are more successful then you are. It's comical.

      I work hard. I run three businesses. Companies pay me large piles of money. I am extremely fortunate in that regard. I donate a substantial portion to charity. I also donate to my church and support the religious. I have three children and a wife that I support in a style that you are not accustomed to.

      After that I enjoy fine dining. I have traveled the world to sample some of the finest restaurants in the world. It's pathetic that you generalize and attempt to justify your hatred and jealously of those that are successful to negativity because we have the opportunity of attending a fine dining establishment.

      I have a completely clear conscious regarding attending a fine dining establishment and paying the price associated with the meal. The generalization that you get what you pay for holds true.

      Since you are tossing around unsolicited advise I shall return the favor and urge you to figure out how to better yourself and tell you to worry about bettering your own pathetic existence instead of casting blanket aspersions against your betters who have achieved a more productive level of existence then you while you scream and weep about how cruel the world has been to you.

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  13. Dear Anonymous:

    Your previous attack on David P. Graf was removed because we don't do name-calling here. I'm allowing your watered down version to appear, briefly, so I can inform you of the fact. People who use their names are, by definition, more courageous than those who hide behind anonymity, whose opinions hold little water unless they are themselves profound, and yours ain't. It's actually a sort of anonymous bragging, which is weird. This blog isn't a social service, it's something I do for fun, and if you want to play, you'll follow the rules, and Rule # 1 is that ad hominem attacks are the right of the proprietor, aka me.

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    1. Hi Neil,

      I posted anonymously because when trying to post a comment using a name/url I got a strange error message, and next tried anonymous. It was not originally my intention to be anonymously posting snarky comments on your blog but it kind of worked out that way.

      I was attempting to reply in kind to the perceived slight regarding attending restaurants that charge obscene prices. I can appreciate your read on my post being anonymous bragging. Or quite possibly anonymous embarrassment that I do indeed enjoy pissing away large quantities of hard earned money at the likes of Totters, Alina, Moto, etc. Quoting the Hungry Hound, I could be the Asian gentlemen chucking at dinner over a bottle of trophy wine at Trotters. I am distressed at your analysis and calling light to it.

      Before I evaporate back into Internet land, or you permanently ban me from your blog for annoying you, I have a thought on the value of anonymous posting. If I had managed to figure out how to post using my real name / blog information, wouldn't I be in a pickle if David P. Graf was distressed enough by my post that he decided to call me at home to scream at me. Or, god forbid, instead of his catching me on he phone, he caught my wife? I can assure you that nothing good would come of it.

      I was initially attempting to reply in kind to the perceived slight that Mr. Graf tossed at me for enjoying fine dining. I should have refrained from name calling and peeking your ire. Sorry about that.

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  14. I have never met Charlie Trotter, or been to his establishment, but from human being to another, you never know what a person's health challenges are. People never know what other people are going thru, but always quick to judge. Maybe, just maybe the brain tumor affected his behavior. After reading all the negative comments, I hope none of you ever develop any kind of health challenge, brain tumor or anything else. It might be you receive all the harsh criticism. God Bless The Trotter Family, and all the bloggers!

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    1. "Always quick to judge," you say, then are quick to judge yourself, based on something that might be spin and denial. "It might be you receive all the harsh criticism."

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