It’s a vivid memory for Ray Harris.
At 9 o’clock on an autumn night in 1994, he entered Charlie Trotter’s restaurant in Chicago for the first time.
“After three visits, I sent Charlie a letter. I compared his cooking with the greats of France such as Joel Robuchon and Alain Ducasse,” said Harris, 55, a managing director and vice chairman at Morgan Stanley (MS) Smith Barney in New York.
Harris, who made frequent business trips from his New York base, kept coming back, sometimes as often as twice a week. Trotter said he starting letting him eat free after meal 175.
“I couldn’t give him a bill anymore,” Trotter said by phone this week. “At that point, I wasn’t interested in commerce. Ray was serious about everything from how the utensils were placed on the table to the wine. I like serious people.”
Harris and his wife, Shaun, will be at Trotter’s for its last serving tonight before the restaurant closes after a 25- year run. It will be Harris’s 424th meal at the restaurant, more than any other customer. The couple also dined there last night and on Wednesday.
“Ray was the leading customer by a good margin. There have been people who have been here 280 times,” said Trotter, who will begin studying philosophy at the University of Chicago this autumn. Harris earned his MBA at the school.
The restaurant’s final supper will depart from tradition with a $250-per-person buffet. Tables will be rearranged to accommodate food stations. The menu includes spit-roasted curried goat, pork belly risotto, collard greens, shucked oysters and Kobe beef sliders.
“It’s the antithesis of Charlie Trotter’s,” the chef said about the menu. “These are things we normally don’t serve.”
He will get help in the kitchen from Chicago-based chefs he groomed such as Graham Elliot of Chicago’s GEB and dessert bar queen Mindy Segal of Hot Chocolate. Koren Grieveson of Avec will also be on hand, and Anne Burrell, star of the Food Network’s “Secrets of a Restaurant Chef,” will fly in from New York to serve one of her signature dishes.
Harris said he will bring some wines from his personal cellar, including a double magnum of a 1982 Chateau Pichon Longueville, a 1990 Chave Hermitage and a 1989 Chateau Angelus.
Launched in 1987, Trotter’s became a global dining destination known for complex dishes and impeccable service. Wine Spectator magazine called it the best restaurant in the world for wine and food in 1998 and the U.S.’s best in 2000.
In the past decade, Trotter saw younger restaurateurs grab the spotlight in Chicago and win Michelin stars, including Grant Achatz of Alinea.
Harris said Trotter’s practice of rarely repeating a menu and crafting 10-course meals tailored to his palate made it worth the trip. He fondly recalls a poultry-themed dinner that included squab, quail and pheasant.
“We had a legendary New Year’s Eve meal about 10 years ago. There were truffles in all the dishes,” Harris said. “There were even truffles in the ice cream.”
In New York, Harris’s A-list includes Daniel Boulud’s Daniel and Cafe Boulud, where he says he has eaten a total of about 100 times in 15 years. He’ll still dine out when visiting Chicago, in places such as Naha, Salpicon and Alinea. But nothing will match his favorite:
“Going to Charlie Trotter’s was like going to my own personal dining room. I bought Christmas gifts for his staff. They are like family.”
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