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Charlie Trotter: The Master Chef With a McKinsey Mind

Chicago Chef Charlie Trotter on Aug. 27, 2012

Photograph by Alex Garcia/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images

Chicago Chef Charlie Trotter on Aug. 27, 2012

Charlie Trotter, who died Tuesday at 54, didn’t look like a chef.

In an era when chefs were still known for their tattoos and salty talk, Trotter accepted the accusation of anal retentiveness as a compliment. With his boyish Midwestern looks and a degree in political science, he looked and talked more like a management consultant. He exuded a ruthless efficiency in the kitchen, on TV, and in print that was the envy—and occasionally the terror—of his colleagues.

He opened his first restaurant in 1987 in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood when he was 28 and immediately set a tone for precision that went to the heart of his obsession with perfection. These were extravagant, multicourse, truffle-layered adventures with matching wines in a steak-and-beer town. He was determined to prove Chicago was no Second City in the culinary arts—and his benchmark was Paris, not New York.

Trotter’s method was that he believed passionately that perfection was a skill that could be taught. He saw himself as a teacher as much as a chef. In part to combat what he considered the snobbisme of the French-dominated culinary world, he set out to publish a compendium of how to cook in the 20th century that would be as grand as Escoffier was to chefs of the previous century. Published every year from 1994 to 2001, each volume took on a different subject—vegetables, meat, game, desserts—with a color-coded binding. At the same time, he set out to educate, publishing Lessons in Excellence and Lessons in Service and setting up programs at his growing stable of restaurants to inure students to the Trotter method.

When the Food Network started in 1993, Trotter’s brand of articulate, educated chef would not compete with its Emeril Lagasse style. Trotter was never one to pander to the masses. Instead he went to PBS where he hosted The Kitchen Sessions, which won the James Beard Award for Best National Television show and ran for four seasons.

While Trotter was a few years older than me, we came of age in the food industry at more or less the same time. I was producing six radio segments for Bloomberg Radio, critiquing restaurants around the world for Bloomberg News, and, like him, had just garnered my first James Beard Award. But we’d been friends by then for years. He would swoop into New York with refrigerator vans of ingredients for some benefit or wine dinner (he always traveled with his own equipment and his own crew), and he was always one of my favorite guests. It made sense to both of us that in the midst of what was then a purely financial news and data provider, there should be one person who only did food and wine, in the same way that the restaurant industry should have one guy who was a natural for McKinsey. We would often joke that perhaps that was the problem: I should have been a chef, and he should have run Bloomberg News.

When he was named outstanding chef by the James Beard Foundation in 1999—he’d go on to win nine more awards in various categories, as well as his coveted two stars from Michelin in 2010—he was asked to cook for 400 Beard devotees at the Four Seasons in New York City. On the day before the event, his favorite sous chef fell ill. On the morning of the event, I came to work at Bloomberg to find a full set of chef’s whites, the jacket with my name already embroidered on the breast. He expected me to assist him. Immediately.

“Charlie, I haven’t worked in a professional kitchen in 15 years,” I protested. He replied: “Then it’s time we got you back in the game, isn’t it?”

We cooked for 18 straight hours, burning through eight immersion blenders—and I survived. He had thought about the person he needed, how to motivate him, and found the time to get a jacket embroidered, as if it were nothing at all.

In the years that followed, there were many Charlie followers. The likes of David Chang, Ferran Adrià, and Heston Blumenthal owe much to Trotter’s determination to prove that chefs aren’t just carpenters. Still, the restaurant industry is not kind. In days of yore, old chefs could be sent to schools or cruise ships. Today’s breed is expected to perform: in real estate deals, in new restaurants, in new ideas, in new TV shows, and in books and blogs. He came to feel that his best work was behind him and didn’t want to feel trapped.

He closed his eponymous townhouse restaurant in September 2012. “My plan is to work on a master’s in philosophy,” he told Businessweek’s Karen Weise at the time. “I don’t know how to put this gently, but I’m trying to tackle the biggest question of all, which is the God question.” He told me he just wanted to get away from the grind, maybe even try a new career. The food industry was never quite enough for him.

What many didn’t understand about Trotter was that his first love wasn’t food at all—it was music. Nobody believed that lurking beneath those nerdy pearly whites and Swiss-made glasses was a man who could get lost in the music and often did. I remember him sitting at my desk during an interview tapping out a recipe like he was playing the drums. Every time I have to do a tedious task in the kitchen, chopping, slicing, or peeling, I remember Charlie teaching me to listen to the music of the motion instead: “Chop, chop, chop, slide—hear it? If you listen to the sound, not only do you get perfectly even carrots, that will make your dish look beautiful, but you get a whole jazz quartet in your head.” Trotter wanted everyone to understand that beauty and the method.

Music was putting order to notes, just as ingredients and technique were putting order to flavor. He never espoused that the order had to be exactly the same every time; in fact, it was the contrary. Like all great chefs, he believed he was creating order out of chaos, one plate at a time. Tap, tappa, tap, tappa, tap, tappa tap. “Can’t you hear it, Peter? Can’t you hear it?”

Yes, Charlie, we can hear it now.

Elliot is the founding food critic for Bloomberg News and the manager of Bloomberg’s suite of Lifestyle products.

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