Caricature? Genius? Chef Charlie Trotter’s legacy, examined
Opening its doors in 1987, Charlie Trotter’s put a new kind of fine, French-inspired, bracingly unpredictable gastronomic experience on the Chicago map.
The people with money came. From everywhere. Trotter — like Michael Jordan and Oprah Winfrey and a small handful of other globally famous Chicago celebrities — rode the wave even as he churned up a malestrom of controversy. The restaurant hung in there, increasingly quietly, until 2012, long enough for Trotter to see one of his former employees, Grant Achatz, open Alinea and snag the coveted Michelin three-star rating that forever eluded Trotter. The Winnetka native died in 2013 at age 54.
“Love, Charlie: The Rise and Fall of Chef Charlie Trotter” is Rebecca Halpern’s even-handed, clear-eyed portrait of the man who upped Chicago’s fine-dining game, permanently — as permanently as anything in the restaurant business can be, anyway. On Saturday and Monday, the Music Box Theatre presents screenings of the documentary, also available for home viewing on most streaming platforms.
Halpern’s movie played the 2021 Chicago International Film Festival; to me and others, it was “the first fully successful documentary about a high-flying Chicago chef’s triumph and torment.” Does Trotter’s story point to something in the air, water and competitive possibilities of Chicago? I wanted to know more, so I sat down with Tribune food critic Nick Kindelsperger to talk about the movie, and the difficult, inspired personality at its center. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Michael Phillips: Nick, it seems to me any documentary on Chicago’s restaurant scene has to work differently for different segments of its audience. You have the serious foodies who have followed the restaurant scene in this city, religiously. And then you have people like me who probably have to be pulled in by personality. Did “Love, Charlie” work for you?
Nick Kindelsperger: It did, although it’s a little too close to home. I really enjoyed how the filmmaker put it together, with all those postcards and letters he wrote to his first wife (Lisa Ehrlich, one of several key on-camera interview subjects). I never went to Charlie Trotter’s; that was before my time. I couldn’t afford to go there when it was still open. But its impact was huge and the film does a really good job of explaining Trotter’s influence without weighing the film down.
Phillips: Tell me more about the “too close to home” part.
Kindelsperger: I found a lot of it deeply sad. To see the transformation of Charlie Trotter over the years, from when he was healthy to the changes and the troubles at the end — it forces you to consider, in his case, what restaurants can do to people. Is this what it really takes to be a good artist in the restaurant sense? To be willing to destroy yourself? The daily torture of creating a great meal — it wears on people. It’s hard to watch. Trotter was a driven guy, and most of my favorite art is made by people who don’t leave anything on the table, but ….
Phillips: That same intensity can happen in a comparatively humble mom-and-pop place in a strip mall, where a meal might cost you 13 bucks.
Kindelsperger: Yeah. I just wrote about a great Rogers Park restaurant called Khmai, which does Cambodian fine cuisine, and the person behind it is there early morning, late at night — she’s so driven, and the results are right there on the plate. But burnout is a real thing. Is it an option maybe to, you know, shine brightly for a little bit, and then burn out? Or is it better to set up a system where you stick around for a long time?
Phillips: Trotter made it for 25 years. Maybe it’s like a great rock band, or a great storefront theater that might go mainstream for a while, and then fades out. Some don’t, of course, but most do. Maybe there’s a natural if bittersweet life span for a lot of artistic endeavors.
Kindelsperger: I mean, 25 years is a long time in the restaurant game. Food is such a temporal thing. Any chef should be proud of 25 years.
Phillips: Is there something about Chicago that encouraged this kind of culinary competition among restaurant giants, and then — for some — a push toward some sort of crisis point?
Kindelsperger: Good question. Chicago almost shouldn’t exist. So cold in the winter. So hot in the summer. You have to want to be here to succeed. But it’s a big city where you can still find opportunities to do projects that would be too expensive in New York or LA. Trotter’s obvious passion and drive was interestingly framed in the movie, I thought, because (the filmmakers) didn’t ignore the obvious dark side. Obviously he had a temper, and maybe he couldn’t maintain his own level of quality without it. But I’d like to think you can.
His brilliance was not in creating a French restaurant, but a two-star Michelin French restaurant experience in America, with American ingredients. And not a lot of butter! He didn’t use a lot of butter; it was a lighter style of cuisine. He didn’t create recipes that went on to be re-created by people all around the Midwest. I mean, Trotter’s recipes are hilariously elaborate. Everything’s wrapped around something, and then stuffed into another thing. All the recipes have appendices where you read it and it says that, oh, by the way, you needed to start making that part of the recipe three days ago (laughs).
Phillips: Trotter’s, Alinea — I’m stating the obvious, but these places cost many hundreds of dollars. I can’t help but be reminded that I tend not to have spare hundreds of dollars lying around.
Kindelsperger: When I was younger, I felt incredibly conflicted about going (to the highest-end establishments). No 28-year-old should be spending that kind of money on a meal. It’s just not responsible. I guess I still feel that way. When I go to a sushi restaurant, and it’s, like, $400, and the meal’s over in a hour …
Phillips: Wow. Where was that?
Kindelsperger: Mako, really high end, West Loop. I feel a lot of conflict. I mean, you want artists to make money. They put a lot of effort in, and if you think the effort is justified, you pay with your wallet. But when you roll in wine and service, at some point you’re thinking, do I need this? Do I care about them clearing the plates after every course, and going through 18 different plates?
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On the other hand: I’m so interested in food, and how things taste, I’ll drive any distance to try the best of whatever that may be. Then again, I’ve never been to a Bears game. I can’t spend that kind of money.
At least not on the Bears.
“Love, Charlie: The Rise and Fall of Chef Charlie Trotter,” 2 p.m. Nov. 19 and 7 p.m. Nov. 21 at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave.; musicboxtheatre.com. Distributed by Greenwich Entertainment, “Love, Charlie” is now available on most major VOD platforms, with DVDs also on sale Nov. 22.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
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