After 25 years, it came down to Sunday: the big farewell for Charlie Trotter’s. There are two more weeks of service followed by a special informal party on the 31st, but last night’s 25th anniversary benefit for Nathan Myhrvold’s charity was unquestionably the last hurrah and biggest event featuring the restaurant working at its peak of perfection, a level of culinary and service aspiration that changed American dining as much as any restaurant ever. In the kitchen with Trotter’s team were three chefs of wildly different styles— Myhrvold, Tetsuya Wakuda and Sean Brock— all of whom felt they owed Trotter a debt for the direction in which American cooking has gone during the restaurant’s 25 years. In the restaurant, paying $2500 per person to attend, were about 60 of Trotter’s oldest and most valued customers, some of whom had been to the restaurant as many as 400 times. We were privileged to dine with them— our immediate table companions included wine writer/novelist Jay McInerney and legendary Florida chef Norman Van Aken, who gave Trotter his start at Gordon in Chicago 30 years ago— while our man Huge Galdones was in the kitchen and elsewhere, capturing the behind-the-scenes story of an extraordinary dinner. Read our account below, or jump to our huge slideshow of everything that went into the night.
Many vastly expensive and sophisticated restaurants have opened in Chicago since Trotter’s first popped up in still-transitional Lincoln Park in 1987, but upon watching his staff welcome many of their most valued customers for the last time, it was apparent that it remained one of a kind when it came to taking the best possible care of the very, very well-heeled. The crowd did not consist of trendies needing to chase the latest hot thing (though an out-of-town guest at our table was coming to Trotter’s after visits on the same trip to Moto and Alinea and recent visits to Sixteen and L2O).
This was an older crowd, many doubtless from the financial industry, in whose lives Trotter’s restaurant had held a central place. It was the place where they discovered the finer things in life when they first made money in the boom of the eighties and early nineties, and which had shaped their tastes as they returned again and again, enjoyed being greeted by name and having their preferences remembered, and built their self-evidently substantial wine cellars with some guidance from Trotter’s legendary sommelier Larry Stone. More than once, as both Trotter and guests spoke about the past quarter century, it was with a note of wistful gratitude for having grown from relative youth to age as a guest here.
Which is not to say that it was a mournful evening— far from it. Trotter was ebullient, a man who seems to have lifted the weight of the world off his shoulders recently, even if the whip-crackingly tough Trotter of legend did pop up once or twice behind the scenes (not least when we tried to interview him while guests were waiting in his presence). But the final staff meeting before service was full of energy, laughs, and some bawdy kitchen humor, with his wife Rochelle, a firecracker herself, paying appropriate tribute to the staff as the restaurant’s family.
Then it was on to the meal. The chefs Trotter invited seemed united only by their differences: Wakuda with his Asian cuisine, Myhrvold and his team of mad kitchen scientists, Brock with his Southern heritage orientation. Yet each of them revealed a different side of Trotter’s influence: Wakuda’s food recalled how Trotter’s Asian leanings made American food that was clean and stripped to the essence of the ingredients; Myhrvold’s space-age creations offered the same shock of tasting something for the first time that Trotter’s farm-to-table food did 25 years ago, and Brock showed how Trotter’s refinement of Midwestern cuisine could similarly work on Southern ingredients.
Of the chefs at work— the fourth being Trotter’s own team under chef de cuisine Michael Rotondo— the one who most dazzled the diners was surely Myhrvold. Whether or not he’s the same kind of chef as the others— or more like the CEO of a technology team made up of trained chefs— isn’t clear, but every single one of the tricks he came up with proved to be no trick at all, but a deep insight into the essential flavor of a dish. A caprese salad drink made of emulsified whey and flavor extracted from tomato seeds was stunning in the way it seemed to deliver caprese flavor without the body of an eaten dish; a raw dish built around the flavor of peas separated from their form in a centrifuge was an injection of spring flavor straight to the pleasure centers of the brain. And a square of pastrami, made from short rib meat and prepared in a complex way we had too much wine to remember now, had the entire room drooling and making guttural noises in delight. Myhrvold and Trotter also went room to room doing a Mr. Wizard demonstration of fun with liquid nitrogen, shattering a rose from one of the centerpieces as their climax.
The wine flowed freely— one guest brought a Melchior, a giant bottle almost larger than sommelier Larry Stone as he struggled to pour it, and shared it with the entire restaurant— and we tasted many things which, we are pretty sure, we will never see (or have the money to acquire) again, courtesy of the collectors in the room whose generosity with their cellars surely has had few better opportunities to be displayed than on this night, wishing an old friend goodbye.