Much of the commentary on Charlie Trotter's announcement that he will close his eponymous restaurant in August has been from the perspective of the food scene as it exists in 2012— a food scene widely viewed as having passed Trotter's restaurant by. But that's hardly the appropriate comparison for an innovator who helped create the landscape he's being judged by. We wanted help understanding Trotter's impact from the way restaurants were when he opened his place in 1987, and for that we turned to someone who's been eating in— and observing— restaurants of the highest caliber since before Trotter's restaurant opened. Gary Alan Fine is a sociology professor at Northwestern University who wrote the first serious study of the culture inside restaurant kitchens half a decade before Kitchen Confidential, 1996's Kitchens: The Culture of Restaurant Work (revised 2008). He was also a restaurant reviewer in Philadelphia in the 1970s, and writes about what he eats at LTHForum and his blog Veal Cheeks. We'll run the interview in two parts; the first part, focusing on the dining world as it existed then and what set Trotter apart, is below.
What was the dining scene like then?
The great Chicago restaurant pre-Trotter’s was Le Francais, which was truly an exceptional restaurant, but also a restaurant that was designed to make Chicagoans feel that they could compete with New York (or Parisian) dining. Trotter’s was one of the earliest haute cuisine establishments that didn’t gaze longingly at Europe (a la The Bakery, Le Francais, Everest, Le Perroquet), but focused on American bounty. It is not an American restaurant as such, but it is also not a European restaurant. Its informality in service and even in style does have an American sensibility.
If one claims that Charlie Trotter was a hard-taskmaster— and all of the other rather vicious insults that have come his way— they know nothing about the kitchens of haute cuisine establishments, where pots could be slammed, knives banged, curses shouted, workers fired for a single error, and alcohol flowed like water. Sexual harassment went with the job. The traditional kitchen was what we might describe as “an obscenity factory,” a workplace filled with pungent and sometimes angry commentary: surely not a place in which one would ever, ever place a kitchen table. (Let me emphasize that this is not a commentary on Le Francais or any other establishment— I do not know how Chef Banchet ran his kitchen.)
When did you first eat at Trotter's? What was it like?
My first experience at Trotter’s occurred shortly after I relocated to Chicago to teach at Northwestern in the late-1990s. I had recently published my ethnography of restaurant life, Kitchens: The Culture of Restaurant Work. At the time there would have been little disagreement that Trotter’s reflected the zenith of Chicago fine dining and was one of the truly brilliant and influential American restaurants.
While restaurants such as Everest, Ambria, and Tru were well known in the city, it was Trotter’s that had a national reputation— a justified reputation— and it was Trotter's with a few other similar minded restaurants— that created a style of cuisine. It was a cuisine that might be described as “post-fusion” (post-Spago, perhaps). Rather than combining odd ingredients for the sake of combining (a weakness of early innovations, similar to the weaknesses of early molecular cuisine), Charlie Trotter took the critical next step. This was the essential step of deciding what flavors would actually go together to produce a harmonious, but novel combination of flavor and texture. The dish was a work of art that relied on an intellectual harmony. The dish is not simply a production, but a revelation. Whether this perspective of food as philosophy is a function of Trotter’s upper-middle-class background and a college degree (whereas many chefs were of working-class origins) I can’t say, but certainly the dishes at the time I dined at Trotter's (a decade after its opening) were subtle and original.
In addition, dining at Trotter's is not like dining at “fancy French restaurants” of old, the kind of restaurants that made so many diners anxious as to whether they would measure up in the evaluation of hoity-toity servers. Like American dining in the mid-1980s (notably Union Square Café or Montrachet or Grammercy Tavern), the food was of a very high level, but without the patina of formality that characterized Lutece or, in Chicagoland, Le Francais. Dining was accessible to well-heeled younger diners. I don’t believe that Trotter’s ever required a tie; a jacket I can’t recall. [They do—ed.]
What are some standout things you ate there over the years?
What I remember most is something that is somewhat odd, but at the time I found remarkable. At one dinner rather than ordering the wine pairing, I ordered the non-alcoholic pairing. Most of the drinks were made in house, and most were both startling and superb. The other thing that I remember is that I ordered the standard tasting menu, and my wife ordered the Vegetable Menu (I don’t believe that it was strict vegetarian), but while my menu was excellent, hers was superb.
Like so many chefs today, Chef Trotter had a real sensibility about vegetables. When I started dining in the late 1960s, the meat course was the center of the evening. Today the vegetable courses are central. Big proteins (beef, pork, lamb) are often after-thoughts, the weakest course of the night. While Chef Trotter can’t be given all of the credit for this (the Bay Area chefs such as Alice Waters had a lot to do with this change), Chef Trotter was part of it.
An example of Chef Trotter’s commitment to perfection was evident in one meal in which, as part of a tasting menu, I was served a fish dish that was, in my opinion, somewhat overcooked, although not so much that I would have thought to send it back. I mentioned this to our server when asked how was everything, and I didn’t think much about the dish (everything else was very good to outstanding). But when we were leaving there was Chef Trotter apologizing and offering a set of goodies. It must be difficult when you hear that a dish didn’t work, even if eight other dishes were remarkable, but it pointed to his desire and his demand that everything be perfect. My wife and I were impressed— if slightly worried for whomever worked the fish station that evening.