In the second part of our interview (part 1 is here) with author, Northwestern University professor of sociology, and frequent fine diner Gary Alan Fine, we talk about Charlie Trotter’s impact on the dining scene and what his legacy will be. But first, we talk about one of the things that set Trotter apart— actually putting a table in your kitchen, which assumed 1) that diners would want to see what goes on in the kitchen and 2) that you’d want diners to see what goes on in the kitchen.
I think you’ve had the kitchen table, right? What was that like and what did you think of eating right in the middle of the kitchen at work?
I ate at the kitchen table one night— a night that Chef Trotter was present. I believe that this was the first time I dined at the restaurant, and everything was just superb. We were visited by several members of the staff, including Chef Trotter. I was impressed by how quiet and focused the kitchen was. In the course of my research in restaurant kitchens, I certainly heard enough yelling, anger, and obscenity, but this kitchen was clean and quiet and serious. To have customers in one’s kitchen each night reveals that yelling is not a part of this kitchen’s culture.
What impact do you think Trotter has had on dining in Chicago?
Chicagoans are always eager to compare themselves with New Yorkers, and Chef Trotter established a restaurant that was as good (better?) than any restaurant in New York. He was like Steppenwolf, Oprah, the Bulls, Second City. Cultural monuments that New Yorkers had to take note of. Of course, he has also trained a cadre of important chefs who have taken his intellectual sensibility and combined that with other trends, such as farm-to-table or molecular cuisine. Every teacher should properly wish for his students to surpass him, and that has been the case most notably with the unique Grant Achatz, but the fact that some of his students could surpass him means that they were able, as Isaac Newton remarked, to stand on the shoulders of a giant.
A lot of people think the restaurant’s been passed by. Was there a point where it no longer seemed new to you?
In the days that I was a restaurant critic in Philadelphia in the early 1970s, the upscale cuisine owed much to French cookery, directly or indirectly. But those restaurants have largely been supplanted. Fashion moves on— and it never stops. There was a group of chefs in the mid-1980s who attempted to combine a semi-casual atmosphere (an unstuffy air) with thoughtfully prepared, clean foods. We had moved from high-calorie sauces. Every dish did not need to be swimming in cream and butter. Meats could be prepared in their own juices and served “under-cooked” and vegetables were seen as belonging front and center, and not after-thoughts. However, the techniques had not changed radically (even if roux and creams were not so common), and while ingredients had to be properly sourced, there was not a sense that the chef should forage weeds himself or to develop friendships with farmers (although Chez Panisse developed this sensibility in the Bay Area).
Art moves on. But even the best and brightest chef (and Chef Trotter surely is one) will only have so many revolutionary ideas in the course of a career. The deserved reputation of Trotter’s was, in time, surpassed by other restaurants, most notably Trio and then Alinea under Grant Achatz, the one restaurant that most clearly has supplanted Trotter’s as Chicago’s best (it is hard for me to suggest that there is a second restaurant in Chicago that is consistently grander than Trotter’s). But that is what happens in art worlds. New generations, new ideas. But we don’t dismiss Matisse or Manet just because they don’t create works like Damian Hirst.
What would you like to see him do next?
It would be presumptuous of me to suggest an answer to this question. Just as I hope he won’t answer for my own career. Chef Trotter should fulfill himself. Take those courses in political theory and philosophy (Northwestern does offer M.A. degrees), and perhaps at some point spend time with Ferran Adria at his atelier. If creating food still drives you, Charlie, return. If not, it has been a terrific run. Charlie Trotter belongs in the same pantheon with Louis Szathmary and Jean Banchet, and no one can take that from him. Chef Trotter brought Chicago dining to the pinnacle, for which we should be profoundly grateful.