I met Charlie Trotter before I actually saw him in person; I was 24 when I first opened the pages of Charlie’s cookbook Charlie Trotter’s and was greeted by a man I would know and admire for the next 20 years. The first words Charlie spoke to me, through that book, belonged to Fydor Dostoevsky: “To lose courage is to sin… work, ever more work, con amore, therein lies real happiness.” The next words were his own: “It’s all about excellence, or at least working towards excellence. Early on in your approach to cooking — or to running a restaurant — you must determine if you are willing to commit fully and completely to the idea of the pursuit of excellence.” These words have guided me ever since.
Like all of the chefs who knew Charlie, I was floored when I heard the news of his untimely passing. At 54 years old, Charlie had lived a lifetime of experiences both in and out of the kitchen. Husband to Rochelle and father to Dylan, Charlie was the consummate chef. Hardworking and unforgiving, but with a heart as large as his accolades, he made sure his eponymous restaurant stayed at the top of everyone’s list. The transition for a chef after closing a restaurant is very hard — you put your whole life into it — but Charlie spoke of going back to school and planned to continue his work with the countless charities he supported, including his own Culinary Education Foundation. He encompassed every part of being a successful chef, which included the structure of his restaurant, hospitality and continually impressing his guests.
In the mid-90s when I didn’t know a lot of chefs, he opened his kitchen to me after he came to eat at Aquavit. “Come to Chicago and cook with me,” he said, and he meant it. One step into his kitchen, I knew this was a different environment. A forward-thinking environment. Rigid yet diverse, professional and creative, Charlie’s first employee was chef Reginald Watkins, an African-American cook from New Orleans. He hired Guillermo Tellez, who went on to become one of the country’s first notable Latin chefs. There were more women in his kitchen than I had seen before. He taught me to give back by inviting inner-city kids into his restaurant to learn about cooking and dining. He was a huge fan of jazz (namely Miles Davis). One of my favorite nights at Red Rooster was when we hosted Charlie for dinner and he gave his server a $500 tip. He was so happy I was combining food and music under one roof in Harlem.
I’ve learned so much from Charlie. He introduced us to Buddha fruit, fresh wasabi (not the green stuff in a tube), and geoduck clams in the mid-90s. I always turned to him for advice or inspiration. So many generations of chefs came out of Charlie’s kitchen (including the ones I’ve sent from my own kitchens to stage in Chicago) and name him as the reason they wanted to become a chef. They always came back stronger and better. Chefs like Ferran Adria, Alain Ducasse, Wylie Dufresne and Daniel Boulud went to Charlie Trotter’s to see and taste the most exciting food in the world. When Patrick Clark suddenly passed, Charlie organized an incredible gathering of chefs at Tavern on the Green as a fundraiser for Patrick’s children and paid for and published the book that followed. That’s just the kind of man Charlie was. He showed his kindness and generosity through food and it takes a special soul to have his level of talent and passion. As a role model, mentor and great friend to so many of us chefs around the world, he will never be replaced. And for those of us lucky enough to eat at his tables, let’s forever consider ourselves grateful.