That Charlie Trotter’s is a quarter century old seems right and proper. That Zealous, opened by one of the first of Trotter’s proteges to go out on his own, Michael Taus, is now 19 years old seems incredible. Taus opened in Elmhurst in 1993, then came downtown (which had been his plan in the first place) to River North in 1999. Who were these kids opening restaurants? Like his mentor, he was an early proponent of things that have become standard on the dining scene in the past two decades, like buying direct from farmers (he says he’s been buying from Nichols Farm, for instance, since the day he opened). To mark his 19th anniversary, he’s offering weekly $85 prix-fixe 5-course menus all through August and September, bringing back dishes from throughout Zealous’ history. We spoke with him about how you keep it going for 19 years on Chicago’s ever-revolving scene, his mentor Trotter, and how the restaurant scene has changed since he and Charlie were the young Turks.
In the press release you observed that you were one of the only four restaurants left from Chicago Magazine’s Best New Restaurants issue in 1994. Do you remember what the others were?
One of them is Gabriel’s, which is about to close. I think one was Triple Crown in Chinatown, where I’ve actually worked— I used to go work for free in Chinese restaurants, in Indian restaurants, Thai restaurants, because I love global food and I wanted to learn it all. And the other one, I think, was Tuscany Oakbrook, where my dad eats twice a week (laughs).
You started Zealous out in the burbs where you grew up before coming back downtown. How did that come about?
I was all set to open downtown. I had a partner and we were about to sign on a space at Orleans and Erie. And then I woke up one morning and I just felt that the partner was not the right fit. So I decided to go it alone, and since I had half the money, I found this old trucking company building out in Elmhurst and we gut rehabbed it, I was the general contractor, actually. I think if I wasn’t a chef I’d be an architect. People see that when they see Zealous’ kitchen— a chef designed it.
It was a different world then— people would travel then. They went to Le Francais and Tallgrass and so on for dinner. Plus we were out there by McDonald’s and Keebler and all these companies, so they were happy to have somewhere of that level for corporate dinners. We had six good years out there, we got three stars across the board, but I always wanted to be downtown.
Coming back downtown [in 1999], it was a race to the moon between myself and Gail [Gand] and Rick [Tramonto] opening Tru, which one of us was going to join Trotter first as the new place at the top. Whoever built it first was going to get more press, we all knew that.
We all had similar backgrounds— we were all farm to table before it was popular. We had the same desire, to be innovative but to have that contemporary feel, to have an awesome wine list. You had to have Riedel, you had to have tables spaced out a certain way.
Charlie Trotter kind of wrecked it for all of us— once you worked for him, the bar was high, things had to be a certain way. They were wonderful things he taught you.
How do you compare the scene to how it is now?
There are so many restaurants now. Back then, people had to work 10 years before they could open a restaurant. And also, frankly, the economy was better so people had higher expectations, you had to put everything together just right.
We do a lot of corporate dining today. That’s an audience that still wants the level of service and the feeling of that style of dining. That’s our niche and it’s been very important to surviving not being the hot new restaurant for so long. We get people from all over the world who know us for that, for doing a really good job for vegetarians. We do a lot of weddings, too. Word passes from one party planner to the next.
At the same time, we’re not that formal. We try to do excellence but I want people to have a good time, I want them to laugh. We’re very personable. I’m in the restaurant every night. When we opened my mom and dad were in the dining room— my mom is bored, she still works here every day. We’re a family restaurant.
The restaurant scene is kind of like my iPhone— it’s cool and it does all these things but when it’s a year old, I feel like it’s so old, I gotta get a new one.
So you’ve resisted the casualization trend.
Well, I had a more casual restaurant for several years [Duchamp]. But I think diners are too tolerant now of tight tables, service that’s too casual. You wind up spending the same money, it’s just a more casual environment. It’s tough for me to do casual because I want to give people great service.
My customers are people who want a special night out. Couples like to dress up and show off. My customers get upset when someone in the dining room has shorts on. You don’t have to wear a jacket here, and you can come here and have a great burger— it’s not stuffy about food. But I want to give you a special night.
Let’s turn to Charlie Trotter. He has his fans and he has his detractors, but we get the impression you’re in the fan camp—
I would walk into the fire with Charlie Trotter.
Okay, that’s pretty clear.
Seriously. It’s like, back in the day, nobody talked shit about John F. Kennedy. Reporters knew things but they didn’t think we needed them 24 hours a day. We’re living in this new world of wall-to-wall negativity and I’m so tired of it.
Charlie always said to me, it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. I feel he’s done such an exceptional job for so long, six of us ate there the other night, and the two couples with us became true believers.
I think the world has loosened him up, too. It was very very nice to see Charlie Trotter smile at the end of the night.
You know, when I first came downtown, I talked to him first, I gave him the respect and he gave me his blessing. Because he’s the godfather. Relationships matter and if you’ve worked for him and spent a year there and did well, he will back you up, he will hook you up with people forever.
It’s a different world, young chefs are different. Everybody yelled back then. I’ve had to reteach myself how to handle young people today. But I always liked the tough coach aspect of it because it meant something when you earned their praise and respect. I always found Charlie very nice and genuine… compared to some of the chefs I’d worked for. We’re very lucky in our industry that we get to touch so many people, as he has.
I’ll tell you what got me started in this business and gave me my outlook on it. My father was a frustrated chef, I think, he had catering as a hobby. And when I was 11 years old, I made bearnaise sauce. A chef had made it but it broke, and I found in a book how to fix it. And at the end of the meal, everybody clapped for that dish. And I was sold. There aren’t many jobs where you get feedback like that.