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Chef for the Day at Charlie Trotter's

$1,200 may seem like a lot to spend on dinner. But that's how much gift certificates for Charlie Trotter's restaurant can fetch. The acclaimed Chicago chef often donates those gift certificates to charitable organizations. And while it would be easy to drop a grand or more on food at his Lincoln Park restaurant, those gift certificates offer something an ordinary reservation does not: a backstage pass to a world-class kitchen. For Chicago Public Radio, Nina Barrett reports.

Julie Victor is a therapist who lives in Ravenswood.  She owns several Charlie Trotter cookbooks, was a fan of his cooking show, and has dined at the restaurant twice in the past 20 years. When her husband came home from their son's school fund-raiser with a Charlie Trotter's “Chef for the Day” gift certificate, she felt just like little Charlie Bucket, unwrapping his Willy Wonka chocolate bar to discover the Golden Ticket.

VICTOR: I was sleepless the night I got it.  I didn't know what to make of it. It was too amazing.

When the day came, she arrived promptly at 2 o'clock.

WYER: So this is the kitchen. There are a lot of really cool and exciting things about it that I'm going to show you and point out, but you'll get familiar with it by the end of the day, I'm sure.

Garde Manger chef Katie Wyer starts Victor off with a tour and an overview of the menus. They are degustation-style, with multiple courses in tasting portions. There would be steamed cod with mussels, English peas, and pork cheek.  Roasted squab with hazelnut, pearl onion marmalade, and cocoa nib. Venison loin with dried prune, salt-baked rutabaga, and prune tortellini. Victor's first assignment is to help chef Jennifer Petrusky, who has just rolled out paper-thin sheets of egg-yolk pasta for the tortellini.
 
PETRUSKY: And then, like this is the belly of the tortellinis, so you push it up, and you just pull the ends together, so then you have this perfect little crown, and it stands up.

It takes some practice to get the hang of the technique, and Victor is impressed that Petrusky treats her maiden efforts with complete respect.

VICTOR: I was having a discussion with her about imperfection, that it is interesting to think that something as imperfect as what I just made will go out and be served to these diners. But that's part of the beauty, right? 

ambi: FAMILY MEAL

At about 3:30, when Victor has moved on to picking rosemary leaves for the pearl onions, the kitchen takes a break for Family Meal.  There's a huge vat of perfectly seasoned chili, green salad, rice, corn, and a pan of moist, luscious cornbread with a sticky maple glaze.  Though this is the only break the chefs get in what's regularly a 14- to 16-hour day, they all eat standing up. But they pamper Victor with a lovely table setting, a glass of Argentinian Malbec, and a chair to sit down in.
 
She's back in the kitchen by the time a yellow school bus pulls up around 4:30 to drop off more than a dozen students, dressed in their Sunday best.  Several nights a week, the restaurant invites a Chicago high school group to dinner, for what it calls the Excellence Program.

GILES: Many of our teammates are going to come out and tell you how they think about excellence and how they pursue excellence every day.  And one thing you're going to hear about is that the ideas we talk about, we hope you can take into your lives and apply to what you do, whether that be in school, any kind of sporting event, a part-time job. The students have to promise to try everything on their plates—even if it's sea urchin or lamb's tongue—and to ask at least two questions.

Tonight someone asks Charlie Trotter what cuisine he personally prefers.

TROTTER: What cuisine do I prefer? The cuisine you're eating, which is very personal. It borrows a little bit from Western Europe, but I'm really drawn more to an Asian, minimalist approach, that is to say, eliminating the use of cream and butter, other than a little ice cream at the end of the meal.  A lot of cultures are very strict, if you try to mix another influence in, it's considered ‘It's forbidden! It's not possible!' It's blasphemous, you wouldn't do it.  But in America, as with almost any field, if you can do it in a way where it comes across coherently, you can mix different things together.
 
Back in the kitchen, the dish Victor's now helping with is a perfect illustration.  She's smashing a chocolate sheet cake into crumbs, for a dessert listed on the menu as Okinawan Sweet Potato Sorbet with Vanilla Bean Marshmallow.  The cake has stout in it, to resonate with stout that's in the sauce. The crumbs will be used under the sorbet on the plate, to keep it from sliding around as the servers carry it out to the dining room, but also to lend flavor and texture to the dish. The Okinawana Sweet Potato is purple inside, and produces a sorbet that's a rich, deep lilac color. 

By now the kitchen is serving the first seating. Victor helps plate desserts, a Meyer lemon soufflé and an olive oil-chocolate chip ice cream.  Then she helps pastry team member Brandon Weeks package up cookies that the parking valets will sneak into customers' cars as a parting gift to discover after their departure. 

Then it's 8:00, the scheduled end-time for Victor's guest-chef experience. But now there's a surprise.  On one of the prep tables, as chefs all around continue to plate dishes for the customers, the staff has set an elegant dinner table, with china and glassware. Because how can they let Victor leave without tasting their food?

The dishes keep coming, for the next three hours. A total of eight, counting all four of the desserts on the menu, because really, how could any sane person make a choice they could live with afterwards? Each dish is like a miniature fireworks display on the plate, exploding with a kind of culinary energy that is what, when she finally packs up to leave at around 11, has impressed Victor more deeply than anything you might summarize, simply, as taste.

VICTOR: The colors—the purples, the greens, the contrasts of texture, and hot and cold, and just how multi-layered and rich so many of the dishes were. Nothing was simple. Everything was outside of what would be expected. But somehow, they worked.

Another part of the day was also richer than she expected.

VICTOR: One of the things that impressed me so much about the experience was that this is how they treat all their guests, whether they're the kids who come in through the Excellence Program, or the top-paying restaurant guests. That they're opening up this experience so that people who may not know of this experience or have this experience otherwise get to have it—and I think that that's amazing.

So what might have been just a cooking lesson has turned out to be a lesson in fusing other elements not generally served together in the world of haute cuisine. But as Charlie Trotter says, in America, if you can do it in a way where it comes across coherently, you can mix different things together, and make it work.

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