According to Winston Churchill, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” This short one-liner does a wonderful job of capturing the impact of a mentor – and, today, we’re going to share the story of a man named Charlie Trotter who was a brilliant chef, a visionary, and someone who mentored an entire generation of world-class chefs.
All began in 1987, when Trotter opened a 66-seat restaurant on Armitage Avenue in Chicago, named Charlie Trotter’s. It quickly became popular and, by 1989, his ability to be ahead of the curve was clear. In that year, he added a four-seat table from which diners could observe chefs at work, along with a truly innovative eight-course tasting menu. He also offered an all-vegetable tasting menu.
In 1990, he decided to stop serving distilled spirits, so they couldn’t spoil a diner’s palate and, in 1995 – as part of a $750,000 renovation – he had his walk-in cooler removed, considering it unnecessary because of the freshness of his ingredients. Trotter was recognized for his ability to source unusual ingredients, using them in surprisingly bold ways, and he was an early advocate of using fresh, farm-to-table ingredients. In an era when fine dining restaurants still relied upon sauces that were heavy on the cream and/or butter, he introduced light and delicious healthier broths.
Here is a snippet from a tribute from the New York Times about Trotter’s contributions to the culinary world. “Mr. Trotter’s inventive, refined take on American cuisine, his near fanaticism about cooking fresh from the market and his integration of all aspects of the dining experience into a seamlessly orchestrated whole made every other restaurant in Chicago an also-ran.”
The restaurant critic for The Chicago Tribute was quoted in this article, saying that, “He would dazzle you with his sourcing . . . he was the first to bring in quinoa, and the first to create an all-vegetable tasting menu.”
Chicago’s mayor was also quoted. “Charlie Trotter,” he said, “changed Chicago’s restaurant scene forever and played a leading role in elevating the city to the culinary capital it is today . . . Charlie’s personality mirrored his cooking – bold, inventive and always memorable.”
Although Trotter’s restaurant was Michelin-starred, and although his menus were brilliant, his ability to mentor was absolutely life-changing. During his restaurant’s 25 years of operation, more than 800 aspiring cooks worked in his kitchen, and many of them “cite Charlie Trotter for cultivating the discipline, skill and curiosity integral to their culinary careers. These include Bill Kim, Matthias Merges, David LeFevre, Mindy Segal, Giuseppe Tentori, Christian Ramos, Michael Taus, David Myers, Jesse Dunford-Wood and many more from across the country and around the world who have each gone on to open their own successful restaurants.”
We will be forever grateful for the times in which Charlie Trotter visited The Chef’s Farm and for the ways he educated and inspired us.
Trotter’s spirit of mentorship lives on, after Trotter himself passed on too soon in November 2013. His spirit lives on through the creation of a 501(c)(3) charitable organization. This organization, a center for engaging youth and encouraging their culinary talents, seeks to help budding talent to build careers in the culinary arts, and in the hospitality and service industries.
On Saturday, November 18, 2017, the Culinary Vegetable Institute will host a world-class, multi-course dinner to benefit The Trotter Project, featuring alumni of Trotter’s restaurant. Guest chefs will include Christopher Laramie, Veronica Laramie, David LeFevre, Mattias Merges and Guiseppe Tentori. There will also be a silent auction, and proceeds will benefit The Trotter Project.
You can find more information about this once-in-a-lifetime evening here and here.