The Darker Side Of Charlie Trotter's

By Anthony Todd in Food on Aug 30, 2012 3:00PM

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Chef Beverly Kim on Top Chef, alongside Chef Sarah Grueneberg.
It's been all sunshine and roses for Charlie Trotter's in 2012. There have been more laudatory profiles than any one food writer could (or would possibly want) to read. Gala dinners, tributes, frantic tweeting and nostalgic memories; could anything cast a pall on this love-fest? Yes, as it turns out.

Buried in Mark Caro's multi-part Tribune retrospective was a story about Trotter alum Chef Beverly Kim that gave us pause.

Here's the backstory: Beverly Kim worked for Trotter in the early '00s. In 2003, she filed a lawsuit against him in federal court for failure to pay overtime for hours she had worked. Despite the fact that employment lawsuits are notoriously hard to get off the ground, she managed to get a settlement. Not only did Trotter have to pay her, but Trotter had to pay every person who had worked in a food-preparation role from 1998-2002. That came to more than $700,000.

That should be it, right? Maybe Kim and Trotter would have a bad relationship going forward, but that's how things shake out. Wrong. Every chef Caro interviewed badmouthed Kim up, down and sideways while, interestingly, never denying her central claim that she worked overtime without pay. One even admitted that Trotter had broken the law!

Take a look. From former Trotter sous David LeFevre: "She was just like freshly fallen snow. And in that kitchen, you had to have some really thick skin." From Chef Matthias Merges, now of Yusho: ""Honestly? She just couldn't hang. It was a very, very difficult environment for her." The most damning comment was from manager Mark Signorio.

"You want to be treated like an hourly employee and punch in and punch out? That's going to get you a certain level job, but if you want to excel and be a leader in the industry and create and innovate, you need to understand that there's sacrifices and commitments and challenges that you need to do."

Many of his employees returned their settlement money to Trotter in order to preserve their relationship with him. Should we be surprised from a chef who inspires such loyalty that criticizing him can lead to being tossed out of an alum's restaurant? What about those who took the cash? Trotter refused to speak to them again. And in a town where all roads led to Trotter and a career might depend on his endorsement, that's kind of a problem. Do something illegal, get caught, settle a lawsuit, then hate on people for collecting? You might think that sounds like retaliation.

Perfecting your craft is important, and in many professions you have to work your way up through the ranks. But the idea that you don't get paid a fair wage for the hours you actually worked? Maybe if you're an artist or a scholar and your work doesn't produce any revenue, that makes sense. Last time we dined at Trotters, the bill was over $1,000.

Like all lawsuits, there are two sides to this story. Trotter claims he paid her a fair wage, and that he is supportive of his employees. He is notoriously generous to charitable causes, supportive of the employees he likes and a pillar of the Chicago philanthropy scene. That's all well and good, but other parts of the Caro story make it clear that Trotter prides himself not only his perfectionism but on his meanness. One of many examples: this story from moto's Homaro Cantu.

“Charlie walks into the kitchen,” Cantu recalls, “and he goes up to Graham Elliot, and he puts his hands around (Elliot's) neck, and he's like, ‘Don't you know that I will (expletive) kill you right now?' And Elliot's just standing there, and tears (come) right out of his eyes.”

Machismo and abuse in the restaurant industry have been rampant for years. But interestingly enough, every female chef we have ever interviewed agrees on one thing: it doesn't necessarily lead to great performance. From Carol Wallack: "Gone are the days of screaming and abusive kitchens. In my kitchen, that is gone. It’s not a myth, it’s old school. Gordon Ramsey might still do that. I think it is pathetic." From Heather Terhune: "I grew up with those chefs, working my way up. Chefs who threw knives and chefs who threw tantrums, and I always said, “I’m never going to be that type of chef.” It’s not effective."

We could go on. Kim is a perfect example—despite the abuse heaped upon her by her male colleagues and claims that she was weak, she's done pretty well. She's run several restaurants, competed on Top Chef, and just took over Michelin-starred Bonsoiree. Trotter exemplifies one model of a very successful chef. But it clearly isn't the only model.

All this is to say, let's not be so quick to condemn Kim for being a "wimp" or to celebrate chefs for their legendary meanness. There are restaurants and chefs (male and female) who run their enterprises fairly, treat people with respect, and they do pretty well for themselves. There are many ways to inspire people to work hard, and it's just possible that a tiny bit of the Trotter legacy might be to inspire chefs to try to do things a different way.