Charlie Trotter was called “Chuck.” Growing up in a fairly well-to-do family in Wilmette, Ill., the future owner of a Michelin-starred Chicago restaurant was always in motion – leaping, running, diving into the water. As “Chuck,” he studied political science at UW-Madison, drove an MG Midget and wrote incredibly detailed letters and postcards to his best friend/future first wife, Lisa Ehrlich.
Only when Trotter, who died of a stroke in 2013 at age 54, was coming up with a name for his first restaurant – his father, who supported it, didn’t like “Zelda’s” (a name inspired by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s mentally ill wife) – did the “Charlie Trotter” guise come into being. The dual personas of Chuck and Charlie are a theme in the 2021 feature-length documentary Love Charlie: The Rise and Fall of Chef Charlie Trotter.
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The tyrannical, perfectionistic restaurateur that “Charlie” projected was not the visionary, uninhibited, adventurous “Chuck” his family and early friends knew. But it’s what brought him accolades – the Michelin stars, the 10 James Beard Awards, the rabid foodie clientele, the 14 cookbooks, the line of organic gourmet foods, the PBS cooking show, the cameo in a Julia Roberts movie (in which he parodied himself) and the widespread celebrity, at a time chefs were just starting to achieve pop culture stardom. Trotter changed the way Americans viewed fine dining, plain and simple.
Trotter’s story is told by some of those closest to him – Ehrlich, his mother, his sister Anne, his food industry friends such as chef Emeril Lagasse. His life is also seen through the lens of rivals like Alinea founder/chef Grant Achatz, who worked for Trotter early in his career. Trotter was said to create and nurture an incredibly intense and difficult work environment where many buckled under the pressure. Some of those who thrived went on to their own brilliant careers.
An admirer of farm-to-table originator Alice Waters, Trotter championed vegetarian menus before they were a thing and made bold business decisions – from serving a degustation (tasting) menu that changed every single day to banning foie gras from his restaurants for ethical reasons. Charlie Trotter projected fearlessness – except when it came to his health. His family described him as terrified of doctors and medical tests going back to a traumatic childhood experience. He reportedly refused treatment after suffering a seizure and collapsing while out for a run.
He shocked the dining industry when in 2012 he announced the closing of Charlie Trotter’s restaurant, after 25 years. He said at the time he planned to travel the world with his wife Rochelle. A year later, he was gone.
The documentary shows some of the vulnerability behind the control freak. The sad thing, as some of his devotees say in the film, is that we’ll never see what he would do next. It’s all very sad. And perhaps the saddest thing of all is his legacy. Trotter’s name isn’t mentioned much anymore. A rebel and an influencer, Trotter worked hard to create his enigmatic persona – maybe to his own detriment.