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My Dinner With Charlie 

A night out at Trotter's famed restaurant reveals the gap between perfection and pleasure.

We had the money. To be exact, we had--my friend Zoe and I--somewhere on the far side of $1,000 to do with as we wished. That might not seem much by new economy terms, but we were an old economy pair. For five years we'd spent our spare cash on a project, a magazine, that, while personally satisfying, on its best days only tentatively wobbled toward self-sufficiency. Last year we pulled the plug, and now we were pleasantly surprised to see our labor trickle back to us in the form of a four-digit bank balance. A celebration was in order. So we made a reservation for two at Charlie Trotter's.

The Lincoln Park restaurant takes reservations four weeks in advance for weekday evenings, and two months in advance for weekends. In the six weeks between the phone call and T-day, we had a lot of time to think about what we were doing.

An evening at Charlie Trotter's costs, on average, $115. Per person. For the food. Wine can easily double the tab. We were looking at spending perhaps $400 on one meal.

An earnest discussion ensued. Were we just buying into establishment standards of what constitutes a good time, a just reward? Might we not have as good or even a better time with some friends, barbecue, and beer? Were we being selfish? The magazine had not been the product of our isolated labor. It had, over the years, drawn on the contributions of others who donated time, talent, expertise, goodwill, sound equipment, and baked goods. Shouldn't we give something back, you know, to the community? We thought of ourselves as the kind of people to whom it was important to live a good life as opposed to the good life, to keep our values in check and an eye on the big picture. Could we really justify blowing it all on seven small courses of wildly sauced food?

"It's all about excellence," begins Charlie Trotter's first cookbook, Charlie Trotter's Recipes, "or at least working towards excellence. Early on in your approach to cooking--or to running a restaurant--you have to determine whether or not you are willing to commit fully and completely to the idea of the pursuit of excellence. I have always looked at it this way: if you strive like crazy for perfection--an all-out assault on total perfection--at the very least you will hit a high level of excellence, and then you might be able to sleep at night."

Charlie Trotter, a cooking-school dropout from Wilmette, opened his eponymous restaurant at 816 W. Armitage in 1987, at age 27. Charlie Trotter, named after Charlie Parker and himself a jazz fan, sees the preparation of a multicourse, fixed price tasting menu as analogous to the intuitive process of musical improvisation. Charlie Trotter, "the Michael Jordan of cooking," has snared multiple championship rings for his team: The James Beard Foundation's Outstanding Restaurant Award, 2000; Outstanding Chef Award, 1999; Outstanding Wine Service, 1993; Best Chef, Midwest, 1992; Wine Spectator's Best Restaurant in the World for Wine and Food, 1998 (but just Best Restaurant in the United States last year).

A meal at Charlie Trotter's is a dizzying parade of exquisitely prepared, rigorously assembled, fastidiously garnished bites of food. You are warned to set aside four hours for the dining experience. No hard liquor is served; jackets are required. It starts with a "complimentary" amuse-gueule--French for "amuse the mouth." I've never seen it explained how, in a $115 fixed price meal, this bite of caviar--of diver scallop, of morel flan--is free.

Trotter champions the use of the freshest organic and local produce. He flies in free-range meat and line-caught fish from around the globe. Every fig, every leek, every lobster is inspected upon delivery. He's pioneered the use of vegetable-juice-based vinaigrettes and light, emulsified broths for flavor, and he shies away from heavy sauces, scorning the classical chef's reliance on butter and cream. Furthermore, the flowers in the dining room are ruthlessly fresh, each course arrives on a different china pattern, wine is served in crystal Reidel stemware and the walls are covered with custom-woven fabric.

Charlie Trotter also has a thing about lint. Maddened by the unpredictable appearance of loose fuzzies on his otherwise immaculate dining room carpets, he fretted over possible solutions. Breaking out the Dustbuster in the middle of dinner service was out of the question, and even a discreet dip on the part of a watchful waiter was deemed too distracting. Finally, inspiration: waiters at the restaurant wear double-sided tape on the bottoms of their shoes.

I knew all this before I ever set foot in the place, because I'd been reading the collected Trotter hagiography. Because Charlie Trotter is more than just a chef--he's a brand, a multimedia empire. In addition to his cookbooks--Recipes, Vegetables, Seafood, Desserts--he's got his own PBS series, The Cooking Sessions With Charlie Trotter, with accompanying guidebook, and he's written himself into the big yellow zeitgeist with Gourmet Cooking for Dummies. He also has his own line of spices, and this December saw the long-awaited opening of Trotter's to Go, a gourmet takeout shop on Fullerton near Southport.

He's even inspired a management primer, Paul Clarke's Lessons in Excellence From Charlie Trotter, in which the chef's rules for living are examined in minute detail and extrapolated to principles for corporate conduct.

"To be a superb leader," writes Clarke, "you don't have to be sensationally charismatic--but you do need to act as a truly passionate and inspirational model for your staff all day, every day." He cites as an example a voice-mail message left by Trotter for his staff while on a business trip: "The wine bottles on the upper left-hand rack, third row from the left, are out of chronological order. Please see that they are reorganized according to the vintage year. Also, the cups next to the cappuccino machine are spotted."

Reading this I had a flashback to my first job out of college, working for an up-and-coming arts administrator who subscribed to a similar God-is-in-the-details approach. She became peevish if the office ran out of blue felt-tipped pens of the model she favored. At the time I failed to see the connection between blue felt-tipped pens and successful business practice. Would it not be more productive to just sign the grant application with a black pen and move on?

Clarke also reveals that Trotter encourages his staff to read Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, "to better understand integrity and commitment." I haven't read the book, but the 1949 King Vidor movie is a hoot, featuring Gary Cooper in a scenery-chewing performance as architect Howard Roark, who destroys his own building rather than water down his vision with the ideas of lesser men. I wonder if Trotter, at the gunpoint of compromise, is prepared to blow up his own kitchen.

Recently a friend who moved to the midwest from New York described his own trip to Charlie Trotter's. It's so provincial, he sniffed. That sort of thing would never fly in New York. In New York people would say, oh please. Get over yourself. Just give us some food.

But in New York they're publishing whole books about this stuff. In The Soul of a Chef: The Journey Toward Perfection, Michael Ruhlman--an impeccably credentialed food writer--and the "poor man's John McPhee"--attacks the question of culinary excellence from several angles.

The first is the quantifiable--excellence made manifest in the mastery of a set of skills. He follows a class of journeymen chefs as they undertake the grueling, ten-day Certified Master Chef exam offered by the Culinary Institute of America. At CIA, excellence is contained in the cut of a terrine, the clarity of a consomme, the texture of one's forcemeat, and one's intimacy with Escoffier. Ruhlman finds this intriguing, but ultimately unsatisfying--the certification, he points out, is something of a vanity plate. Most top American chefs--including Charlie Trotter--are not CMCs; why bother with the exam when you've already proved yourself in the marketplace?

The rest of the book explores the idea of perfection through the example of two very different chefs--Michael Symon, owner of Cleveland's Lola Bistro, and Thomas Keller, owner of the Napa Valley's acclaimed French Laundry.

Lola is "a loud and happy restaurant" where the hostess wears green eyeliner and the puttanesca slops over the lip of the bowl. Symon--one of "America's Ten Best New Chefs" in 1998 per Food & Wine magazine--is a "big, rumbling, hilarious fullback of a chef," whose clanking, open kitchen turns out creative but uncomplicated contemporary American food. Cracks in the veneer of culinary perfection are filled by his outsize personality. If (as detailed in the book) the restaurant critic for Esquire is only mildly impressed, so what--people eat at Lola because it's fun.

Ruhlman celebrates Thomas Keller's sense of fun as well, but at the French Laundry the jollies are a lot more cerebral. The French Laundry is one of the few restaurants in America generally considered to occupy the same rarefied air as Charlie Trotter's. Both serve multicourse, fixed price menus; both are helmed by a noted iconoclast.

Keller had hopped from kitchen to kitchen for almost 20 years when he took over, in 1994, and had yet to make money on a restaurant. For three years the French Laundry grew slowly, by word of mouth. Then, in 1997, Keller was named the best chef in America by the James Beard Foundation, and Ruth Reichl called his restaurant the most "exciting" in America, and everything changed.

Now Keller is, like Trotter and Wolfgang Puck and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, a superstar. The French Laundry Cookbook--coauthored by Ruhlman--set new standards for coffee-table extravagance. But Keller isn't a showman like Vongerichten, or a corporate CEO like Puck, or a management theorist like Trotter. He's an intellectual--the thinking man's chef. He confesses to Ruhlman that he doesn't want to be depicted as a master chef. "He wanted to be portrayed as, he said, 'a Buddhist monk in search of perfection.'" In Keller--who delights in culinary puns like "oysters and pearls," a rich tapioca custard topped with an oyster and caviar--Ruhlman thinks he's found his grail. Keller embodies the contradictory demands of perfection; he's a master craftsman with a rigorous--but playful!--mind.

Throughout most of the book Ruhlman insists that he doesn't buy the pretension that great chefs are artists. They're highly skilled artisans--and that's nothing to sniff at. But Keller changes his mind. "This was what was so exciting about eating at the French Laundry," he says. "How you could taste one of Keller's dishes and something inside you would say 'I see.' And it might be about carrots, which you have been eating your entire life, but suddenly you really understand carrots. And then you hear yourself thinking that ridiculous thought, and you laugh."

I dreamed one night of Charlie. I dreamed that the restaurant glittered and throbbed with life. Standing on the outside I could hear the sophisticated chitter of happy eaters, secure in their right to tuna tartare and basil-orange reductions. When I got inside I was led to a table in the back with a stained tablecloth. Music blared. Talking was difficult. My dining companion turned up her nose at the chef's menu and marched into the kitchen to demand a tuna salad sandwich. I was mortified and, even in a dream, tired. Charlie appeared, peering over his glasses, and knelt down beside me. He rubbed my back and stroked my hair, but all I wanted to do was go home.

Did I mention that I am really not a food person? I mean, I like food. Who doesn't like food? I'm no philistine--I spent my youth scrubbing spinach in a prep sink and know bok choy from chard and hamachi from halibut. But I'm not a food person in the let's-go-to-Spruce-I-hear-they-have-a-new-chef way. I frequent the same four restaurants, most within walking distance of my home, where the average tab is about $10 per person.

My cooking education began and ended with Julia Child. When I was young I would watch The French Chef on PBS and marvel at how one minute the duck was in the roasting pan and then the next--voila!--it was glazed and steaming. How'd they do that? Now there's an entire cable station devoted to cooking shows--Emeril. Ming. The Iron Chef. The Naked Chef. But nothing can compare to the sight of big goofy Julia grabbing that plucked bird by its legs and whacking it about the body with a pastry brush, whooping with delight.

I like to read cookbooks, but am only a functional cook. I have no pantry; no butcher block, no counter space, no Waring blender. When the cat jumps on the stove, a pot or two may crash to the ground. I keep them on the cooktop, because I don't have a pot rack, either.

Which is why Charlie and I are perfect for each other. Trotter's cookbooks have often been called the ultimate in food porn. Oversize volumes with fat ribbon bookmarks, they're not meant to get anywhere near a frozen chicken. They contain page after page after full, oversize page of full-color photos of polysyllabic food fantasies: Timbale of salmon tartare with osetra caviar, avocado, and lemon oil. Peppered lamb loin with polenta, ratatouille, and bell pepper-infused lamb stock reduction. Lobster basmati with guava and macadamia nut coulis. Squab salad with foie gras hollandaise, white truffle oil, 50-year-old balsamic vinegar, and crispy pig's feet.

Are you getting hot yet? The food glistens impossibly on the page. If it's glazed with oil, or gelatin, or shellac, or whatever lube food pornographers use to render their subjects so wet and brazen, I don't want to know.

I don't feel guilty about not trying this at home. How the hell would I try this at home? Trotter, just in time for the holidays, published the smaller, more sober and matte Charlie Trotter Cooks at Home, but I haven't read it and I'm not sure I want to. As with so many things, I'm dubious that the reality could ever compete with the fantasy.

Zoe E-mails me: "I can't believe we're going to Harry Trotter's next week!" I picture a bespectacled wizard in a striped jumper and a chef's toque whipping up some black truffle coulis. Coming soon: Charlie Trotter and the Heirloom Tomato.

We make plans to close our bank account and decide to divvy up whatever's left of our money, after the bill, at dinner. We also set aside $100 for the Heifer Project, an organization that promotes sustainable agricultural development as a means to economic self-sufficiency in Africa, Latin America, eastern Europe, Asia, and impoverished rural and urban areas of the United States. The Heifer Project will use the money to buy one-fifth of a cow, five-sixths of a goat, two-thirds of a llama, five chickens, or three and a third hives of bees.

On our appointed day, it's pouring rain. As we pull up in my friend's Toyota, the valet strides over, opens the car doors, escorts us to the front stairs under an oversized umbrella, then runs around in front of us to open the discreetly marked door to the restaurant. The hostess takes our coats and almost immediately we are seated by a solicitous waiter who pulls the table out for me to slide onto the banquette, then pushes it back, asking, "Is that all right?" It's a nice table, in the second floor balcony dining room. A low partition and an elaborate floral arrangement separate us from our neighbors. We recognize none of the flowers. The room is austere, conservative, a little frumpy.

Our fellow diners are a mixed bag. Middle-aged couples, business pairs, Banana Republicans, a group of young professionals in black microfiber, a trio of older woman, younger woman, and preadolescent boy. For the most part they are also austere and conservative and frumpy. We are probably--with the exception of the boy--the youngest people there and, as Zoe points out, even we aren't that young anymore.

After a $14 glass of champagne--the cheapest of three options--food arrives. Each dish is announced by the waiter with hushed, affectless clarity. Slow-roasted Scottish salmon with saffron-infused cauliflower puree, wilted arugula, and a spicy cucumber and chive emulsion. Muscovy duck breast with duck leg confit, collard greens, porcini mushrooms, and roasted parsnips. When I get up to go to the bathroom a waiter appears and silently opens the door for me. When I return to the table a fresh, folded napkin awaits. I didn't get to check out the soles of the waiter's shoes, but I believe it. I believe it all.

Trotter materializes twice--the first time in the dining room to greet the multigenerational trio with an embrace and a kiss. (This group will receive a coveted invitation to tour the kitchen.) As he passes our table he sweeps us with an incurious gaze. Our eyes meet--and then he moves on. Later, as we leave, he's enjoying a glass of red wine at the bar, chatting amiably with a well-upholstered man in a suit.

Our three-and-a-half-hour dinner is executed with precision timing and gracious civility. And yet the food is--unbelievably, but we both agree--too cold. Not icy, just strangely lukewarm. We speculate--perhaps the sauces were a cold-water bath on what was, a minute ago, a piping hot slice of duck. Maybe on that journey up from the kitchen the plates passed under a vent. Maybe they didn't like us, obviously not rich, and figured we wouldn't notice. But we don't have the cojones to send it back, not even when the Crawford Farm lamb loin and rack with braised Savoy cabbage, cranberry beans, lentils, and veal sweetbreads comes without sweetbreads.

Because, even lukewarm, a farm-raised loin of lamb beats an order of chicken tacos. And it's all gorgeous--hot pink salmon under a neon green layer of chive-cucumber froth; two small pieces of lamb propped up on mounds of cabbage and accessorized with swooshes of bean sauce; a ramekin of fresh ricotta topped with dark, wet huckleberries.

And then there's the wine. A shiraz, recommended by the waiter. Served the way it's supposed to be, a small puddle at the bottom of a very large, ballooning glass. I raise it to take a sip and my nose--my whole face--plunges in. It's overwhelming. Rich, spicy, warm, complex. All those winejectives previously dismissed as foodie poof. I recant. I would gladly forgo the rest of dinner for another glass of this wine.

There, in a glass of wine that I drink far too quickly (but still much more slowly than the average jelly jar of Penascal), I have a flash of clarity about this business of perfection, and, like Ruhlman and his carrots, I understand.

I hope that family in Ghana enjoys its bees as much as I enjoyed that glass of wine.

And yet, ultimately, we were disappointed. It was all too too, and our spirits flagged.

It was worthwhile as a $370 reality check, a reminder of what we're not missing over there in the parallel universe of expense accounts and valet parking. But in the end, it just wasn't fun. I'll take the sloppy hedonism of Michael Symon's Lola or the frank sensibility of Julia Child (who, in describing how to roast a chicken, says she always gives the raw bird a "generous butter massage" because "I think the chicken likes it--and more important, I like to give it") over Trotter-style micromanagement any day. If there's joy to be found at the bottom of a squeeze bottle, it's too precious for my tastes.

A 1999 article in Fast Company describes Trotter's business strategy as "market segmentation, taken to extremes." In the article Trotter references Jerry Garcia to explain his success. "[The Dead] were trying to make music that only they could make," he says. "To me, searching for perfection isn't anywhere near as interesting as trying to find your own voice." But what to make of the coincidence that, in Trotter's case, his own voice seems to be demanding flawlessness above all else? It seems a hollow goal upon which to hang the pleasures of a good meal--not just sublime cooking but also comfort, company, and just enough anarchy to allow for the chance of serendipity.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Ivan Brunetti.

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