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Charlie Trotter: enfant terrible of cooking and wine

The death of chef Charlie Trotter – a great enfant terrible of cooking - has rocked the culinary and wine worlds.

Trotter lit up the culinary scene in the U.S. Mid-West in the late 1980’s, and his influence extended across the country.

He had the first kitchen table, the first exclusively multi-course degustation restaurant, the first vegetable tasting menu, and the first non-alcoholic beverage tasting flights matched course by course.

He was one of the early developers of advanced techniques for Raw Cuisine and Molecular Gastronomy, and he also designed Trotter’s kitchen with minimal storage space, so that food had to be fresh every day. And, in a radical departure from formal dining norms, he encouraged the cooks to serve and present the dishes that they had made themselves, and for waiters to work in the kitchen, calling all simply ‘culinarians.’

It is hard to believe that in 1987, when he began his restaurant, none of these ideas were practiced.

Charlie’s contribution to the world of wine is equally compelling. In a fine-dining restaurant, the sommelier is often secondary, but Chef Trotter elevated the role of wine service to unparalleled prominence.

His first wife, Lisa, set the pattern with a vibrant wine programme that included weekly wine seminars for the staff. After her departure, I arrived and expanded the programme, enlarging the cellar, and collaborating with Chef Trotter on wine pairings. While I was still there in 1991, Charlie recruited Chris Meeske, who later became the sommelier at LA’s Patina.

Charlie was involved in every aspect of this development. He was especially interested in studying the interaction of his cuisine with the classic wines of the Old World, as well as with the wines of the US. 

This fascination with how everything fitted together was applied on a daily basis in the kitchen. It wasn’t enough that the menu be fundamentally changed each day; Trotter would change dishes at a moment’s notice if the wines at a table did not match the dishes he had painstakingly planned beforehand.

He prided himself on the feat that no one, not even patrons who had dined at Trotter’s dozens of times, had been served the same dish twice.

Charlie Trotter’s generosity is well known. This translated to a range of social projects, from helping helped impoverished inner-city youth by encouraging them to grow edible “Cabrini Greens” in a notorious neighborhood of the same name, to raising more than US$3m in culinary scholarships.

When Charlie started his little restaurant in Lincoln Park, the wiry, primarily self-taught 28-yr-old demanded that all his workers believe it would someday be known as the best restaurant in the world. Then he set about making it happen. He was a mentor and an inspiration, as well as a friend.

Chef Trotter died aged 54. He is survived by his wife Rochelle, his son Dylan, his mother Dona-Lee, his brothers Thomas and Scott, and his sister Anne Hinkamp.

Written by Larry Stone (sommelier)

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