Thursday, November 14, 2013

Chef Charlie Trotter Remembered ...

Chef Charlie Trotter, photo courtesy of Eater

I was very moved after reading of Chef Charlie Trotter’s untimely passing last week.

The news flashed across my @chefsgardens Twitter community feed.
Soon, it seemed the entire culinary world was Tweeting its shock and condolences  --from Mario Batali to Ruth Reichl to chef Marco Canora (Hearth restaurant, NYC).

I don’t recall who was the first to post.  Maybe it was The New York Times – but I think it was photographer and author, Melanie Dunea.  I reviewed her book following her Beard on Books talk for her curiously compelling book about celebrity chefs: My Last Supper. (Examiner:

The image Melanie posted on Twitter of Chef Charlie Trotter is a haunting photo from her book.  It shows the iconic Chef peering out from the kitchen door, hands folded in prayer in front of him…

Chef Charlie Trotter's "My Last Supper" photo, Melanie Dunea

In her corresponding blog post following the Trotter’s death, Dunea wrote “In this photograph, I tried to show the genius, hope, and humor of a great culinary pioneer.”

She was to have photographed him on a trampoline!  Who knew Trotter was an avid trampolinist… It seems so out of character.

Melanie posted a heart-wrenching and respectful tribute to chef Charlie on her blog. 
It’s a tale that is stirring because -- like a harlequin mask – it captures the two sides of the mercurial Chef:  angry/implacable and eager to please, showing his compassion through his food.

Melanie’s fascinating blog post ode is excerpted below. 

The New York Times’ Bill Grimes wrote a fitting and detailed news feature in the Dining section yesterday about Charlie Trotter’s Legacy, highlighting the “honor roll” of chefs who apprenticed with Chicago’s Chef Charlie Trotter and who eventually went on to open their own world-class restaurants and create elevated culinary brands – thanks to Chef Charlie’s rigorous, groundbreaking, “crosstraining” and way of presenting integrated works of art. 

Likewise, I feel compelled to mark the passing of this great chef: to honor a remarkable and influential culinary artist. 
His work touched me and my perception of food – for the better – perhaps even led to my book and food writing. 

I had the joy of dining at his Chicago restaurant many times. I was working at Sony as Director of Communications and spent a lot of time in the Second City.  There was the Consumer Electronics shows held there every June.  And Sony had a pre-Apple destination gadgets-as-jewelry showcase retail store on Michigan Avenue: Sony Style.  There was also the Chicago Jazz Festival when one special year myself and Wendy Lemke from Sony Corporate Communications managed a special cross promotion with Sony Music and the Personal Electronics camcorder products.  That’s another fascinating story  -- accompanying Harry Connick’s band mates to all the underground and authentic blues and jazz clubs where they’d ask to join the musicians playing on “stage” – such as the stage was in those matchbox joints…

The background here is that with all that time in Chicago for Sony – and Sharp Electronics – we had opportunities to entertain the press.  And nothing was too good for our journalists. So naturally – it was dinner – with all the stops pulled out – at Charlie Trotters. 
Chicago: Charlie Trotter's restaurant

It was a many course affair, usually upstairs in our own room – with a variety of wine for the various courses.
Who could resist this new concept: the Tasting Menu?
Bill Grimes wrote the “Tasting menus were (Trotter’s) stock in trade, were improvised daily, and even hourly.  He was a fanatic about wine and food pairings and would order his chefs to adjust dishes at the last minute to match the wine order.”
Who knew?

At Charlie Trotters restaurant is where I think I truly first experienced food as culinary art.  It wasn’t just delicious – it was exciting. The presentation, the ingredients – it became a topic of conversations  -- not the background.

photo courtesy, NY Times

Homegrown & Trotter
Chef Charlie Trotter entered my culinary narrative yet again – during the writing of the manuscript for my book: The Hamptons & Long Island Cookbook.

Interviewing Chef Terry Harwood, now of the North Fork’s Canoe restaurant and Shelter Island’s Vine Street CafĂ©, I learned of this Tennessee native’s professional connection and ascetic training with Charlie Trotter and his kitchen’s military-like team that wouldn’t have been out of place at say, Fort Benning.

While this Homegrown Cookbook text was edited out of the manuscript for space reasons, I thought it appropriate to share.
And I can’t help but think how many chefs have been influenced by Charlie Trotter’s legacy.  While Chef Terry – and most likely many other great chefs, couldn’t possibly make it into Grimes’ New York Times piece, his story is one I’m privileged to share. It too is an enduring tribute -- a moment in culinary time that recognizes the master chef’s influence. 

Excerpt from The Hamptons & Long Island Homegrown Cookbook and Chef Terry Harwood’s profile:

Like a good scout earning performance badges, Terry was determined to garner the best restaurant experiences – and set his sights on food meccas San Francisco and New York.  He’d never traveled previously, so started his food pilgrimage a bit closer to home, in Chicago.

Someone recommended he begin his housing search in Lincoln Park, and while on a site inspection of the neighborhood that first day, saw a ‘Help Wanted’ posting in the window of an Italian restaurant. His intention was to wait tables and make some money to establish his new life.  During the interview, the owner could see Terry’s thinly veiled passion for food. He asked why be a server? Before Terry could explain, the owner was telling Terry about Bella Vista’s executive chef who’d been Charlie Trotter’s opening sous chef and right hand man for six years. 

Terry was in prep cloths by the end of the meeting.

Bella Vista’s chef Geoff Felsenthal was a respected, celebrity chef all his own, and key to securing a part-time stagier position for Terry in the impossible-to-get-into Charlie Trotter kitchen.  On his rare time off from Bella’s, Terry worked at Trotter’s, gratis – just for the unmatched experience. For Terry, it was more about boning scores of pigeons or peeling waves of salsify.

Chef Charlie Trotter was indeed a “magnet for ambitious young professionals,” as Grimes notes. Fittingly he adds: “admirers might consider Christopher Wren’s epitaph in St. Paul’s Cathedral: ‘If you seek his monument, look around.’” 

I had the honor of writing about Chef Charlie Trotter directly, while covering the James Beard Awards.  Last year, he was honored by the JBF Foundation who bestowed him with the award: 2012 Humanitarian of the Year: Charlie Trotter (Chef and Restaurateur, Chicago)

So very many culinary professionals and diners and farmers and artisanal food makers and vintners and architects and sommeliers and culinary tourists – have been touched by Chef Charlie Trotter in so many ways – in some big ways and some in small and nuanced ways. Collectively, they all add up and matter.

He will be surely missed. 

Honor him and his homegrown menus and recipes. Perhaps cook a few during the upcoming holidays.
photo courtesy: Berkelystartupcluster

Trotter authored 14 cookbooks.  Perhaps it’s best to start with his one devoted to home cooking: 

Keep his culinary conversation alive…

His culinary art will live on.  


Melanie’s blog post ode:
I must have asked the question, “What is your last supper?” over a thousand times.
I am fascinated by the food fantasies of chefs, and motivated by the challenge of getting each one to reveal his last meal. For more than eight years, I have flown across the globe, interviewing and photographing the most talented people in charge of the world’s best kitchens for two volumes worth of last suppers. We discuss final feasts like we discuss the weather. The conversations are theoretical. They’re about making choices—never morbid, always serious and respectful. I know it’s horribly naive, but I never expected any of those chefs to really die. Today, when I heard about Charlie Trotter’s death, I was shocked. We all were. A masterful genius, he was so young—only 54.
It seemed impossible. How could Charlie be gone?
I spent most of the day avoiding that first My Last Supper book. Emails streamed in from people asking me what he had wanted for his last meal. But it felt wrong to look and I didn’t respond. It seemed almost unsavory and inappropriate to read Charlie’s answers, and yet, how could I not? If you think of those recorded future meals as the equivalent of buried, sealed time capsules, then wouldn’t this be the precise moment at which to open his?
Finally, I decided to share my portrait of Charlie, as it appeared in the book, with these words: “In this photograph, I tried to show the genius, hope, and humor of a great culinary pioneer.”
I posted it on Twitter as a tribute to a man who I found creative, funny, difficult, supportive, and magically talented.
I was born and raised eating in Chicago, so I knew when I began the My Last Supper project, Charlie Trotter had to be included. I didn’t realize what a crazy ride he was going to take me on—all in the name of perfection.
To refresh my memory, I re-read our email exchanges.
He had immediately agreed to be part of the project:
Melanie, please count me in on what sounds like a fantastic project.
Very best,
When can I interview you, chef?
Let’s talk soon… this is too complex to handle rather than through a
mere questionnaire…
We were off.
Most other chefs were happy to talk on the phone or do the interview via email; not Charlie.
How about Tuesday at 12:30?
Can’t wait to see you…
I flew to Chicago to interview him at his Lincoln Park restaurant.
That Tuesday, I sat, pen in hand and watched him pace around the restaurant. I listened as he went on and on about everything except the answers to my questions. I probed and probed, sensing he was getting quite irritated. I didn’t stop until he said, “Okay, you know, I used to be an avid trampolinist.” I almost jumped for joy!
Bingo, I had finally broken through.
“Chef, I must photograph you on the trampoline.”
Instantly, I could see the photo: a photographic homage to the famous Belgian surrealist artist Magritte —the chef, the sky, the clouds. Oh, this was going to be perfect. I knew this was my only chance to explain and convince him. He stared deeply into my eyes while, for what seemed like an hour, I tried desperately not to flinch. Finally, he agreed. We‘d stage this photographic coup the following month, at his mother’s lakefront home on the beach in Wilmette, Ill., a suburb of Chicago.
We must have spoken on the phone over a dozen times about trampolines. I was becoming quite the expert, except, every time I would confirm and pay for one trampoline, he would call with another one he preferred. It was non-negotiable: we must have the perfect trampoline. By the time the appointed day arrived, I had rented six trampolines and I was getting anxious as they do not come cheaply.
I flew into Chicago early on the morning of the shoot. Mrs. Trotter greeted us with great hospitality and lots of trampolines. I was bursting with excitement; I knew this was going to produce such a good picture. I assured Mrs. Trotter that the sprinkling of rain was making the clouds look “just perfect.” Bidding me and my assistants farewell, Mrs. Trotter went off to do some shopping and left us outside to assemble the shoot. Chef wasn’t due for three hours, so we had time to prepare and take some Polaroids.
An hour later, a rather stricken-looking Mrs. Trotter came out of the house holding a portable phone and said, “Charlie wants to speak to you.” I could hear the screaming before I even put the phone to my ear. Charlie was pissed. He had been trying to call me for an hour but my mobile phone was locked inside. In a rage, he asked me what kind of idiot would dream of photographing him trampolining in the rain. Was I trying to kill him?!?! Needless to say, I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. “If you want to shoot me come to the restaurant NOW!” he blared, and hung up.
I was furious.
My assistants and I packed up the trampolines, I mumbled away under my breath, and Mrs. Trotter made herself scarce; she was embarrassed. I admit I had a moment where I wanted to say “no thank you” and walk out. It was my book, after all.
Then I remembered something that I learned very early on in my photographic career: as good as an idea is, you must always be ready to throw it away.
I talked myself down and we hightailed it to the restaurant. When we arrived, someone I would describe as Charlie the Angel greeted us. Demure and on his best behavior, he fawned over us, bringing us coffees. Inside, however, I was still seething.
And then, he offered to give us a tour.
In the middle of that rather lengthy walkthrough, just as he turned around to lead us into the kitchen, I saw the picture. “Stop!” I commanded. “This is where we will shoot. Be back here in ten minutes, and we will be ready, chef.” Charlie looked amused; he seemed to like my taking charge.
When we did the shoot he was still. He was gracious and giving.
That’s when I understood: when Charlie committed, he committed. But he did so on his terms.
After the shoot, he dragged us into the kitchen to a beautifully set table. “You will sit here and eat, now. Here are some disposable cameras; while you eat, you will shoot the meal.” I protested, muttering to my assistants that he was just trying to bribe us. He proceeded to jump up on a chair to show me how to photograph food. “Always from above, just remember that!
For three hours, we joined Charlie in the kitchen. We ate and drank and cooked.
As I sat there, I realized why he invited us into the kitchen. He was showing me who he really was and almost apologizing. I can vaguely remember some of the divine things we ate: Squab, veal, radishes, and some sort of ravioli. It was a feast and deeply, deeply delicious.
He was right. Once I saw him in the kitchen and tasted his food, I forgave him. He was only aiming for perfection.
Before My Last Supper went to press, Charlie wanted to re-read his interview.
He only had one bone to pick and that was with the text:
Thanks Melanie,
It all looks fine… One thing, though… I would really never mention
anything about a “hangover.”
I believe that during our discussion, you brought up that consuming an entire bottle of the 1900 Margaux might lead to a hangover, and I believe I responded that I wasn’t especially concerned, since the end was near.
But I would honestly prefer to delete the whole reference to the
subsequent throbbing headache that might potentially result from consuming all of that fine vino.
When My Last Supper was published in 2007, Charlie was one of my greatest champions and supporters. He threw me an epic luncheon at the restaurant, bought hundreds of books, and even did a great deal of press with me. I was endlessly grateful for his kindness.
This afternoon, I finally revisited Charlie’s last supper. It sounded divine.
In 2006, he imagined it was to take place high above the sea. “I want to take in the sweeping views of this gorgeous planet before I leave it.”
Miles Davis was to play with Bob Dylan. He was to dine with Dostoyevsky, Hemingway, Charles Bukowski, Henry Miller, Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. He was to sip a 1900 Chateaux Margaux, and for food “I would eat many courses of tiny, raw, and delicate seafood. The china plates would have wonderful things like oysters, crustaceans, sardines, and anchovies.”
Since My Last Supper is all about fantasy and imagination, I‘m going to take the liberty of assuming that’s exactly what happened on Tuesday November 5, 2013.
Farewell, chef.

The Book -- My Last Supper:    

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