Food-Lovers Gallop to Trotter's
Chicago restaurant-goers rave about Charlie Trotter's `degustation or `tasting menus
CHARLIE TROTTER is in the midst of realizing a vision: offering the ultimate dining experience.Skip to next paragraph
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Even if his restaurant, Charlie Trotter's, recently celebrated its fifth anniversary and continues to receive the highest-possible ratings from critics (not to mention raves from diners), the chef-owner still insists that it's not "there" yet.
"We are 85 percent of the restaurant we will be," says Mr. Trotter in an interview.
With a zest for perfection and creativity, Trotter has earned a reputation as a culinary wizard and bold experimentalist.
He started cooking in 1982 after graduating from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in political science. After discovering his culinary calling, he set out to learn as much as he could about food, studying under chefs, traveling the United States and Europe, and reading "incessantly" (his cookbook collection numbers around 2,000). All the while, he says, he felt he had to make up for lost time. He was "a big sponge," he recalls. "I took in everything in gargantuan gulps."
Soon he began cooking for exclusive dinner parties, which helped him fine-tune his culinary talents. He opened Charlie Trotter's in August 1987. Today it is one of only four restaurants in the Chicago area to receive a four-star rating from Chicago Magazine.
In person, Trotter is frank, intense, and brimming with intellectual energy. This day he sports his chef whites, jeans, and sneakers. He gives the impression of being extremely focused. He occasionally smiles.
Is he a perfectionist? "Some would say I'm an insane fanatic," he responds, half joking. One of his tasks as chef and owner is to keep things stimulating. "There's great room for change, spontaneous change," he says.
Does he have fun? "I do have fun, but I'm not interested in fun. This is a period in my life when fun is not my goal," he states. "Salvation comes from work," Trotter adds, intoning Dostoevsky.
His goal, and that of the restaurant's staff of 45, is a three-tiered one: To make an aesthetic contribution ("We're well on our way," he says), a cultural contribution (75 percent achieved), and a social contribution. For this last goal, he aims to go beyond fund-raising dinners to holding special dinners for the homeless, perhaps, and introducing inner-city children to the workings of a prestigious kitchen. Trotter and his staff already participate in several major charity fund-raisers a year.
Trotter's hopes for his dinner guests are as big as his interest in food. He says he wants people to have a dining experience "beyond their expectations" and feel that "they been truly touched to the soul."
Expectations from diners should also be high, one assumes, considering that the cost of the food "experience," exclusive of tips and beverages, can run near $80 per person.
Trotter's food philosophy - using fresh-only foodstuffs - is not unlike that of other savvy chefs of the '90s. But he is even more the purist: Eight-five to 90 percent of the produce is organically grown, says Trotter, and meats are free-range, raised without hormones.