Remembering a Party with Charlie Trotter

Charlie Trotter’s recent announcement to close his eponymous Chicago restaurant after 25 years surprised me, and then reminded me of a dinner roughly a decade ago.

At the time, I worked at the now defunct Aquavit in Minneapolis, where I was a line cook on the pastry station. He was visiting the restaurant to cook for a charity event called “The Guest Chef Series.”

I remember talking with cooks about him during the week before his arrival. Stories circulated through the kitchen about his “savage temper.” Most of the stories ended with a typical locker room type phrase like “if it were me, I wouldn’t have put up with that kind of sh##.” One such story was about a sous chef (now a local celeb-chef who is better left unnamed), who staged* at Trotter’s. This particular sous chef accidentally spilled a good amount of prepped sauce during the dinner rush (never a good move on your first night). Unfortunately, as the story went, he spilled the sauce not on the floor, but on Chef Trotter’s previously, extremely white coat. He was promptly told his presence was no longer required on the line.

With these types of stories in mind, we worked extra hours that week, getting our prep done, and excitement mounted in the kitchen. Ducks were split, cured and weighted, with the bones roasted for sauce. Cloudberries, thickly seeded, were procured from far away arctic farms, then sweetened and pushed into molded frozen parfaits. Fattened duck livers were spun through blenders with almond meal and butter to make up our signature foie gras ganache course.

In contrast, Trotter and his crew arrived on the day of the party with almost nothing prepped. I was actually a little nervous for them. They had five or six hours to accomplish what had taken us the better part of a week.

The Trotter team worked quietly and efficiently. Everything looked easy, like there was no need to rush. It was a philosophical and deliberate style I’d never seen before. Earlier that year, I had worked a short stint in a Manhattan restaurant, which had a  “chaos is quality” mind-set, where looking busy, even frantic, meant good things were happening.

I particularly remember watching one of their dishes go from raw to prepped and then onto the plate—all as part of a seamless process. The Trotter cooks picked and blanched chard greens, then used them to hold together a tightly wrapped asparagus terrine. They assembled the dish moments before serving it to the guests. The timing, plating, and ideas seemed smart. Before that day, I would never have thought a terrine could be assembled and served with anything less than a day to prepare. 

While kitchens can be intensely physical, Trotter’s crew appeared more aware of their movements, more precise and therefore needing less physicality. I went from being nervous for them to being generally awed.

Norman Van Aiken, chef and close friend to Trotter, posted the following comment on Facebook the other day after the news broke: “Charlie called me last night and I’m happy to say he’s happy. I’m proud of him and know that his life is going to blossom all over again. The poets, writers and films he cares about so deeply have all led the way to this. He told me about reading [Saul] Bellow’s “Henderson the Rain King**”as a teen and of how this is foretold.”

Normally, I might chuckle at such a lofty statement, but from Trotter, I don’t know, he surprised me before; maybe it is foretold?

* A stage is when a cook works for a short period without pay at a restaurant, usually to gain experience.

** This canonical work describes a successful yet unfulfilled American male who yearns for something deeper and leaves his old life for the unknown.