Charlie Trotter gets ready to hang it up

As Chicago restaurant closes doors after 25 years, is he satisfied at last?

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Charlie Trotter says he first thought of closing his namesake restaurant after his plane sat on the tarmac at LaGuardia Airport on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

“I realized really how fragile the world is,” he reflects. “I love what I do, and it's gratifying in every way, but then it occurred to me — it was sort of an existential moment — it's sort of meaningless compared to something like this.”

Word got out that he was considering shuttering the restaurant, and some public hand-wringing followed in October, but the restaurant remained open. What changed his mind?

“The show must go on, I guess,” he says.

Charlie Trotter's certainly had been riding high up to that point and would resume doing so as people eventually returned to fine dining after the terrorist attacks. In 1999 the James Beard Foundation named him the nation's outstanding chef, and his “Charlie Trotter's Desserts” book won for best food photography. The following year he scored a Beard hat trick: Charlie Trotter's was named outstanding restaurant, his PBS series “The Kitchen Sessions With Charlie Trotter” was deemed the best national television cooking show, and the “Kitchen Sessions” cookbook won in the chefs and restaurants category.

“It was like going to the Emmys or the Oscars,” Sari Zernich Worsham, who worked in Trotter's kitchen and on his books and TV show for 13 years before becoming executive director of chef Art Smith's company, says of the team's 2000 trip to the Beard Awards. “I think he took like 10 or 12 of us. I hadn't put on a pair of heels in years. It was just the coolest thing. He took us all to New York and put us up in hotel rooms, and we got a cool late-night dinner after the awards. He was like the king of the town. You were very proud to say you worked at Charlie Trotter's.”

Matthias Merges, Trotter's chef de cuisine and then executive chef and director of operations from 1996 to 2010, places the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks at about the midpoint of what he considers to be the restaurant's peak period, when the kitchen team at times included Giuseppe Tentori (GT Fish & Oyster, Boka); David LeFevre (MB Post in Manhattan Beach, Calif.); Bill Kim (Urban Belly, Belly Shack and Belly Q); Curtis Duffy (former Avenues, soon-to-open Grace); Della Gossett (French Pastry School); Graham Elliot (Graham Elliot, g.e.b.); Homaro Cantu (Moto, iNG); and John Shields and Karen Urie (both currently between projects on the East Coast). He says the restaurant clicked into place in the years before 9/11, and “between 2002 to 2006 we had a lot of influence, we were breaking new boundaries, the team was tight, the food was tight, the service was on, the package was full.”

Trotter had other ventures that came and went under various circumstances, including two restaurants in Las Vegas and one in Mexico, and some that never materialized, such as proposed restaurants in New York and London and inside Chicago's Elysian Hotel. Regardless, the team was constantly on the move as Trotter would accept far-flung invitations to cook for charity events or high-profile dinners on the restaurant's off days, Sundays and Mondays.

Before airline travel became more restrictive, he would wait until the last minute to reveal who would be joining him, so Worsham recalls that late Saturday night after service, “He'd hand out airplane tickets. They'd say ‘Trotter A,' ‘Trotter B,' ‘Trotter C,' ‘Trotter D.' You wouldn't know if you're going on that trip till he passed you that ticket. You'd run home. You'd pack. You'd be back at the restaurant in two hours.”

Many of the world's best chefs also cooked in Trotter's kitchen; his 20th anniversary dinner alone featured dishes by world-renowned chefs Tetsuya Wakuda, Thomas Keller, Heston Blumenthal, Daniel Boulud and Ferran Adria. Naha chef Carrie Nahabedian says she enjoyed one of the best meals of her life when Marc Veyrat, a French chef specializing in foraging, co-presented a meal with Trotter in 1999.

“I still can taste the pine cone consomme,” she says. “I mean, pine cone consomme! It was like drinking Christmas.”

But every restaurant has a life cycle, and as of Saturday morning Trotter's will have reached its end.

The chef revealed the news in typically unpredictable fashion by telling guests at the restaurant's New Year's Eve dinner that Trotter's would be closing in August, the month of its 25th anniversary.

“I need about a three-year hiatus to study and read books that are unread still and figure things out, see what I want to do,” says the almost-53-year-old chef, who married public relations specialist Rochelle Smith in 2010 (his third wife) and has discussed perhaps returning to school to study philosophy. “Five years of learning the craft and the business, 25 years of running this couldn't be more gratifying. But you can't do the same thing forever, or your head might just explode.”

Speculation in Chicago's food-scene fishbowl commenced immediately. One theory went that Trotter's was past its prime, surpassed by newer restaurants such as Alinea, run by onetime Trotter's chef Grant Achatz, whose more avant-garde cooking, Trotter implied in a 2005 New York Times story, amounted to “nonsense upon stilts.” (Trotter hadn't, and still hasn't, eaten at Alinea, Achatz says.) This narrative gained traction when Alinea snagged the coveted three-star rating in the first-ever Chicago Michelin Guide for 2011, while Trotter's received just two, a fine ranking for just about anywhere except a place forever obsessed with being the best.

The salt in the wound was a March 2011 New York Times story with the headline “Trotter, a Leader Left Behind.” Trotter hated that piece and disputes that his restaurant ever peaked.

“On our worst day we're in the top three restaurants in America,” he says. “But I feel there's a point where what's the new hot thing (gets the attention). I remarked before in an article, and I firmly believe this: If we were to close this down and six months later open Charlie Trotter's a mile away from here, with a different look but serve the exact same food, it would be like, ‘Oh, my God, this is the toast of the town. The food's never been better. The service has never been better.'”

Tribune food critic Phil Vettel, at least, has never noted a drop-off in quality, giving the restaurant four stars on each of his repeated visits, including those with current chef de cuisine Michael Rotondo.

Some also concluded that Trotter's was feeling particular pain in this crummy economy. More than a few restaurant biz folks noted that by giving the public eight months' notice of the closing, he guaranteed eight months of stuffed reservation books and spiked revenues.

“Some people will speculate that, oh, business must have been down or whatever,” says Norman Van Aken, the acclaimed Florida chef and longtime friend for whom Trotter first worked at Sinclair's in Lake Forest. “That's bull. … We talked about it 10 years ago, that he would be closing and changing, but he always felt an obligation to some of the staff that had been with him a long time. Charlie is not even 60 yet, and he knows that for him to accomplish other things, he needs to do what he's doing.”

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