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Charlie Trotter dead, famed Chicago chef was 54

Chef Charlie Trotter helps launch the Turbochef Residential

Chef Charlie Trotter helps launch the Turbochef Residential Speedcook Oven at Guastavino's in New York City. (April 11, 2007) Credit: Getty Images

Charlie Trotter, the intense, self-taught  American chef  whose namesake Chicago restaurant was an essential stop for food lovers, was found dead in his home Tuesday, according to The Associated Press. He was 54, and died about 15 months after he closed the Lincoln Park landmark.

Trotter was the author of 10 cookbooks, hosted a PBS series, and influenced a generation of New American cooks. As a philanthropist, he received accolades for his foundation and humanitarian efforts. He won multiple James Beard Foundation Awards for his culinary achievements.

Charlie Trotter's restaurant in Chicago had many fine tables and a single, unforgettable one.

It was in the kitchen.

One evening in the late 1980s, my wife Rita and I were lucky enough to land a reservation and enjoy a meticulous, magical, spontaneous dinner. More important, we saw one of the great chefs of his generation perform.

And it was a performance, nuanced, subtle, stormy, complex, with dishes he was preparing for the dining room and others sent just to us, created, it seemed, from whatever idea had popped into his head.

We lost count by the 15th or 16th course. Trotter was a master of tasting menus. Dinner that night on West Armitage was as long as "Die Meistersinger" but too short for anyone there. Wasn't there another appetizer? Or dessert?

Trotter could be Wagnerian, too, layering everything with its own distinctive flavor, texture, effect. His affection for Asian cuisine was part of the evolution of his cooking. And Trotter elevated vegetables from side dishes to main events. This carefully controlled, perfectionist chef also showed an improvisational streak worthy of Jonathan Winters or Robin Williams.

I felt bad when Trotter's restaurants  for The Palazzo in Las Vegas didn't take off; and even worse when another set for Time Warner Center never happened. I was stunned last year when he decided to close the Lincoln Park original.

At the time, he said he was going back to school. Not the kind of class he conducted on PBS, in "The Kitchen Sessions with Charlie Trotter." Or the ones in any of his cookbooks. He wanted to study philosophy and political science. The old web site says, "Thank you for allowing our team to serve you for 25 years."

As always, he leaves us wanting more.

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