Chef Trotter Transitions From Kitchen To Classroom

Chef Charlie Trotter helped pioneer American fine dining at a time when French cuisine reigned on the food scene. After 25 years, Trotter will close his namesake restaurant — Charlie Trotter's — in Chicago, Ill., to pursue a Master's in philosophy and political theory.

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JOHN DONVAN, HOST:

Charlie Trotter is a master chef who learned about food himself by going to the best restaurants and paying for meals. He also studied cookbooks. He waited on tables. He catered parties. The restaurant business, though, was not initially in his life plan. While he was studying food all on his own, he was also at the university finishing up a degree in political science. But political science lost. In 1987, Trotter, with his father Bob, opened a restaurant that would earn numerous star awards as one of the finest in the world and Trotter, himself, as an exceptional chef for his innovative approach to food and dining.

For sharing his time and bounty, he has won two humanitarian of the year awards, the most recent this year from the James Beard Foundation. And now, after five years of cooking and 25 years in the restaurant business, Chef Trotter has decided to close his restaurant and to go back to school.

So for the chefs out there and the home cooks out there, if Charlie Trotter has been in your kitchen, how has he influenced you? Our number is 800-989-8255, and our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION. So Chef Charlie - these CHs are getting me. Chef Charlie Trotter joins us now from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Welcome, Charlie Trotter.

CHARLIE TROTTER: Thank you very much.

DONVAN: So you've been getting a lot of accolades lately. This past weekend, The South Beach Food and Wine Festival honored you, along with winemaker Piero Antinori, as pioneers who have made their mark in the culinary world. And that's really where you stand at this point where what the news reports are saying is that you're walking away from the business. And I want to ask you really if you are walking away from the business.

But before that, I want to talk to you about getting to this point in the world where - you really are a history maker and a history changer by having changed the perception of the - of culinary art, American culinary art. And I'm a little curious about your aspirations. And also, given your reputation as a perfectionist and sometimes as a bit of a screamer and a rager, did you set out, as a young man when you got interested in food, to change the world the way that you did?

TROTTER: Honestly, I had only very humble aspirations. My rationale was nothing more than if I work as a cook in a restaurant or two or three for two years and I don't like it or I'm not very good at it, I can always go to graduate school. I can always go back - go to law school, do something else. My motive was nothing more than to learn how to cook and explore the interesting components of the food and wine world because I love food so much and wine so much that I know I'm going to eat well and intend to eat well for the rest of my life, to feed my family well and my friends well. So if I learned the craft from that standpoint, I could elevate it. And I never had an agenda. I never thought, well, what if I opened a restaurant? It wasn't like that.

DONVAN: So it sounds as though you had culinary curiosity more than culinary ambition.

TROTTER: Well, that's basically it. It was learn something, learn the craft, and then see where it takes you. But my first day in the kitchen in 1982, in a kitchen under the great chef Norman Van Aken and then also under the great chef, local Chicago chef Carrie Nahabedian from Naha restaurant, and they both just smacked me around but in the best sense of the way. Like, you better do this. You better do that. But one thing led to the next, and I realized this is for me. This is a longtime calling. But always in the back of my mind, I imagined that I would do this for a good period of time, do it as best as I could, and then I would find a way to do something else. I've always had literary leanings, and so hence the decision to return to academia.

DONVAN: And so is it accurate to say - well, before I ask you the question about are you walking away from the restaurant, I mean, I know that not all of our listeners are in the world where haute cuisine and culinary art is really part of their lifestyle, and your restaurant is an expensive place to go to. It's not for everybody. So just for people to get a very brief idea of the mark that you made, prior to you setting up your restaurant after teaching yourself in the 1980s, the very, very fine food here was considered something that only the French could do, and you put America on the map. And not only that, but you then trained generations of chefs who, almost like your children, have gone out there, and they've had children. And generations move quickly in the restaurant business. So you - there are several waves of people impacted by you. So the notion that you're walking away from this is rather dramatic. So is that what you're doing?

TROTTER: I wouldn't say I'm walking away from something. I'm saying it's sometimes time in life to do something else, to do something differently. I almost did this five years ago, to be quite honest with you. We got to the 20th anniversary. I thought that would be a good exclamation point. And I got to the 21st year, and I thought, OK, I've got to take it to 25 years now. And coming up on that in the six months, by the way, for anybody listening, you have roughly 140 dining opportunities to go before the doors are shuttered. I have no ambition to return to the restaurant world. It possibly could happen, but that's not my plan. It's to re-engage in reading the great books and seeing where that takes me, and learning for learning sake. I've always been about that.

Now, I have to confess to you, I have a small learning problem in that I'm dyslexic. So I'm a painfully slow reader. I have plod through things. So this isn't some sort of dabbling thing that I'm going to be doing. And I'm not going to try to - people say, why don't you keep your restaurant open? Your team - you've got an amazing staff. They can run it. It can't work like that. I've got to devote myself 198 percent to what I'm going to do.

DONVAN: You know, last year, The New York Times slapped you in the face. I don't know if you took it that away, but it shocked a lot of people. They wrote - and I was talking before about how quickly the generations come up in the field that you're in. And The New York Times wrote a piece about you, that after 25 years - and you're only 52 years old. You're young. But they were writing about you as though your best years had happened. Your best years had happened. The restaurant's best years had happened, and that it was time for the conversation to focus on some - on the newer generations. And I'm assuming that was probably painful and maybe even slightly embarrassing.

But I'm also wondering, at some level, did you - are you telling us that you agreed with them that, yeah, you were kind of done, that you - that there is a time in life to say: I've done my thing, and I want to do something else.

TROTTER: I wouldn't say I agreed with the assessment that was put forth, but, yeah, it was sort of said, well, Charlie might not quite be part of the cutting edge culinary dialogue at this point. But that said, we've dealt with a problem for the last 10 years, which is that we're basically competing against ourselves, or have been, in that people will call and say: You know, we're thinking about going there, but, yeah, we went - we came to your restaurant 10 years ago. It was unbelievable, but we heard one of your sous chefs has a new restaurant and we want to check that out. And - but we've been to your restaurant a couple times, and it's great.

So the - I still maintain that on our worst day, we're still among the top two or three restaurants in America. I mean, it's all about the service, the ambiance, the food, and the wine and beverage program, and we haven't deviated from that. But when you've been around for a good while, people tend to overlook what you do, even though our - we're forward-thinking restaurant.

DONVAN: It's hard to be the next new thing when you're not new.

TROTTER: Well, I guess you could say that.

DONVAN: Yeah. All right. We've asked callers to share with us their stories of the impact that you had on them, either as chefs or just people who have bought - you've written 14 cook books. Is that correct?

TROTTER: It's something like that.

DONVAN: Wow. So we like to hear from them. Our number is 800-989-8255. You know, you played yourself - and I think I heard you sigh a little bit when I said that you were known as a screamer and rager because - and I've read that you're a little bit tired of that characterization, although you portrayed yourself being that kind of chef...

TROTTER: In a movie.

DONVAN: ...in a movie.

TROTTER: Right.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DONVAN: And it's copied again and again and again. We're going to spare you the playing of the clip of the movie.

TROTTER: Thank you.

DONVAN: But I'm going to quote what you said, because you said to a sous chef: "I will kill your whole family if you don't get this right. I need this perfect." And everybody has said that kind of captured who you were. But there's also a very under-understood version of how much you kind of give back in a gentle way. You have a program - have had a program for years at the restaurant, which I guess now goes away, where you've brought in high school kids from the city of Chicago to instill in them not only an understanding of what great food is about, but how great food - how the making of great food involves discipline and motivation and intelligence and education. And you've been bringing these kids in for years and years and years. And what - where did that whole idea come from? And you understand, of course, this doesn't fit in with the image of the screamer and the rager.

TROTTER: Well, referencing the screaming and raging, you have to understand, too, that three months after we opened the restaurant, we plopped a table right smack-dab in the middle of our kitchen, which back then was unheard of. And now it's de rigoureux to have a kitchen table of some sort. So imagine putting yourself on display twice a night, 6 o'clock, 9 o'clock every night, everyday that you're open, for 25 years. So the Ivan the Terrible image that may exist isn't all that true. Some of it is a Gordon Ramsay-esque act, if you will.

But regarding our excellence program, it really isn't so much about recruiting young folks, young men and women. I never called them kids, because they aren't. They are 16, 17, 18-year-old young men and women. They come from different Chicago public high schools and private schools. And they're there to understand what excellence is all about. And excellence is about - you work for yourself at all times. You may have a boss, a supervisor, a leader, of course you'll do what they ask you to do. But your standards for yourself have to be even beyond that.

And regardless of where you work - it might not be your dream job. You maybe working at the convenience store on the weekend. You may be mowing lawns. You maybe doing something that's not your dream occupation, but you still treat like its golden, like it's amazing, and you treat it like you work for yourself. So that's all we try to instill. Roughly 20 percent of the young men and women are interested in the culinary arts or the food hospitality world. But the other students - different schools determine whom they want to send, and it could be honor roll students. It could be problem students. It could be the state champion wrestling team. But it exists three nights a week, 50 weeks of the year, and we've been doing that for 12 years.

DONVAN: Have you - have any of those kids - I'm sorry. I used the word you didn't want to use. Have any of those young people risen up in the field since - I guess you've been doing it long enough.

TROTTER: Some have. Some have - as I say, about 20 percent are interested in getting in the field somehow or another. We also - in addition to having the excellence program, which is completely underwritten by me personally and the restaurant, we have a foundation that's raised just about $3 million in the last 12 years, where we give away grants and scholarships and monies to young folks that otherwise might not be able to get to culinary school. So some of those folks apply for those scholarships and grants, and we're able to help them out. So...

DONVAN: So the last thing I want to ask you, yes, I mentioned you've written 14 cookbooks, but you said you have a literary bent. I'm wondering, do you hope to produce some kind of - are you still thinking about writing novels or histories?

TROTTER: I can't go that far yet. I always try to think a little differently, and it's going to take me some time to decompress and to really learn to think differently. And once I'm back at academia - and by the way, I have no illusions about how demanding and difficult this will be. I don't think I'm going to waltz in somewhere and just sort of do things. I mean, I've met a lot of really, really bright young folks at graduate school, and they're my son's age, and I'm prepared to get, like, you know, hammered. But I'm going to see if I can still do this.

DONVAN: Charlie Trotter, sorry we ran out of time before we could take calls. We did have some lined up, but I want to thank you very much for joining us, and good luck in chapter two of your life. Charlie Trotter...

TROTTER: I appreciate that.

DONVAN: ...joining us from WBEZ. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR.

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