Charlie Trotter stood in his chef’s whites before an audience of high school students in the Studio Kitchen, the private-dining annex to his eponymous restaurant here. The students, dressed to the nines and seated at a banquet table, were from Providence-St. Mel, an academically rigorous Catholic school in the city’s rough East Garfield Park neighborhood.
They were there as Mr. Trotter’s guests, part of what he calls his excellence program, wherein, three nights a week, 50 weeks a year, youths from disadvantaged backgrounds are treated to an elaborate multicourse tasting menu, a tour of the restaurant and a succession of inspirational speakers, often including the chef himself.
As waiters whirled around the students, removing empty plates and filling Champagne flutes with sparkling organic grape juice from Germany, Mr. Trotter listened approvingly as a commis named James Caputo expounded upon the importance of discipline and teamwork. When he was done, Mr. Trotter thanked him and asked him to hang on for a moment. “Chef, ” Mr. Trotter said, “on a scale of 1 to 10 -- 1 being, oh, I don’t know, a Russian gulag, and 10 being nirvana -- how would you rate what it’s like to work for me?”
“Ten, easily,” Mr. Caputo said.
At this, Mr. Trotter pretended to look affronted. “Ten? That’s all?” he said.
This was obviously shtick, but it was also a sly acknowledgement of his reputation as fearsome autocrat. Though he can be genial and very funny, he has never been able to shake his label as a tyrant of fine dining.
In fact, it’s the main way his name has been coming up of late. Grant Achatz, the chef and an owner of the Chicago restaurant Alinea, devotes an entire chapter to Mr. Trotter’s scariness in his new memoir, “Life, on the Line.”
Otherwise, Mr. Trotter hardly seems to figure in the national food conversation anymore. In the very years when Chicago has gloried in newfound recognition as a major restaurant destination, with the spotlight trained upon alumni of Mr. Trotter’s kitchen like Mr. Achatz, Homaro Cantu (of Moto), Giuseppe Tentori (of Boka), and Graham Elliot (of Graham Elliot), the man who put the city on the fine-dining map has somehow fallen below the radar.
November’s inaugural Michelin guide to Chicago restaurants was telling. Alinea, the standard-bearer of technologically forward cuisine, got three stars, the guide’s highest rating, as did the modernist seafood restaurant L2O. The one-star tier was rife with relative newcomers of gonzo-hipster bent like Longman & Eagle, where the menu features a wild-boar sloppy Joe. In between, at a dutiful but unsexy two stars, was Charlie Trotter’s.
“I’d be lying if I said I don’t feel sad about that,” Mr. Elliot said. “I mean, I wanted to quit every day I worked there, but I’m proud that I got through it, and in some ways I look at Charlie as my father. To see him getting two stars instead of three, and not getting any articles or anything, it makes you feel bad — like seeing your dad lose his job.”
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