Charlie Trotter's pressure cooker

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Worsham says this method applied to Trotter's work on his cookbooks as well.

“He cooked in his head,” she says. “He never wrote things down. He had a little book where he drew pictures, where he mapped out his ideas. He was never in there with a measuring device, absolutely not.”

So whether Trotter was physically manipulating the ingredients was beside the point, certainly in his own mind.

“There's only one leader,” Trotter says. “It's not a democracy. I'm driving this train.”

In the early years, he notes, he kept a firmer grip on the menu and dishes. Later, when Merges was running the kitchen, Trotter says he would suggest some combination such as sweetbreads, braised lettuce and pickled turnips, Merges and his sous chefs would put something together, and Trotter would taste it and say, “No, add more this” or “Delete that.”

Trotter adds that the kitchen's other chefs wouldn't come up with their own dishes, but rather that Merges would respond to his “directive,” and “a third of it would be his own interpretation, and that was fine. It was the same with Guillermo, Matt's predecessor.”

Others, though, remember Merges doing much creative heavy lifting during his 14 years atop the kitchen hierarchy while bringing an oft-cited sense of “Zen” (as several fellow chefs recall it) and professionalism to the room.

“Matthias' job during the day was just coming up with dishes,” says Curtis Duffy, who eventually moved on to work with Grant Achatz at Trio and Alinea before running the kitchen at Avenues and the soon-to-open Grace. “That's what he did, just worked on dishes all day. And then ran the kitchen. And put up with Charlie's (expletive).”

Merges says Trotter would make dish suggestions, “but there were other times when myself or other people would just make stuff. We'd be like, ‘What about this?' and we'd bring it to him, and he'd be like, ‘That's awesome,' or ‘That sucks' or ‘Do this extra step,' or ‘I want this flavor in it,' and then we'd put it on the menu. So there was a lot of experimentation on our own that we did just because we could, because there were no rules against that.”

“It was a very collaborative experience,” LeFevre says. “It never was ‘Do this, do this, do this.'”

Asked how much the restaurant's cuisine was shaped by its chefs de cuisine, sous chefs or other kitchen staff, Trotter replies, “I would say not much. I have a certain point of view, a certain way to plate food, certain ingredients that I like to use. With certain people, I've let the line out a little bit more, with others not so much, but it's very much of a ‘This is the thing.'”

Did any of his chefs make him look at food differently?

“No,” Trotter says.

So he influenced them much more than they influenced him?

“Of course, I did,” Trotter says. He does call Merges “one of the greatest technicians I've ever seen.”

How about Merges, did he learn new cooking approaches or techniques from Trotter?

“No,” Merges says. “No. When I first came there, they were doing some things I hadn't seen before, but after I got into the mix of it, then I looked for it myself or developed it.”

As for what he did learn most from Trotter, Merges says, “Tenacity. Perseverance. Truly not only thinking outside the box but living outside the box and not coming back to the box ever again.”

Thursday in Dining: Part 3 — Glory years, pained farewells

Twitter @MarkCaro
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