Today is Charlie Trotter’s Last Day. How Did Mark Caro Define His Legacy?

Charlie Trotter before his 25th anniversary dinner with Sean Brock, Maxime Billet and Rochelle Trotter.
Charlie Trotter before his 25th anniversary dinner with Sean Brock, Maxime Billet and Rochelle Trotter. Photo: Galdones Photography

And so, a day before his last day, the Tribune concluded its magnum opus on Charlie Trotter, which includes not only parts one, two and three of Mark Caro’s profile, but a sidebar on a lawsuit (more on that anon), a collection of quotes that didn’t seem to fit anywhere else, yet another review from Phil Vettel who was last there less than a year ago, a historical photo gallery (he’s so young!), another photo gallery, and a promotional piece about why Mark Caro was just the guy to do this job (which we take as their response to this). It’s the kind of exhaustively-researched carpet-bombing of a subject that only a big news organization can do, and there’s no question that Caro has added a great deal to the public details on the subject. But what does it all add up to?

Though it arguably doesn’t produce the vast new quantity of Mean Charlie Trotter stories that several ex-Trotterites feared after being approached by Caro (and we heard from a few more of them after our piece, agreeing with that interpretation), the series is framed from the beginning in terms of those kinds of stories— Trotter swiping a steak off Graham Elliot’s tray, forcing him to go back and cook more, Trotter putting his hands around Elliot’s throat (which, if you know the relative size of the two gentlemen, seems more comical than menacing). But casting the whole story in that light leaves open the question: why should we care? There are tough bosses all over the city, dare we say it even in the restaurant business, what makes this one any more interesting than some guy who runs a sales division or an ad agency?

It has to be because his food and his restaurant mattered, to the extent food ever does, and that’s a story that only begins to be told by Caro toward the end of the first day. The origin story is always the interesting part about any superhero, and the story of young Charlie falling in love with the precision of French dining (actually Swiss, at Girardet in Crissier) and pushing himself insanely to achieve something that didn’t exist in America is not only more interesting than him yelling at somebody, it’s the context that the yelling part lacked when it was used as a sensationalized opening. Maybe the best thing in the whole piece is this section in which Norman Van Aken and Carrie Nahabedian talk about his first days in the kitchen:

“I could just tell that he had talent,” Nahabedian says. “Even now when you’re talking to Charlie, watch his expressions with his body and his hands and the way that he always has one hand kind of at the top of his arm, and he’s holding it, and he’s so reflective. It wasn’t like he was an Italian person from the Bronx waving his arms around. It was just that self-assured confidence of inquisitiveness. I know he went to school and got his degree in something completely unrelated to cooking, yet it showed through in the interview that this was somebody that had that intensity, and those hands, they were going to create something great.”

Nahabedian and Trotter finally persuaded Van Aken to relent, but before those hands could achieve greatness, they accumulated their share of nicks.

“He kept hiding his hands from me,” Van Aken says. “His chef coat was dragging down past his hands, and I went over to him one day, and I just began to fold back his jacket sleeves for him like a mother might for a schoolchild who was in clothes that were too long. And then I realized that he had, you know, been cutting himself and burning himself in the act of getting to know how to cook, how to be a chef. And I was shocked. I was like, ‘What are you doing?’ He thought he was going to be in trouble. But then I began to kid him. I’d say, ‘Hey, Chuck, how many Band-Aids are we going to use on you today?’”

Caro raises the question explicitly: “Could Charlie Trotter’s have been Charlie Trotter’s without Charlie Trotter’s ultra-demanding, confrontational nature?” But focusing so relentlessly on employee relations means we don’t really get a sense of what it meant to be Charlie Trotter’s, so we can’t answer the question. Trotter was out to create something that not only didn’t exist but many people thought couldn’t— an American version of the great French kitchens— and he expected everyone who was on board for that to be as on board as he was. No one was going to get to that goal, in his mind, with a nice, easygoing kitchen. Is that true? Is 1988 being judged by the attitudes of our own more-sensitive-and-emo era, as Michael Taus suggested to us? It’s certainly possible, but we’re not given enough to judge.

And, frankly, as a friend of ours said last night at dinner— “Nothing seems that bad.” There’s a gas station not far from Trotter’s whose owner was alleged in a Trib piece some years ago to have murdered an oil company executive who tried to take his franchise away. Now that’s a tough Chicago businessman; smashing a plate or two or getting huffy with an exiting employee (which is mainly what part 3 is about) hardly compares.

Ironically, Caro doesn’t seem all that sympathetic to the one story that represents Trotter breaking employment law and arguably being unfair in an actual legal way— Beverly Kim’s lawsuit over salaried cooks working many more hours than they were paid for, which a number of other cooks ultimately signed on to. His sidebar on that turns out to be mostly people saying Kim didn’t fit into the kitchen anyway and was just a poor sport, which (besides having more than a whiff of sexism) avoids the underlying issue, which is, how much of the French system c. 1900 should 2000s America be able to stomach in a kitchen, legally and morally? We don’t think the issue is as clearcut as some make it— lots of salaried jobs these days come with an assumption of extra hours, which means realistically that that is the salary for that number of hours— but Kim did win her lawsuit, and you wouldn’t know why from Caro’s piece.

But look what we’ve done here. We set out to give an overall evaluation of Trotter’s legacy as a restaurant and in no time we’re down to talking about workplace law. To us, the fears were valid— that the whole story of Charlie Trotter’s restaurant would be reduced to juicy kitchen anecdotes which, frankly, aren’t all that juicy. (It’s the restaurant business in the 80s, yet sex and cocaine seem to be notably absent. Even the quitting stories are too dry to have amusing “take this job and shove it” moments.)

John Updike once said that as far as artists go, in the end the man is just a sort of custodian of the art; Picasso could indeed have been called an a-hole, but that doesn’t make Les Demoiselles d’Avignon any less great. It’s easy to separate a painting or a novel from the long-dead person who made it, but harder to have that detachment when talking about artistry with food, in which we know that the very rich are out front eating and the relatively poor are just on the other side of a door working like dogs. (Though Trotter’s habit of inviting homeless people in as guests kind of muddies that easy observation, we guess.)

Still, if you can’t look at the food for its own sake on some level, why are you here at all, and that great restaurant out front gets a bit lost when Trotter’s legacy is viewed almost solely from the standpoint of temperament rather than achievement. There’s a story we heard that Caro doesn’t tell, that there was a journalist doing a piece about Trotter some years ago, and Trotter invited him to a special dinner. The journalist demurred, saying his organization’s rules woudn’t pay for it and wouldn’t allow him to accept it as a freebie. But Trotter insisted, saying how can you tell my story if you don’t attend a dinner like this? How can you know what it’s like to dine here? So the journalist finally relented, got permission from his bosses and went to the dinner. And in Trotter’s opening remarks, he introduced the journalist— and said “And of course, being a journalist he can’t turn down a free meal.”

Was that a jerk move? You could say so. But it also was vintage Charlie Trotter, messing with you to see what you’re made of. (He did a milder version of that to us recently.) For Charlie Trotter, life is a test to see what you’ve got and how far you can take it. As Caro quotes him at the very end, “There’s got to be more to life than just being happy. You’ve got to be fulfilled. You’ve got to be satisfied; philosophically satisfied is what I mean. You’ve got to say, ‘Life is a puzzle, and what I do as a pursuit is going to be a puzzle, and so am I fulfilled?’” Which is why the 52-year-old, rich and famous Charlie Trotter is now planning to do the exact same thing that the driven kid with the Band-Aid-covered hands did: go to school.

Charlie Trotter’s closes tonight after 25 years. Here’s what we saw there two weeks ago:

Previously: Farewell at Charlie Trotter’s: Inside the Legendary Restaurant’s $2500-per-Person Gala Event

Talking Charlie Trotter’s Impact With Prof. Gary Fine

Today is Charlie Trotter’s Last Day. How Did Mark Caro Define His Legacy?