Charlie Trotter's pressure cooker

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“I'm like, ‘I scared you? Me?'

“‘Yeah, Charlie told me that you were trying out for my job, so I'd better step it up.'”

Even after he'd installed Tellez as his kitchen deputy, Trotter remained a formidable presence. The idea of chefs with tempers was nothing new — they were part of the European tradition, after all — but Trotter had his own ways of making his points.

“He was big into throwing things back in the day, and he would throw food off plates if he didn't like it, at the people who made it,” says Merges, who left in 2010 and now is chef/owner of Yusho. “That was a common situation. It happened (to me) once or twice.”

Taus recalls Trotter's plate-smashing fondly.

“Oh, it was awesome,” Taus says. “I remember him just clearing a table, like a station of plates, throwing them on the ground because somebody screwed up beyond belief. But what if that plate wasn't perfect and went out to a reviewer? We could lose a star. And that's the thing about a kitchen: Just like sports, you have five seconds to get that done and get it out.”

Chatting casually in his restaurant's front salon a few weeks ago looking grizzled and relaxed, his deep-set eyes peeking out beneath the brim of a baseball hat, Trotter notes that his plate-smashing days are long behind him — or at least were.

“Last night I smashed a plate for the first time in like 10 years,” he says. “There would be times when people would put up plates, and it would be cold, and it was supposed to be a hot dish and whatever, and you're like, ‘No, replate this,' and they'd do it, and it would be (substandard), and then I'd say, ‘You think you want to serve this? You want to serve this?' Yeah, I would just drop it on the floor to bring home the point like, ‘This is so bad.'

“So last night the two dishwashers were so noisy, like a record level of noise at the dish sink and silverware and all this other stuff. I said, ‘Guys, come on, it's too loud.' Again and again and again. And so I said, ‘Oh, I guess you like noise,' so I took a plate from one of their hands and I said, ‘Here, let me show you some noise.' And then there was not another sound for the rest of the night.”

Taus says the key to understanding Trotter is that he's an artist with an artist's temperament.

“It's your life, it's your vision, and it's on this plate, and you're trying to make it happen, and people are in your way, and it gets very frustrating,” the Zealous chef says. “It's not like you're just some worker somewhere, and you're making a car part. It's everything you believe in on that plate, and I think it gets frustrating sometimes when people just aren't listening, and they don't understand or they're not going fast enough.”

But former cooks also describe a dark, unpredictable streak in Trotter that could cause the whole kitchen to tense up. As someone now running her own restaurant, Segal says she ponders whether it's better to have the staff fear or respect you. Looking back on her time with Trotter, she says, “I think you started out by being afraid of him, and if you can run the gantlet with him, you'll end up respecting him.” She laughs. “I don't think I ever got over the fear of him.”

The source of that fear? That he'd “yell at you and humiliate you in front of everybody,” she says, adding with a laugh, “Who was going to get it that day?”

“Charlie could be brutal,” Signorio says. “He could be absolutely uncompromising. He could challenge you mentally, emotionally. Sometimes you felt like it was malicious.”

Patricia Mowen-Ziegler, who oversaw the service side for most of her 1990-1997 Trotter's tenure, says that when she was subsequently working at Tru (with Tramonto and Gand), she was seating guests at its kitchen table, and they told her they'd eaten at Trotter's kitchen table.

“I said, ‘Great, it's very exciting, isn't it?'

“And they said, ‘We'll never go back.'

“I said, ‘I'm sorry to hear that.'

“And they said, ‘One reason is because we saw how he treated you.'”

Trotter was no less obsessed with getting the details right in the dining room than on the plate.

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