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Charlie Trotter - On Giving, Cooking, & Excellence

Charlie Trotter
On giving, cooking, & excellence

by Matt DeLucia


Charlie Trotter was serving skate wing terrine at the Citymeals-On-Wheels event at Rockefeller Center when I first met him. He greeted visitors to his table graciously with a kind, boyish smile, and seemed in better spirits than many of the other chefs after a heavy rainfall had nearly ruined this early June charity event. While Chef Trotter appeared elegant, he belied the prototypical mold of “star chef”. Without his chef jacket, he could perhaps be mistaken for a humble financier or Wall Street lawyer, yet seemed sophisticated enough to blend well among the wealthy socialites who were in attendance. With these insights in tow, I walked away considering him to be modest, quiet, and bordering on bashful.

I couldn’t have assessed a person more inaccurately. While anyone who follows culinary trends knows him to be a brilliant chef, he is anything but shy, and his visionary flair for innovation extends far beyond his creations in the kitchen. Chef Trotter is a quick thinker and a speedy orator, and during our interview he exhibited a delightful combination of skillful listening and strong, thought-provoking opinions. He is an interesting, multi-dimensional, self-described libertarian who is just as well-known for his loud kitchen voice and near-fanatical cleanliness as he is for his kindness, loyalty, and selfless donation of both his personal time and his resources.

When Trotter’s father joined a relatively unknown computer company called IBM, his grandfather was so upset he nearly disowned him. Years later, he left his job to start his own firm, and once again the family reeled from this seemingly irresponsible career move. After his father had turned the company into a global multimillion-dollar enterprise, the grandfather’s controlling nature was finally put to rest. But it was this environment that influenced Trotter’s father to nurture his children with the sense that they could do whatever they desire with their lives, no matter what career they chose. And it was this upbringing, this freedom, which eventually allowed Mr. Trotter to realize his true calling in the restaurant business. Perhaps all of us who have experienced the joy of Charlie Trotter’s fabulous cooking should be thankful for this small favor.

Your father was involved in the computer industry and founded a consulting firm, Source EDP, in the early 1960’s, and he did quite well. Were you expected to follow in your father’s footsteps?

Chef Trotter: Not even close, because when my father grew up, he was raised in a strict environment. His father tried to coach him and tell him what to do every step of the way, so my siblings and I were raised in the opposite kind of environment. I remember when I was about 13, he pulled me aside one time and said, “In the next couple of years, you may begin to think about what you want to do with your life, and I just want you to know that your mom and I will support you any way we can. Spiritually, emotionally, whatever you want. But the one thing you’re never going to be able to do is to come and work at my firm. You’ll never be satisfied if all you’ve ever done is work for the old man.” So it was made pretty clear at a young age that wouldn’t even be a possibility.

So growing up you weren’t quite sure you were going in the direction of becoming a chef?

Chef Trotter: No, I was like most young people in that when I was in college I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I didn’t have a big plan, and I didn’t like the idea of more school. I didn’t want to go to law school or business school or stay on in some graduate program. I wanted to do something that was physical as well as cerebral at the same time, which is what I consider the art of cooking to be. So I searched around and found a restaurant that would hire me, and I started at the bottom, which is the perfect place to start. From that day on, I feel like I’ve never really worked.

So you had a tremendous amount of support from your family, even though they were involved in a completely different career path than the one you eventually pursued?

Chef Trotter: I had support for sure. I could have told my father that I want to start a business painting houses, or that I loved delivering mail. He would have said, “If you’re happy then it’s your life, that’s great.” But here’s the big thing; I did not grow up in any kind of food family. My family had no interest in food beyond the basics. Gourmet food was never really served at my house, and we seldom went to restaurants. We’d go out for my parent’s anniversary or my mother’s birthday, but restaurants were not part of the upbringing. But I was always a kid who never had to be coaxed to eat - even spinach or green beans. I literally love everything and always have.

Many well-known chefs begin cooking when they are children, yet you seem to have broken the mold because you started very late in life.

Chef Trotter: I think in some ways I was able to develop a new approach to things and bring a different sort of sensibility to the craft of cooking. I worked as a busboy in high school for several months at a restaurant called The Ground Round. They have steaks and hamburgers and stuff like that, and when you sit down they give you peanuts and they encourage you to throw the shells on the floor. That was the ambiance and even then I was sort of appalled by it. I would try and sweep them up and the manager would say no, this is part of the ambiance. And I remember that the cooks in the kitchen were in an environment where two people would put out food for 250 people for dinner. Basically they’d scoop stuff out of a warming bin and they’d have the steaks going and the hamburgers going, and even then I could tell that these guys really didn’t want to be here. So at 16, I wasn’t thinking “well I’m going to go into the restaurant business.” Even back then, I guess I was beginning to percolate on these ideas of how a kitchen could be better, or how much cleaner it should be.

Since you were not brought up to be a fine-food lover, when did you become interested in being a chef?

Chef Trotter: When I went to college, I had this roommate named Joel Fisch who would go to such great lengths to cook. He’d shop at 8 different stores; specialty shops, a place over here for vegetables, over there for fish, and he’d round up all these ingredients and make his own pasta from scratch. He’d cook for hours and hours every day and bake his own bread. I’d never seen anything like that. And so maybe that’s what really piqued my interest. He had some cookbooks, and I began to go through those. Craig Claiborne’s cookbook and James Beard’s American Cookery and Julia Child’s Master in the Art of French Cooking. So, I began to cook with him. I guess I was probably a sophomore by then. I’d cook one day, he’d cook the next, and then it turned into a competition of who could out-do the other guy with the more elaborate three or four or five course meal, especially on the weekends.

So people like Boulud and Ripert had their grandparents for inspiration, and you had your roommate.

Chef Trotter: Pretty much. For about four years he was with his company based in San Francisco, so when I would go out to the Bay area or to Napa Valley for charity cooking events, I’d have him come along and help. He was able to live the chef life vicariously through me. I got him his own chef coat with his name on it and the logo of the restaurant, and I think he was thinking at one point, “Gosh, if I’d only stayed with this cooking thing it actually could have turned into something.”

Did you attend culinary school after college?

Chef Trotter: My culinary school education after college was that I cooked in restaurants for about a year. I had moved to the Bay area in 1983 because I was reading so much about the wines from Napa and Sonoma and the great chefs in the Bay area and the movement to incorporate ideas from the Mediterranean and Italy, and I wanted to see that. So I moved out there literally on a whim, and after about six months of being there, I said, “You know what? I feel like I’ve started later than most people and I think I should maybe go to a culinary school.” So I enrolled in the California Culinary Academy. It was a two-year program and I think I lasted for about four months. I was working at the time and I just felt like I was getting so much more from the work environment. I’d rather just do my own reading and try to teach myself and work like a fiend. I just couldn’t really relate to the school thing. I guess I’m the culinary school dropout. I certainly don’t consider that to be any sort of important part of my upbringing in the culinary world. My knowledge is all from my work experience and reading.

After working in a few restaurants in the Bay area, Chicago, and Florida, including helping Norman Van Aken at his restaurant, you decided to go to Europe to work?

Chef Trotter: Not really to work, my fiancé was there. She was a student at the time working on her master’s degree, so she was locked into Paris. So for several months I’d be there in Paris with her, and then once a week or every 10 days or so I’d get on a train and go to a different area in Europe, and spend a couple of days walking around in a city and trying different things. Casual restaurants; market places; occasionally a Michelin three-star restaurant. Then I’d get back on the train and come back to Paris for two or three days and head off in another direction.

Charlie Trotter’s Restaurant

Walking into Charlie Trotter’s restaurant, it’s difficult not to be overpowered with the alluring feeling of coming home. Rows of tall shady trees shroud a modest sign that leads to an unpretentious doorway, yet once inside the restaurant the humble beginnings are swept away by the four-star lavishness of the main dining room. The restaurant, which was almost named “Zelda’s” after “The Great Gatsby” author F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife, was awarded Five Stars from the Mobil Travel Guide, Five Diamonds by AAA and seven James Beard Foundation awards, including “Outstanding Restaurant” and “Outstanding Chef.”

Tell us about how you prepared for the opening of your first restaurant?

Chef Trotter: I came back to Chicago in 1985 and I realized I didn’t know everything - far from it. But I’d worked at enough restaurants to see what was going on, and my attitude was that I knew I could at least do what was happening in Chicago, so I set about finding a location. That took a couple of months. Then I found a design firm, and it took about six months to design it. It took another six months of construction. And then we opened up in August of 1987. Since I was pretty hands-on with the design and the construction, I couldn’t really take a full time job, so every Friday and Saturday night I would do a dinner party at someone’s home. The parties were anywhere from 10 to 20 people, and occasionally much bigger if it was a reception. But over the course of this 12-month period, I did something like 85 dinners in people’s homes, and it was probably the best thing I could have done. I didn’t have any kind of pedigree and I wasn’t a known chef, so if I was going to open a restaurant, who would have heard of me? What happened was that at almost all of these parties, they’d invite me to come out of the kitchen and explain what I was doing and that I was opening a restaurant. I didn’t have the name figured out yet so people were trying to offer advice on the name, and by the time we opened the doors, there were 400-plus people who had experienced what we were going to do in an intimate home setting. They felt like they were privy to something and that they had the inside line to this new restaurant before the public did. Now that I look back, I realize that was actually a good strategy, but it was nothing I had figured out. It just sort of happened.

Was there another name for your restaurant that you had considered before deciding upon “Charlie Trotter’s”?

Chef Trotter: Well, I didn’t want to name it after myself. I felt that was kind of a major ego trip and I didn’t really want to do that. The name I had in mind was very different. I had this image of Zelda Fitzgerald, Scott’s wife, a ravishingly beautiful woman with her hair flowing, eating this leg of braised goose with the juices dripping down her chin and a glass of red wine in her other hand, and maybe one of the shoulder straps on her dress broken. She’s this voluptuous and gorgeous image of what food could be, very sensual and verging on decadent. I wanted to call it Zelda’s for the longest time, but six months before we opened we hired a PR guy to give us some advice and he said “No, no, no, you can’t call it that. It will be too confusing for the public and they won’t know what that means.” And I said, “Precisely, I want something that is ambiguous.” He said that this is the kind of restaurant, whether you like it or not, that is not unlike a European Michelin three-star restaurant where the family is involved. You’re going to be there every day; your wife is there, and you’re the guy in the kitchen. The restaurant is the name of the chef like in Europe where they refer to it as “Robuchon” or “Ducasse”, whatever the name is. They said that because you’re tying yourself so much into this, your personality and every aspect of what you’re trying to express here, you have to call it your name. So I said lets just call it “Trotter’s,” but there was a bar in town called “Trotter’s,” and they already had the name, so we had to use “Charlie Trotter’s.”

Success, Responsibility, and Excellence

Charlie Trotter has written or contributed to eleven books, and has several more in production. But one that he might want to consider, and one that would have many chapters indeed, would be a book on how to utilize your skills and resources to make a difference in your community, which is something he does quite well.

Many chefs donate their time very generously to a number of causes, and considering the number of hours they work, that is a blessing. But Mr. Trotter has brought the concept of “giving something back” to an entirely new level.

Chef Trotter has received an award from President Bush, and was named one of five “heroes” to be honored by Colin Powell’s charity, America’s Promise. He was also awarded the “Humanitarian of the Year” award by the International Association of Culinary Professionals for his service to the community.

Some of your philanthropic ideas are very unique; can you tell us about some of them?

Chef Trotter: One thing we came up with that you can’t get any other way and has been in place literally since day one is called the “Guest Chef for a Day” experience. It allows the highest bidder at a charity auction to spend a day at the restaurant behind the scenes, and work in three or four different areas of the kitchen. They mingle with the chefs and ask as many questions as they want and take photographs and try different menu items and drink some wine. For the interested home cook, it’s sort of a Walter Mitty-like experience. We’ve also historically done a lot of charity dinners and dinners in people’s homes, about 110 to 120 dinners over the years for charity.

About six or seven years ago, we decided to do something a little different, and started a foundation that will raise money to provide grants and scholarships for young people who don’t have the means or the ability to go to culinary school. Through a series of dinners with chefs from around the world - we’ve had chefs from Europe and Asia and Australia - we’ve raised about $550,000 in six years through these dinners. And these are small dinners at the restaurant. What we do is for every dollar that we raise we give away 50 cents, and the idea is that we can hopefully build the foundation into a substantial amount of money so that it can perpetuate itself, and keep itself going. The second part of the foundation is the culinary education foundation, and that’s easy enough to do. You get a chef friend in, and a wine maker friend in, and people come and pay a premium, and literally 100% of the proceeds go to the foundation. And twice a year we look at the applicants and dole out the money.

But the most interesting program we have is something that we call the Excellence program. This is where two or three nights a week we have Chicago Public High School students come for the Excellence experience. At 5:00 in the afternoon a school bus pulls up, and 20 students with two or three teacher chaperones get out and are greeted at the front door by one of the dining room leaders. They’re given a two-minute historical overview of the restaurant and the property and what we do. They’re given a quick tour of the kitchen, the wine cellars, and then the dining rooms. Then they’re brought to the adjacent building which houses our studio kitchen where we film our PBS series, and they sit at one big table and for the next two and one-half hours they have basically the same menu that’s served that night in the dining room. Nine, ten, eleven courses, whatever it may be, and they hear from about a dozen staff members. Pastry chefs, fish cooks, vegetable cooks, sous chefs, sommeliers, dining room leaders, service assistants. Each individual course is introduced and they briefly describe the course that the group is about to have and then they talk about how they pursue excellence everyday and how they try to go to the next level every day, and what their definition of excellence is. They field three or four questions in quick succession and we go around the table as many times as we need to, until every student has asked at least two questions. And it’s really a great experience because it has nothing to do with recruiting these young people into the hospitality world or the culinary field. It’s all about showing them what devoting yourself to excellence is about, how to be your own boss, how to try to be your own toughest critic, and how to motivate yourself.

Each school determines on their own whom they want to send. We’ll call a school, for example Orr High School or Lincoln Park High School, and we’ll explain the program. Now we don’t have to anymore because it’s known all around the city. But in the early days we’d explain what we do. Some schools bring honor roll students. Other schools bring problem students. One school brought the wrestling team that was the state champions and they thought this would be a nice thing to do for them. We’ve had the band from the school. We’ve had the chess team. About 20% of the schools send young folks that are in foods classes, which is fine too. We’re just trying to motivate young people and give them a spark of inspiration, something that they can take away with them and apply as they see fit.

It’s a great sight at 7:30 at night when the school bus is pulling up in front of the restaurant and the students are tumbling out the door of the restaurant’s adjacent building which is 30 feet from the main door of the restaurant building. They’re giddy with excitement at what they just experienced, and people getting out of their luxury automobiles and stretch limousine are looking at the school bus and looking at students, and they’re scratching their heads and saying, “Gosh what is this? We thought this was the most expensive restaurant in America, what are these students doing here?”

In the summer months when a lot of the schools are out, we have other groups of people that come to the excellence program. We have firefighters, police officers, women from battered women’s shelters. We also invite the private schools; the Latin School of Chicago, the Lab School at the University of Chicago. We also have some suburban schools here and there. This particular program isn’t just for inner city kids that don’t have opportunities, you’ve got to make opportunities available for everybody. I’d say it’s 85% Chicago Public high schools, but the other schools that are invited fill a different demographic, and I think you have to be embracing of everyone.

Will you be bringing the excellence program to your New York City restaurant?

Chef Trotter: We’ve already talked about that and we’ll definitely do it. I don’t know that we’re going to do it out of the gate, but I think we might start after a couple of months, something like Saturday afternoons, and we’d have to learn how to work in that environment and see how it goes.

Are any other restaurants following your lead and implementing this program in other areas of Chicago?

Chef Trotter: Nobody does this. Because it’s expensive. It costs me about $125,000 per year to do this and why would any sane person take that on? You’ve got to open your restaurant earlier. It’s more wear and tear. But I have a different motivation and I was raised in a household with the idea that you get what you give, and if you want a lot from life, you’ve got to give a lot. And with success in life goes responsibility and it’s your obligation to do something. My message to the high end corporations of the world and the large food service companies is that we’re a small little business, and if we can do something like this, you guys could easily do something like this. And not just for PR purposes. Once you make enough money to take care of the staff and to take care of your clients and to do constant household improvements of your business and refinements, then you need to start to make a difference.

The Revival of Trotter’s New York

There have been few restaurant openings more anticipated than the arrival of Charlie Trotter’s new seafood establishment in the Time Warner building. Before the deal fell through last month, he was scheduled to join celebrated chefs Jean Georges Vongrichten, Gray Kunz, Thomas Keller, and Masa Takayama to solidify the culinary dream-team that had been assembled there. And while soaring operating costs has certainly been a common complaint from the existing restaurants there, there have also been rumors that one restaurant may be moving out. But the key point is that Chef Trotter is still committed to opening a restaurant in New York in 2006, and the silver lining of this experience could be that he can now worry a little less about building costs and get to the business of creating the type of restaurant that the Manhattan culinary community has been dreaming he would.

NYRI: Can you talk a little about your New York project? What are your plans now that the Time Warner project is not going ahead?

Chef Trotter: Well, we’ve been looking forward to being involved at Time Warner for two years now and when I signed onto this project, I was told it was going to be a $6 million restaurant and that our project was going to be the easiest project because they’d gone through the headaches of dealing with that building with the four other restaurants, and we would be the beneficiary of the learning curve from all of that. Our project went from six to eight to ten to twelve million dollars in a two-year period, and as of six weeks ago, just before we said enough of this and goodbye to all that, the developer was saying, “Gosh, we’re at $12 million. We have to continue to find ways to cut money. We need to save another $300,000, another $200,000. Let’s cut this and let’s cut that. I said listen, all we’ve ever done is cut from the design. We all signed off on the design last November, when it was an $8.7 million dollar restaurant. Since then, the price has gone up and up. Every time I turn around, the price keeps going up, and yet I’ve been asked again and again to cut from the design. I can’t eviscerate every last little thing that I think makes this a distinctive restaurant. I could open four restaurants in Chicago for 12 million dollars, four really, really high-end and nice restaurants. Being an entrepreneur means being a risk taker. You take a chance and you do something. But at some point you’ve got to say “I’m no fool, I’m willing to walk away.”

NYRI: So, where are you looking now, do you have a particular location in mind?

Chef Trotter: Well let me just say this. Once we publicly came out and said forget this (the TWC deal), within 24 hours I got a dozen phone calls from people saying, “How would you like to do this?” There are two things that are very exciting and we’re definitely going to be doing one of them. And one of them is very close to the Time Warner Center but I cannot say yet.

NYRI: Had you considered opening a Manhattan restaurant for a long time, or was the Time Warner project the first New York location you’ve considered?

Chef Trotter: We have thought about New York for a long time. We have a lot of clients that are from New York so it would be a natural fit for us to be in Manhattan. I’m not a chef that’s ever had the idea of opening a dozen restaurants. When the right opportunity comes, if I feel good about it I’m willing to take a chance. We’ve expanded in a way by working on books. We’ve written 11 cook books in the past 10 years and that’s been our way of expressing ourselves and our point of view. Now we’re in a mode of “let’s have some fun,” and open some restaurants that may be a little different than what we do in Chicago. All we’ve ever done is the high end four-star kind of multi-course dining and I guess it’s time for us to let our hair down a little bit and do something that’s casual by our definition. It still would be a fine dining restaurant but something that’s a little bit more “every day”. You don’t have to sit there for three and a half hours and have 12 courses and 8 wines and all this other stuff. You could be there for an hour and have an appetizer and an entrée and an interesting glass of wine. That’s what we do at our Mexico restaurant. There are some really exciting things on the table for us; we’re going back to Las Vegas with a really exciting project and that will be happening in about 18 months.

Do you see the restaurant in New York as keeping with the seafood theme that the Time Warner restaurant was going to be?

Chef Trotter: Yeah definitely, we are going to do the seafood restaurant, yes. It would have been a $100 price point dinner. It would have been a $60 price point at lunch. Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago is $250 at dinner - that’s all we do is dinner there. So this wouldn’t be about the big multi-course, sit up and pay attention kind of dining experience. There would be a raw bar, oyster bar component where you could come as a solo diner and sit there and have a crab salad and have a little noodle dish and have a glass of champagne and be out of there in 35 minutes, 40 minutes.

Will you be using the same designer, and have you selected an executive chef yet to run the new restaurant?

Chef Trotter: The chef is going to be one of my guys. We’ve got a deep bench, so whenever we do a project we can move some quality people from Chicago. I’ve got four guys that have been with me for 12, 14 years and it’s just a matter of choosing one of them. I don’t know who it’s going to be yet. The designer is Michael Graves, the same designer as before. We have a close relationship with Mr. Graves and his firm.

Do you already have the menus planned for the New York Restaurant?

Chef Trotter: All the menus are written out. Everything is ready to go.

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