Celebrating A Culinary Legend – Chef Charlie Trotter
To many, he was simply known as Chef. And the celebration for him was as he would have done it himself and followed the unwavering principle he lived by: Get the best of everything – the finest, the freshest, the purest-tasting ingredients. This was always for him the highest priority, and he believed, the foundation of truly remarkable cuisine.
When chefs, sommeliers, restaurateurs and former staff, friends and family came together the night of Monday, November 11, to pay tribute to Chef Charlie Trotter, this principle was self-evident.
Less than a week earlier word had quickly spread that Chef Charlie Trotter, one of the food world’s living legends had died. Just as quickly luminaries and colleagues in the culinary community, from across the country and around the world, made arrangements to travel to Chicago to attend services and bid farewell. Chefs flying in from overseas included: Alain Ducasse – France, Tetsuya “Tets” Wakuda – Australia and Volundur Volunderson – Iceland. USA Celebrity Chefs included: Emeril Lagasse – LA, Daniel Boulud – NY, Thomas Keller & Jeremiah Tower – CA, Norm Van Aken – FL, Patrick O’Connell – VA, Gordon Sinclair – TX, and Art Smith & Graham Elliot – Chicago. Master Sommeliers included: Larry Stone – NV, Joseph Spellman & Serafin Alvarado – IL, Brian Cronin – CA, and Sommelier Ryan Stetins cut a vacation short and flew from Germany.
Moto owner, Chef Homaro Cantu, a Charlie Trotter’s restaurant alum, knew he wanted to provide a gathering point for those coming in. Taking a page from Chef Trotter’s handbook – Trotter often invited former staff to help with special occasions – Cantu put out the ask to his 250 past and present employees (Moto opened in 2004) for help. Around 200 heeded the call and converged on Moto to patch, paint, fabricate and prepare for the celebration. Chefs Matthias Merges, Giuseppe Tentori and many other former chefs and staff from CT’s rallied to help. Chef Cantu’s directive was also from Trotter’s handbook; “Get the best of everything and make sure there is more than enough.” Cantu planned the menu with the assistance of Richard Farina, Claire Crenshaw and Timothy Havidic.
Longtime Trotter friend, Ray Harris, who is managing director and vice chairman at Morgan Stanley Smith Barney in New York, had five cases of wine flown in: Domaine LeFlaive Puligny Montrachet 2008; Puligny Montrachet “Les Folatieres” Paul Pernot 2007; Chateau Beaucastel Chateneuf du Pape 1998; Flaccianello della Pieve Fontodi 2008 and Clarendon Hills “Liandra” Shiraz 1998. Others also contributed wine and champagnes under the supervision of former CT Chef and former Moto GM and Sommelier, Matt Gunlock.
Former Chef Frank Brunacci (of Trump Sixteen fame) and his wife Lillian, donated truffles from their truffle import company along with others who donated to ensure no shortage. Five varieties of caviar were shipped in. The Chef’s Garden owner, Farmer Lee Jones, purveyor of the finest vegetables in the country sent his picture perfect vegetables; Rare Cheese Cellars supplied some of the cheeses; Oysters and fresh seafood were flown in; a ten pound jamón ibérico leg imported from Spain arrived. Moto staff spent two days prepping. What wasn’t donated by others, Chef Cantu donated for the celebration.
Around 3:00 pm in the afternoon on November 11, guests began arriving to pay tribute and celebrate this icon, trailblazer, teacher, mentor, philanthropist, family member and friend. For some, it had been a few months since they had seen each other, for others, longer. Guests wandered between the two levels sharing stories and reminiscing about a man who had influenced and impacted their life path. The oft repeated catch-phrase of the evening was, “I would not be the person I am today if I had not worked for Chef Trotter.” By early evening approximately 150 chefs, sommeliers, former Trotter staff, friends and family had gathered.
Chef Cantu welcomed everyone and he too acknowledged that working for Trotter had further molded him and honed his culinary prowess. He invited Chefs Norman Van Aken and Carrie Nahabedian to speak, who, together, had helmed Sinclair’s (a Gordon Sinclair restaurant) on Chicago’s North Shore back in the ‘80s. Van Aken hired Trotter where he gained his first kitchen experience. They spoke about Trotter’s intensity, his passion for learning and his pursuit of excellence, and the live long friendship that formed between the three. Other chefs, sommeliers and friends also spoke. The evening continued into the late hours, all savoring the bittersweet reunion and reluctant to bid the final farewell.
Thank you to Chef Graham Elliot and his staff who hosted the group at GE Bistro on Sunday evening, November 10. Thank you also to Sari Zernich-Worsham and Derrek Hull who helped with information for this article.
“It’s all about excellence, or at least working towards excellence…You have to determine whether or not you are willing to commit fully completely to the idea of the pursuit of excellence…To accomplish something truly significant, excellence has to become a life plan.” Charlie Trotter – from the introduction in Chef’s first cookbook, Charlie Trotter’s 1994
Photo Credit: Amy Stallard