Charlie Trotter's pressure cooker

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“In the winter months when truffles were in season, he was losing money every night on those dinners,” says Sari Zernich Worsham, who joined Trotter's kitchen in 1993 and spearheaded most of his cookbooks and the PBS series “The Kitchen Sessions With Charlie Trotter” during her 13-year tenure. “He didn't care. He just wanted to serve the best food at the time.”

The Trotter model also was more labor intensive than the norm, with the cooks having to start from scratch each day. Reginald Watkins, known as Trotter's first hire (as a dishwasher), prepared sauces, stocks and butchery as the a.m. sous chef, but otherwise there was no day crew to do prep work for the cooks coming in to make dinner. The cooks were responsible for their own stations and any other jobs that might come up; if another station fell behind during service, they were expected to drop everything and to help out no matter where they were with their own work. They also had to wash their own pots and dishes, take out the garbage and do the overall cleaning.

“You're a marathon runner, and you're going from point A to point B, and people are throwing chairs in front of you that you have to hurdle over — that's how it kind of felt all day long, because every 45 minutes you had to stop for 30 minutes to clean down,” Tramonto says. “And it was a serious clean-down because you created a lot of dishes and pots.”

When alumni discuss Trotter's kitchen, the word that comes up over and over is “intense.”

“It was like climbing Mount Everest every day,” says David LeFevre, a 10-year Trotter's veteran. “When you're working at Trotter's for a year, it's like working at another job for two-and-a-half because you're working twice, two-and-a-half times as many hours.”

Even as he left late at night, LeFevre, now chef/owner of MB Post in Manhattan Beach, Calif., sometimes would sneak ingredients out of the kitchen so he could get a head start on the next day's work.

“I would grab two cases of fava beans and take them to my car, shuck fava beans at night when I'd get home watching TV, and then I'd bring them in Ziploc bags the next day to the restaurant, 'cause there's no way I could shuck two cases of beans and peel two cases of beans, blanch them and do all that in time for the dish,” he says. He recalls that Watkins once caught him smuggling purloined ingredients back into the kitchen. “He was like, ‘Where'd you get these?' I just told him. I looked at Reggie, and I was like, ‘Reggie, don't stop me from getting my job done,' and he was like, ‘OK, Baby D! You got it!'”

Worsham, now executive director of chef Art Smith's self-named company, says she'd often enter at 10 a.m. and leave around 2 or 3 a.m.

“But then Charlie would feel like you had too much time to do what you need to do, so he'd lock the door and wouldn't let us in till like 1 o'clock on a Saturday,” she says. “We're all lining up outside like nervous kids. He opens the door. We're running downstairs, turning on ovens, grabbing pots, doing it as fast as we can. He was doing that to make us work faster, but, oh, my gosh, did it make me crazy.”

“I think Charlie enjoyed working in chaos,” Tramonto says. “I think he was driven by being in (expletive). I think he was driven on elevating that stress every day and having people feed off that stress.”

Guillermo Tellez, who began cooking at Trotter's in late 1989 and worked for the chef till 2005, calls the kitchen “a culinary boot camp, because we were learning something that wasn't around at that time. You can get your butt kicked but at the same time be proud of what you do. And you've got to have somebody to reject something for you to really pay attention that, yes, you're now focusing.”

Says Trotter: “If you ever want to get anywhere in life, you're going to have to push it, and somebody's going to push you to get there. End of story.”

Trotter was the rejecter-in-chief, and Tellez, now executive chef at Square 1682 in Philadelphia, was his enforcer during his several years as Trotter's chef de cuisine.

“I was on Charlie's side more than the cooks' because at that point, you know, you can't be their friend,” Tellez says, noting that Trotter told him: “You have to learn to separate yourself from them. You are not one of them anymore.”

Keep in mind that Trotter didn't turn 30 until 1989, and his underlings generally were his contemporaries or younger, so in the restaurant's early years, 20-somethings were managing 20-somethings.

“We were young and immature,” says Mindy's Hot Chocolate chef Mindy Segal, who says she clashed with Tellez while she was Trotter's pastry chef for eight months in the early 1990s. “We all want to be the best in that kitchen, so it's competitive. Who's going to be the first person to be there? Who's going to work the hardest? Who's going to clean the fastest? Who's going to work better?”

Matthias Merges, who would leave after two years and return to become Trotter's chef de cuisine in 1996, says when he initially began working there in late 1989, “there was a lot of high energy and a lot of creativity going on, but it was very chaotic, uncontrolled. It was very, very cutthroat.”

He says that he would prepare his station before leaving at night, only to return the next morning to find that “all your stuff would be gone, in the garbage. So you'd have to start from zero.”

Gand unknowingly got ensnared in some game-playing back when Tramonto was working there, and she would arrive to pick him up at 8 p.m., his supposed exit time as a.m. sous chef, only to find he had a couple more hours of work to do. “So Charlie would say, ‘ Hey Gale, you want to work the line while you're waiting for Rick?'” she recalls. “It's for free, you're not getting paid, but I would work the line, like dessert line or dessert prep, for an hour or two every night while I waited.”

Years later she reconnected with the man who'd been Trotter's pastry chef at the time, and she says he told her: “‘You know, you really would scare me when you used to come into Trotter's.'

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