Charlie Trotter's pressure cooker

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“I just kept coming up with these desserts, so finally after the fifth fruit — because I think he was testing me, I don't know — he was like, ‘OK, stop. I'll take a chocolate next,'” she recalls. “I was ready for him, and that was the thing. You had to be ready, for you didn't know what was going to happen in that kitchen. Always be ahead of Charlie. Be proactive. I really learned that from him.”

Although the restaurant was open only for dinner, sometimes Trotter would spontaneously invite people to lunch — a winemaker in town or people who'd been inspecting the menu outside — and all of a sudden these folks would be seated at the kitchen table.

“You're going, ‘Oh, my God, what am I going to do? I don't have any bread made, I don't have any dessert made. I'm going to have to come up with something,'” says Della Gossett, a Trotter's pastry chef from 2001 through 2010. “I definitely learned how to ‘make it happen' there.”

Trotter also would send the kitchen into a tizzy by announcing midafternoon that he had a great idea for a new dish that he wanted executed for that evening's menu.

“He was like a little kid sometimes, and he just got so excited about an idea that he just needed it, and he needed it right now,” Tramonto says.

This was food for the moment, not the ages. Trotter could have compiled some “best-of” dishes and set the kitchen on autopilot, especially when the restaurant was racking up accolades and doing more than 200 covers (that is, customers) a night, but he never did.

“When it got really good, that's when we would break it down, and we would rethink it and do something else and something new,” Merges says.

“Our whole history has been you've got to change, you've got to evolve,” Trotter says. “You can't really do the same thing over and over.”

One odd corollary to this approach is that with so many dishes and combinations having come out of the kitchen over the years, many chefs were hard-pressed to name one that they found particularly mind-blowing or even memorable.

“I don't remember any dishes that we did, because I never thought that way,” Merges says. “I never thought: Remember when we did this? Let's do that again.”

The Charlie Trotter's of 2012 certainly is a different place from the restaurant that opened in 1987, so all of those changes must have added up to some sort of evolution, but not everyone has the same take on what this progression was.

“There was a period of time where everything was center plated on this beautiful china,” Worsham recalls. “Every course you had a different china dish, and the focus was not just the food but the details on the china. I think when Matt (Merges) came on board, not one thing was center plated, sauces were strewn about — all white plates, none of the ornate designs. It was just a much cleaner style than before.”

Merges agrees, saying that the earlier plates “were very busy back in the day,” very colorful with “a lot of stuff going on all the time. And then toward the end, like in the ‘Meat & Game' book (2001), you can see it's getting simple. It's really focused on technique and purity of product.”

Says Trotter: “I can't speak to that. I don't know that it grew more complex and then became more simple.”

But he does acknowledge: “It's definitely been a progression. It was always light, but the food has grown lighter and lighter. There were always sparks of Asian influence, but it grew more and more. But you can't just make things up; you've got to make sure there's a coherence to the food. It's got to make sense. The most successful food, I think, is food that both appeals to the super-sophisticated diner or foodie and to the lay diner at the same time.”

One big leap came a couple of years into the restaurant's existence with the hiring of Larry Stone, whom Trotter calls “America's greatest sommelier.” Trotter says Stone would enter the kitchen many times a night with notes about how the wines were tasting. So, for instance, if a wine turned out to have more mineral content than anticipated, Stone might request that the cooks “add some kind of fat to the Dover sole preparation, like olive oil or whatever, or ‘if you could puree a little vegetable element, it'll help it with the mineral-iness of the thing,'” Trotter recalls. “So I'd taste the wine, and we'd adjust the dish. That was like unheard of then. It's pretty much unheard of now.”

Much of what distinguished Trotter's food and wine pairings emerged from the fine-tuning process. The chef knew precisely how he wanted his food to appear and to taste and to feel in your mouth.

“He'd taste a dessert and go, ‘What about a little black pepper here or something here?' and you're like, ‘God, how did he think of that?'” Gossett says.

This brings us back to how much he actually cooked and whether that mattered. When Trotter would conceive of new dishes, he wouldn't pull out a bunch of ingredients and some frying pans.

“People say, ‘Oh, do you experiment? Do you have a laboratory?'” he says. “It's not like, ‘Eureka! This works!' Because you taste so much, you're just tasting and tasting and tasting, you already know in your mind's palate that if you put okra and lobster and braised lettuce and curry together, you can envision where you're going to go with those ingredients.”

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