Charlie Trotter's pressure cooker

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“He's very critical, as well he should be,” Mowen-Ziegler says. “That's how he got to where he is. ‘Is your uniform perfect?' ‘Are you holding the plates' — because they all have different designs — ‘in the proper way?' It's all those little things. ‘You can't carry the water like this; you carry it like wine.'”

And if something wasn't going right, she heard about it.

“Every waiter's mistake was my fault, and I had to deal with it,” she says. “I was the whipping post for everything.”

She adds that he also took her on great dining excursions inside and outside the U.S., and in a gift exchange he once gave her a two-week vacation in France with her boyfriend. ”Graham Elliot, who now oversees three Chicago restaurants and co-stars on Fox's “MasterChef,” recalls incurring the boss's wrath when he made a major faux pas as a 21-year-old chef in the late '90s.

“I sent a dish off my station, the asparagus terrine, and it still had the plastic wrap wrapped around it, and a guest had that and chewed it and spit it out,” Elliot says. “Charlie made me go out to the dining room to their table to apologize and to tell them what happened. It scared the crap out of me.”

Another time in the middle of a busy Saturday service, Elliot says, Trotter shouted, “Whoa whoa whoa!” so loudly that the kitchen fell silent. “He had walked by the cooler, and there was like a handprint on the glass, and he's like, ‘Whose greasy, disgusting, germ-ridden hand is on this (expletive) window, and how many of you have walked past it and not done anything?'” Elliot says. “The whole idea is everything is of equal importance. If you walk past a greasy hand on that, that means you're going to serve a greasy plate, that means you're going to serve undercooked beef, that means you're not going to season your fish right, you know?”

“Charlie, he wanted us all to focus,” Worsham says. “He didn't care about what you did on your weekend. He didn't want to hear about it. He just wanted to know that you were doing this dish and you were putting your all into it and you were treating that asparagus, each spear, like each one's very precious. That's all he cared about.”

The long hours, including frequent events scheduled on off days, and constant pressure took their toll on many. Homaro Cantu, now chef/owner at Moto and iNG, recalls that on his third day at Trotter's, the grill cook was looking very distressed, so Merges took him aside to ask what was up.

“This guy says, ‘Look, I've just got to go out to my car and grab something,'” Cantu says. “The guy leaves, doesn't come back. Leaves his knives there, leaves everything right there on his station. Just didn't come back.”

This was a scene that would be restaged in multiple variations.

“Some people would come in there, and all of a sudden, it would be the middle of service, ‘I've got to put money in my meter,' and then you'd notice their knives were gone,” Worsham says with a laugh.

On the flip side were folks such as Merges, Tellez, LeFevre, Signorio, Giuseppe Tentori (now executive chef at GT Fish & Oyster and Boka), Watkins, Cantu, Worsham, Elliot and many others who remained for multiple years, sometimes leaving and returning.

“I wanted to quit every day for the first six months,” Elliot says. “Even though I was learning a lot of great things, it was just so hard emotionally and always full of anxiety.”

Worsham says for her first six months she was “incredibly nervous” and “overwhelmed every day” as well, but then she found herself in a rhythm, “and one day I felt some calm.” Still, she notes with a laugh, “a couple of times I stuck my head in the oven to catch some air, like looking for a plate, like I just need a moment.”

The key, she adds, was not to bring the tension home with you.

“There's a lot of moments in the heat of passion and the heat of the night, and you kind of just check them at the door when you leave,” Worsham says. “If you don't, they're all going to stack up on top of each other, and you're not going to be able to survive in any restaurant. I mean, restaurant folks are crazy. They're passionate. They're ‘all in.' You would think they were like saving lives. You're just cooking dinner.”

Elliot says his turning point

came when he was waiting for some quail from the meat cook so he could make a single-bite hors d'oeuvre, and Trotter was asking him for the dish, and Elliot finally told him that he was waiting on the other guy.

“Charlie grabbed me and walked me over to the meat station and showed me all these other pieces of meat that were cooked off, like lamb loin and venison, little ends and scraps and pieces, and Charlie's like, ‘Are you a robot that just (expletive) does what you're told, and you just sit here and wait for someone to bring something to you, or do you make it happen? Look at all this stuff. You could dice this up and toss it with this jus, or you could slice this or serve it with that.' That really changed my whole idea on cooking spontaneously.”

Trotter wanted his cooks to be able to pivot on a dime, to improvise like John Coltrane or Cannonball Adderley in Miles Davis' band. Segal will never forget her impromptu turn in the spotlight: The restaurant's Grand tasting menu's dessert sequence generally consisted of an amuse-bouche followed by a fruit course and a chocolate course, but for certain VIPs, Trotter might add extra dishes, so a ticket could come to Segal reading: “amuse, fruit, fruit, fruit, chocolate.” On this particular night, however, Trotter requested an amuse followed by eight fruit courses and then a chocolate one.

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