There’s no doubt that the Chicago Tribune is planning something significant to mark Charlie Trotter’s retirement after 25 years. We saw a photographer from the Trib on assignment at Sunday night’s gala event; and we’ve heard from multiple sources over the past few weeks that staffer Mark Caro is working on a lengthy, or even multi-part, piece. Trotter was a central figure in Caro’s coverage of the foie gras ordinance/controversy in the mid-2000s— you can read the first chapter of his book The Foie Gras Wars, which is all about Trotter, here— so Caro is an obvious and obviously qualified choice to write the newspaper’s sendoff. But as Caro has made the rounds of past and present Trotter employees, associates, and rivals, the belief has begun to spread among insiders that the slant of the article will be highly negative, and that the main objective seems to be to add to the store of “Charlie Trotter, Really Hard Guy To Work For” stories. Which even those who share the sentiment think is only one side of the story, and hardly what his primary legacy should be as his iconic restaurant closes after 25 years of enormous influence.
Several mentioned to us that there seems to be bad blood between Trotter and the Tribune, for reasons they can only speculate upon. It’s not from his reviews, certainly, which have been glowing— when Steve Dolinsky wrote his famous attack on what he considered a phoned-in meal there, he specifically referenced a recent four star Vettel review. And if Trotter took offense at Caro’s portrait of him as perhaps more calculating than sincere in his opposition to foie gras, to an outsider as an overall appraisal it seemed balanced and in line with what one has always heard. (Though Caro also made a much bigger tempest in a teapot out of Trotter’s crack about eating Rick Tramonto’s liver than that sarcastic rant about a competitor may have really warranted.)
Whatever the reason, it’s a fact that when he announced the closing of his restaurant, Trotter made sure the Sun-Times got the scoop, not the Tribune or another logical outlet for old money dining news, Chicago magazine… which happens to be owned by Tribune Co. We’ve also heard that one prominent Trib food writer was in a party that was denied service at the restaurant— for the kitchen table no less— allegedly because of Trotter’s anger with a former employee in the group.
The sources we talked to acknowledge that Trotter largely is what he has been traditionally portrayed as being— demanding and withering and inspiring and boundlessly generous all in turn. Caro’s foie gras book summed up his reputation as “Trotter alumni often say they appreciated what he taught them— and they’d never, ever choose to relive the experience.” Yet the record shows that many have, from Michael Taus helping Trotter out at the James Beard House to Larry Stone returning for his last months as sommelier to David Myers showing up, unbilled, to lend a hand for Sunday’s gala. Even those with mixed feelings mostly expressed dismay to us at the thought of his legacy being reduced to a story full of “kitchen bitching”— without a fair appraisal of his overall immense and positive influence on making the dining scene in Chicago one of the leaders in the world.
We reached out to Mark Caro for comment but he declined to comment on a story in progress.