Chef Charlie Trotter put Chicago on the food map

The award-winning chef was found dead in his home Tuesday morning, a Chicago Fire Department spokesperson said.

chef Charlie Trotter

Charlie Trotter often left his customers and employees at his famous eponymic Chicago restaurant shaking their heads, thwacking their lips and perhaps groaning with delight and curiosity.

A diner might stare into a soup that had just came and discover that it looked like a pointillistic painting, with apparently hundreds of vegetable cubes, each exactly cubed to perhaps a sixteenth of an inch square, floating in a sumptuous Asian- modulated broth.

And the apprenticing chef in the kitchen, who had been taxed with performing Trotter’s vision, would perhaps curse his legendary perfectionism. But ultimately, the culinary world at large would nod in admiration at the artistry of the self-taught chef who put Chicago on the culinary map, championed a new brand of American cuisine and provided a training ground for some of the country’s other best culinary pros.

Trotter, 54, who died Tuesday at a Chicago hospital, “had the great attributes of a chef: culinary excellence, mentoring the next generation and giving back to his community,” says Susan Ungaro, president of the James Beard Foundation in New York, which had bestowed its top honors upon Trotter multiple times, including the Humanitarian Award last year.

Trotter first gave notice that he was shaking up American dining a quarter-century ago when he introduced one of the first multi-course tasting menus in the country — a radical departure from the three-course norm. “Some loved it, and some did not, but many great American chefs followed that model, to give diners what they thought would be a creative experience with multiple tastes,” said Ungaro.

Marcus Samuelsson, who was a rising star chef at Aquavit in New York when he first encountered Trotter, noted that when Trotter published his first lavish cookbook in the early 1990s, “it became the one that we all had to have. I couldn’t believe there was an American guy doing this stuff.”

Samuelsson praised Trotter for fighting diversity in his employing. “When I had my restaurants, he set up a program for them to come and interne with him. For me, that was huge.”

New York chef/ restauranter Daniel Boulud, who often worked with Trotter on charitable events, said in a statement: “His dedication to make America a world-class dining destination was expressed in his restaurants and cookbooks he published. His creative style of cooking was a departure from the more classic approach to French cuisine. He was a true American chef and restaurateur with a European vision inspiring and educating a whole new generation of chefs. He will be greatly missed, but never forgotten.”


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