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Chicagoist's Top Stories of 2012: The End of Charlie Trotter's

By Anthony Todd in Food on Dec 21, 2012 4:25PM

Photo by Huge Galdones, via Grubstreet Chicago.
The biggest culinary story of 2012 was, without question, the closing of Charlie Trotters. Unlike most top stories of the year, it lasted throughout the entire year. Chef Trotter announced on New Year's Day that he'd be closing down his famous restaurant in August, thus guaranteeing three-fourths of 2012 would be filled with retrospectives, nostalgia and laudatory messages from chefs all over the world. All of those happened, but the closing also revealed something of the darker side of Chef Trotter and brought some personality conflicts within the Chicago food world to a head.

Trotters opened back in 1987, at a time when fine dining wasn't the local juggernaut it is today. It exemplified a particular moment in culinary history, a moment when putting on a jacket and tie to go spend $1,000 on dinner was, if not quite normal, at least acceptable among a certain set. After all, there wasn't anywhere else that people could get food like what was coming out of Trotter's kitchen. He rapidly made it onto every best-of list in the world, as well as every Chicago guidebook, as the restaurant that true gourmands had to visit when they came to Chicago.

Whatever we may think of Trotter the man (and we have some strong opinions) his impact on the Chicago food scene can't be denied. Practically every famous chef in Chicago passed through Trotter's kitchen, to the point where publicists should have assigned a key on their keyboard so they could type "formerly of Charlie Trotters" with one push of a button. Everyone you've heard of, including luminaries like Grant Achatz, Graham Elliot, Homaro Cantu, Mindy Segal, Bill Kim, Beverly Kim and Curtis Duffy came out of Trotter's kitchen. Ironically, the successes of these luminaries probably contributed to the closing.

There was a certain sense that Trotter's never grew up. It remained popular and never lost its cache among a certain crowd, but it stopped being a restaurant that food lovers in Chicago recommended to visitors. It stopped getting much press, except for the annual "it's the best" listings. Why? Well, American tastes changed. Ethnic flavors took over the market, fine dining replete with suits and linens and caviar lost much of its cache, and many chefs moved away from multi-course French frippery and into simpler food. The focus shifted to local and seasonal ingredients, to comfort food and to prices that normal people could afford. Lots of Trotter's alums opened high-end places (Alinea is, after all, the best restaurant in America) but far more of them opened high-quality neighborhood restaurants that made it possible for Chicagoans to eat carefully-prepared food without having to sell the shirts off their backs.

Outside of Chicago, where Trotter didn't have the cache he enjoyed here, he never had much success. His Las Vegas restaurant closed after only a few years in operation, unable to compete with the food world of 2010. Trotter's to Go, his quick-service operation, closed down a month before the restaurant, and we suspect that the proliferation of high-end delis and gourmet shops (and the general elevation of take-out cuisine) rendered it somewhat unnecessary.

This decline—or, more accurately, stagnation—became more visible in the last years of Trotter's and his alums began to take it personally. Even as they moved beyond him, many of Chicago's best still had a sense of loyalty. In Graham Elliot's case, that sense of loyalty was so strong that he tossed ABC food reporter Steve Dolinsky out of his restaurant in June for daring to criticize Trotter in public.

There's no denying that Trotter was, in many ways, a great man. He ran a successful business for years, he contributed more to charity than any chef in Chicago and he genuinely seemed to care about the world around him. Unfortunately, as we came closer to the restaurant's closing, the deepening media coverage of Trotter (led by Tribune reporter Mark Caro) made it clear that he wasn't as kind to those inside his kitchen. Any chef who worked with Trotter will admit his harshness, but stories of discrimination, lawsuits and retaliation seeped out. Trotter was sued by former employee (and Top Chef contestant) Beverly Kim in 2003 for being forced to work extra hours without pay, and, after settling the lawsuit, he threatened to blacklist any of his chefs who took their part of the settlement. Threats, yelling, violence; these were part of the routine at Trotter's, whatever the restaurant's public face.

And therein lies another piece of the story of time passing Trotter's by. Despite Anthony Bourdain's and Gordon Ramsay's antics, the culinary world is growing up. Many great chefs no longer consider themselves entitled to behave like warlords and instead act like employers, business owners and mentors. More women have broken into the top ranks and they have told us again and again in interviews that they don't believe in running a kitchen with fear and violence. Rather than passing on his legacy, Trotter may have performed an equally valuable, if unintentional, service to the culinary world: leading chefs to do the exact opposite of his example.

As August approached, the reminiscences began. Fabulous closing meals ensued, costing thousands of dollars. The last night was a star-studded gala of epic proportions. The story of Charlie Trotter's was over.

Or so we thought. Even closing his restaurant couldn't keep him down. The next big news story? The auctions. First, the legendary wine collection was sold for over a million dollars. Then, Trotter announced that everything in the restaurant must be sold off, from the furniture to the plates. Given the laudatory insanity surrounding the closing, Chef Trotter must have expected the public to snap up every piece of the restaurant as a memento of this great era of culinary history. Unfortunately, it didn't turn out that way and an angry Chef Trotter shut down the auction early when things failed to sell. He also displayed his legendary temper by throwing Mark Caro out of the auction preview and throwing a photographer for the Sun-Times out of the auction itself.

What's next for Trotter and his restaurant? Well, he says that he is going to go to graduate school in philosophy. We'll be interested to see what happens when and if he tries to treat his fellow students and professors as he treated his chefs—he may not enjoy being the subordinate after so many years. The restaurant? Well, rumors persist (fed by moto Chef Homaro Cantu's constant social media poking) that one of Trotter's proteges may buy it and keep the space, if not the name, alive. That will be the big story for next year, if it happens.