On November 5th, shocks were felt across the culinary world when reports came in that Chef Charlie Trotter had been found dead in his home that morning. Trotter was an iconic figure in American dining, but nowhere was his influence as transformative and lasting as in Chicago. He was responsible from lifting the city from its hot dog and deep dish roots to the pinnacle of fine dining, training some of the best chefs in the country along the way.
Charlie Trotter found his passion for food while studying political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He followed that passion through Chicago, San Francisco, Florida, and Europe, studying technique. He eventually brought his talents back to the Windy City, where he opened Charlie Trotter’s in 1987. The restaurant became recognized for its quality, earning praise for its inventive and well-executed cuisine. Over the course of its existence, it earned 11 James Beard Awards and two Michelin stars, amongst other accolades.
Charlie Trotter’s became a destination for those visiting the city. Even international visitors were drawn to it. Sandra Lih, an Australian who dined at the restaurant, notes the meal as one of the outstanding memories of her visit. She received a tour of the kitchen and was particularly impressed by the service. Exemplary service was of particular pride to Trotter, and he once said that his 2002 James Beard Award for Outstanding Service was one of which he was most proud.
Trotter was a character well known in the Chicago food scene. Outspoken and dedicated to his views, his stern and demanding nature in the kitchen helped build a league of talented chefs. Many of Chicago’s best served in the kitchen at Charlie Trotter’s, honing their skills and broadening their culinary views. These men and women, including Graham Elliott, Grant Achatz, Homaro Cantu, and so many others, went on to develop astounding careers of their own.
His famous fiery temperament was balanced by deep generosity. Trotter established the Charlie Trotter Culinary Education Foundation, providing scholarships for aspiring chefs and reaching out to Chicago-area youth to inspire an interest in the culinary arts and an appreciation for education. His efforts earned him the 2010 James Beard Foundation award for Humanitarian of the Year.
Trotter closed his eponymous restaurant in August 2012, citing a wish to pursue further education and travel. He remained active in the community, however, and his death at the early age of 54 came as a surprise to many. Across social media immediate messages of sadness and loss came from alumni of his kitchen. Homaro Cantu, chef and owner of Moto and Ing, took to his blog, recalling his days of shouting, “Oui, Chef!”
Graham Elliott tweeted, "CHARLIE TROTTER: chef, mentor, trailblazer, philosopher, artist, teacher, leader. He now belongs to the ages."
Matthias Merges, who opened his newest restaurant A10 in Hyde Park the very same day, Curtis Duffy, and many other chefs spoke out throughout the day, culminating in a candlelight vigil held at the now closed Charlie Trotter’s.
Truly an innovator and champion of American cuisine, Charlie Trotter will be greatly missed in the community. However, he leaves behind a vision that restaurants will be striving to respect and emulate for many years to come.