News of the death of famed chef Charlie Trotter has disheartened many in the Chicago area who had been privileged to know him over the years. The high-profile culinary artist passed away on November 5th at his home in Lincoln Park from unknown causes at the age of 54.
Mr. Trotter was a trailblazer who helped to put American cuisine on the global map. Originally from Wilmette and Winnetka, Mr. Trotter studied political science in college at the University of Wisconsin at Madison before taking the plunge into the world of fine dining in 1982. He apprenticed himself to a string of restaurateurs across the United States and France, never staying in one kitchen longer than he felt he could learn more from the chef in charge, according to published accounts. In 1987, he opened his own establishment on W. Armitage Avenue, which he naturally called Charlie Trotter’s. It was not long before the upscale eatery was the talk of the town. He was named the country’s Outstanding Chef by the James Beard Foundation in 1999, and Wine Spectator magazine called Charlie Trotter’s the best restaurant in America in 2000, according to the Chicago Tribune. The once unknown North Shore kid had made good.
Mr. Trotter was honored with many awards during his life, but he said receiving the 2002 James Beard Award for Outstanding Service was the one in which he took the most pride, because it was “a team award.” He published 14 bestselling cookbooks (even including Gourmet Cooking for Dummies) and a series of restaurant management guidebooks, including Lessons in Excellence from Charlie Trotter. In 1999, PBS produced a TV series called “The Kitchen Sessions with Charlie Trotter,” which established him as one of the new celebrity chefs who were revolutionizing the perception of fine-dining as an art form in the media.
He was also prominent in philanthropic causes in the Chicago area. The Charlie Trotter Culinary Education Foundation raised money to help low-income students from Chicago high schools learn about food preparation and service as part of an “excellence” campaign designed to set them onpromising career paths. He was presented with the James Beard Foundation’s Humanitarian of the Year award in 2012.
Perhaps Mr. Trotter will best be remembered for the many younger associates he mentored who went on to become well-known chefs in their own rights. One former protege, Chef Graham Elliot, the proprietor of Graham Elliot’s in Chicago, called Mr. Trotter a “mentor, trailblazer, philosopher, artist, teacher, leader.” Another former employee anonymously noted, “He was the chef that put Chicago on the map.” To which, an editor at Bon Appetit responded, “I’ll go a step further—he was one of the chefs that put America on the world’s culinary map.”
According to the Chicago Tribune, Mr. Trotter had been diagnosed some years ago with an inoperable brain aneurysm. This caused him to shutter his flagship restaurant in 2012, at the advice of doctors.
Mr. Trotter’s wife, Rochelle, released a statement to the press, which read in part: “Charlie was a trailblazer and introduced people to a new way of dining when he opened Charlie Trotter’s. His impact upon American cuisine and the culinary world at large will always be remembered.”
Here at Fox Valley Fire & Safety, we knew Mr. Trotter as a businessman who had a serious and abiding interest in safety. We worked with him to design the fire-safety systems in his Chicago restaurants, which had to meet the highest of standards, his own. We had a long working relationship (beginning with his eponymous restaurant at 816 W. Armitage in the early days and later at Trotter’s To Go at 1337 W. Fullerton). We provided annual service and new fire extinguishers, emergency and exit lighting, sprinkler service, and an ANSUL commercial cooking fire-suppression system. (As most fires in restaurants start within cooking appliances, the ANSUL system becomes the first line of defense against disaster.)
Charlie Trotter’s restaurant had a rare fire in the walls of its kitchen on Thursday, June 19th of 2003. The fire was extinguished quickly, and no injuries were reported; but the kitchen was badly damaged, forcing the restaurant to close. We were called in to provide and install a new ANSUL Commercial Cooking System in the newly repaired and configured kitchen. A restaurant closed for any amount of time represents a loss; being closed for a weekend that was booked solid is a huge loss. The restaurant’s focus was to reopen as soon as possible. We shared that same focus as we secured all of the new equipment and installation materials, along with our expert two-man team to install the new ANSUL system. With our work being completed on Sunday, the restaurant was able to re-open on Monday. (We provide 24-hour emergency service on all fire-protection equipment for all of our customers.)
Chicagoans have missed Charlie Trotter’s restaurant since it closed last year, but now we mourn the loss of one of our own. We will deeply miss a legendary man and extend our heartfelt condolences to his family and friends at this sad time.