Charlie Trotter, the chef whose eponymous restaurant began a new and inventive era in American cuisine, has died. Trotter was 54, and had closed his restaurant in 2012 after 25 years of much success, and almost as much controversy and conflict. He said that he decided to close the restaurant so he could attend graduate school and study philosophy. He was reportedly found unconscious by his son on Tuesday morning in a Chicago residence.
Trotter was mentor to many cooks and chefs who went on to their own fame, including Grant Achatz, of Next and Alinea, and Graham Elliot. He was also known to have a volcanic temper, and many tales of his tantrums and yelling have been passed back and forth in restaurant kitchens around the nation through the years.
"In the Mount Rushmore of Chicago, his face would probably be up there: Michael Jordan, Al Capone, Charlie Trotter, Mayor Daley -- and they'd all be scowling," Jeff Ruby, who recently left the fulltime position that he held for 16 years as Chicago magazine's main restaurant critic, said of Trotter in The New York Times around the time the restaurant was closing. In the several years leading up to the shuttering of Charlie Trotter's, there was much talk about the chef not being able to keep up with his younger industry colleagues, and though the tables at the restaurant were always booked, some critics had begun talking about the food in less than laudatory tones.
Trotter was active in the fundraising world, and helped foundations and charities raise millions of dollars to benefit the needy. He and his staff were also known to select a homeless person at random off the street once a week and invite him or her to the restaurant for a free lunch.
"We put their carts in the garage," Trotter told the Times in 2012. "We make sure they wash their hands. We sit them down at the kitchen table. We give them an eight-course meal."
Underbelly's Chris Shepherd said news of Trotter's death shocked him. "He was a great influence on me when I was starting culinary school; I bought all of his books as soon as they came out," Shepherd said. "They are here at the restaurant on our shelves."
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"He was a very important and inspirational person and chef," said Michael Gaspard, a Houston chef who once worked in Chicago. "Not only to us in Chicago, but to the entire national food community. As a chef, restaurateur, leader and mentor, he will be greatly missed."
Trotter, who amassed ten James Beard awards, created the Charlie Trotter Education Foundation to provide scholarships for culinary students. He received the James Beard Foundation's Humanitarian of the Year award in 2012.