Charlie Trotter dies at 54; put Chicago on foodies’ radar

Charlie  Trotter
Chicago Chef Charlie Trotter, shown in September 2011, credited the development of his signature style to his travels in the U.S. and Europe. Among the chefs he mentored were Grant Achatz and Graham Elliot.
(Alex Garcia, MCT)

Renowned Chicago chef Charlie Trotter, an inspirational and notoriously mercurial figure whose eponymous restaurant became an international destination and who pioneered a bold, distinctly American form of haute cuisine, has died. He was 54.

Rescue crews called to Trotter’s apartment in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago on Tuesday morning found him unresponsive. He was taken to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. A Cook County medical examiner’s spokesman said Trotter’s death did not appear suspicious and indicated that he had a history of seizures and strokes. An autopsy is scheduled for Wednesday.

The chef, who closed Charlie Trotter’s in August 2012 after 25 years, was viewed as a larger-than-life figure in the culinary world. He was named the country’s Outstanding Chef by the James Beard Foundation in 1999, and a year later Wine Spectator magazine called Trotter’s the nation’s best restaurant.

Trotter, who never went to cooking school, wrote more than a dozen cookbooks and starred in a PBS series, “The Kitchen Sessions with Charlie Trotter.” He credited the development of his signature style to his travels in the U.S. and Europe after college and dining at the best restaurants.


Among the many chefs who worked under him and achieved success on their own were Graham Elliot of “Master Chef” fame, Grant Achatz of the Chicago restaurants Alinea and Next, Spago pastry chef Della Gossett and Los Angeles chef David LeFevre.

LeFevre, owner of MB Post and Fishing With Dynamite in Manhattan Beach, worked for Trotter for 10 years. “I think I can attribute the majority of my attention to detail and the majority of my awareness of what it takes to run a fine dining restaurant to him,” LeFevre said Tuesday. “He had a very acute sense of attention to detail and he saw things that most people didn’t see. All of us who worked for him are better chefs because we came out of that kitchen.

“He may not have been the best people person sometimes when he was trying to achieve a very difficult goal, but there’s no arguing that he made us all better chefs.”

Although known as a stern taskmaster with a hair-trigger temper, Trotter also had a reputation for spontaneous bursts of generosity toward employees as well as philanthropic efforts. The Charlie Trotter Culinary Education Foundation was said to have raised $3 million to provide needy students with culinary-program scholarships, and his Excellence Program enabled visiting high school students to dine at the restaurant and to hear about the pursuit of excellence from the chefs presenting each dish. Trotter was named the James Beard Foundation’s Humanitarian of the Year in 2012.


The past year had been difficult for Trotter, who said he was taking a sabbatical from the restaurant business. In August, he was criticized for having blown up at a group of high school art students who were using the restaurant space as a gallery. Last December, he pulled the plug on the public auction of some of the contents of his restaurant when bids did not meet his expectations. And in June, he was sued by a group of wine collectors who had paid more than $46,000 for a single bottle from the restaurant cellar at auction and later found it to be counterfeit.

Trotter received some push-back for his demanding ways, including having to settle two 2003 class-action lawsuits regarding overtime pay for the kitchen staff’ and tips distribution for the service staff. But the chef-owner remained unapologetic.

“If you ever want to get anywhere in life, you’re going to have to push it, and somebody’s going to push you to get there,” Trotter said in an interview. “End of story.”

Born Sept. 8, 1959, Trotter was raised in the Chicago suburb of Wilmette. His father, Robert, was an entrepreneur and his mother, Dona-Lee, was a homemaker. When he was a student at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Trotter and his roommate began competing with each other to see who could make the finest meals.

After graduating with a degree in political science in 1982, Trotter traveled around the U.S. and Europe, eating at the finest restaurants he could. Upon his return, he went to work testing his food in catering parties for family friends.

His first job in a kitchen was at a restaurant on Chicago’s North Shore area called Sinclair’s, where he worked under now well-known chefs such as Norman Van Aken and Carrie Nahabedian.

He opened Charlie Trotter’s in 1987 with his father as his partner. Over the next quarter of a century he became known for extensive tasting menus crafted with fine ingredients: naturally raised meat, line-caught seafood and organic produce.

Survivors include his second wife, Rochelle; and his son, Dylan, from his first marriage that ended in divorce.


Times staff writer Russ Parsons and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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