The scene at Fourth Presbyterian Church on Michigan Avenue Monday morning was a tableau of mourning black and chef’s whites. Friends, family and luminaries of the food world gathered to pay tribute to the late chef Charlie Trotter who died last week.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel took the podium to note that he and Trotter had a lot in common.
“We both graduated from New Trier High School the same year,” Emanuel said, “and we both developed the reputation for having styles that slightly—and I say slightly—could be called in your face.”
The mayor praised Trotter as a philanthropist who regularly hosted Chicago Public Schools students and the homeless for meals in his restaurant.
And indeed it was the memory of this generosity that stuck with many in attendance.
ABC TV anchor Linda Yu said “There are a number of charities I work for and he always asked me to tell him about them, and then he just supported them. That was the Charlie I knew.”
Pastor Sarah Butter brought the mourners to tears, recalling a scene in the emergency room last Tuesday when Trotter’s mother, Donna-Lee, traced a scar on her son’s forehead that he got when he was three, and declared “this is my son in whom I am well pleased. “
The chef started his Chicago career in the 80s at the North shore restaurant Sinclair’s under Carrie Nahabedian, now the chef at Naha and Norm Van Aken, now based in Miami who lauded Trotter’s generosity.
Van Aken called Trotter “the most supportive man outside my family that I have ever known.”
Concerned that others didn’t get to see that man, Van Aken says he has written a new book called “No Experience Necessary” that will let “more people know what a sweet man he was.”
French chef Daniel Boulud, one of many who flew in for the occasion, said “Charlie was unique to himself and he showed that you don’t need to be so conventional to make the greatest restaurant in the country.”
Ray Harris says he dined in Trotter’s restaurant 424 times. Before jumping in a cab with famed Australian chef Tetsuya Wakuda (who flew in from Australia) he offered his remembrances of the chef.
“Great chef, great visionary, great man and great personal friends,” Harris said. “When I get to the pearly gates I will be so glad that I met him in my time in Chicago.”
Other food industry luminaries in attendance included: Bill Kim, Homaro Cantu, Thomas Keller, Rick Bayless, Emeril Lagasse, Art Smith, Gale Gand, Rick Tramonto, Mindy Segal, Paul Kahan, Matthias Merges, Kevin Hickey, Alpana Singh, Todd English, Rich Melman, Gordon Sinclair, Debbie Sharpe, Jean Joho, Martial Noguier, Didier Durand, Larry Stone, Takashi Yagihashi, Carrie Nahabedian, Michael Kornick, Michael Taus, Dean Zanella, Della Gossett and more.
Here are more of their memories shared before and after the service:
“He meant everything to me. He really gave me the first opportunity to get started in Chicago. It was more than just food. He gave us the opportunity to do charity work and get to know the community and his family. It was more than just being a chef, it was knowing what it meant to be part of a family.”---Bill Kim, Urban Belly and Belly Q
“He brought Chicago great gastronomy and we lost somebody great in the city. When you think of all the great chefs in the world he will always stay with us. He did wonderful things for Chicago, the US and worldwide. He made lots of students who will be the next generation and it’s great to have that happen.”—Jean Joho, Everest
“He meant the world to the community. Maybe 90 percent of the restaurants in Chicago cook his style. He developed a style in Chicago of the degustation dinners and prix fixe and all that beautiful produce he wanted to use—the freshness. People say he was demanding but I say inspiring. They say he wanted his way but I say he was enlightened and he knew he wanted it that way.” —Didier Durand, Cyrano’s Farm Kitchen
“He was a friend and I compare him with Jean Banchet. Jean did a lot for Chicago and Charlie did a lot to put Chicago on the culinary map. He was a nice person and I am going to miss him. [In terms of being demanding] When you have a restaurant and every day it is a new story, you have to demand the best of the best if you want your restaurant to be successful.” —Martial Noguier, Bistronomique
“Charlie Trotter was the ultimate prankster. I used to expedite in his kitchen and I’d always have a glass of water because it gets hot and you have to shout and your throat gets really dry. If I would leave the line, sometimes Charlie would replace it with a glass full of vodka. So I’d come back and gulp down half a glass and realize it was vodka and see him out of the corner of my eye laughing with everyone else. Take that joke and multiply it by 1,000. …But he’d also take people who were down on their luck into the restaurant to eat and take high school students from the South and West side in for a nine-course meal to help them find their passion and go for it. He was a true humanitarian.”—Matthias Merges, Yusho
“Charlie meant everything to me. He gave me my life in this business. He changed my life tremendously. I was with him from day one in 1987 when he didn’t have an office and I stayed 24 years. I was there for the closing event and he let me have a dish on the menu. My favorite memory of Charlie was when he made a bobble head doll of me for the 20th anniversary dinner that said: ‘cut it out, chef,’ which is what I always said to him.”—Reggie Watkins, Trotter’s first employee
“He was a great chef. Everyone knows that. But, to me, he was like a brother. He came to my restaurant in Sydney 18 years ago and, since then, we just connected. We are the same age and started our restaurant the same year and since then we have been together for so many events. I never travel as a friend for these events, but only for Charlie.” —Tetsuya Wakuda, Tetsuya’s in Sydney
“He totally changed the level of American restaurants and moved up everything and a lot of chefs borrowed his directions. I didn’t understand how big his influence was until today’s ceremony. It kind of shocked me.”—Takashi Yagahashi, Takashi
“I met Charlie Trotter in 1987 and, since then, we have done many events together around charity. I was just recalling with Graham Elliot right now about a big dinner and how much fun we had. Gordan Ramsay, Tetsuya Wakuda, Graham Elliot, Ferran Adria, even Thomas Keller maybe. We were a big group. The first night before the party Gordon had a fight in the bar and then we were in the kitchen and I was organizing everything and taking control… But what really made Charlie was his generosity. His heart was bigger than anyone’s. Everyone was always ready for a surprise and encore and something spontaneous from him. He would never do the same dish, because for him he was always on this constant journey of perfection. I will remember the great moments we had cooking together.”
“When he would come to New York, I always loved to be spontaneous and Gallic and give him peasant food because I knew he wasn’t cooking peasant food. So I cooked for him three suckling pig heads. I braised them with a lot of endive and bacon and he just dug in and loved it. What I also loved about him was his admiration for chef Fredy Giradet. And I know today Fredy would be very sad.”—Daniel Boulud, Daniel
“I wouldn’t be where I am without him. He was a mentor for so many. It’s hard to think of Chicago’s restaurant scene without him…I remember the first week I worked for him at Trotter’s To Go, I was sweeping the floor and I could feel someone behind me. He was watching me and said ‘I can tell the kind of cook you are going to be by the way you sweep my floor.’ I thought about it for a minute and I got it: It’s all about the details and doing the right thing.” —Della Gossett, Spago in Beverly Hills
“The first time I met Charlie, Blackbird had been open for a month and he came in with Tetsuya, the famous chef from Australia, and Gordon Ramsay. When I came out, they all stood up and I did my best to give them the best meal I could with some restraint, because I think they appreciate that. But ever since then, Gordon Ramsay has been super kind to us and Charlie always had a way of bringing in luminaries and great chefs to our establishments and he will be missed.” —Paul Kahan, Blackbird, Publican etc.
“There was a time when Charlie [and sommelier Belinda Chang] invited in every sommelier in Chicago, and we’d meet in the studio kitchen once a month. We all had to prepare a report. So, for example, I did Portugal and Scott did South Africa. And Charlie would go into the cellar and bring out all of these expensive wines that we could never afford. And we were like ‘Oh my God. Are you really opening that?’ We did it for like six months. Purely out of his desire to elevate everybody in the sommelier community. It was purely out of generosity. He didn’t have to do that. ”—Sommeliers Alpana Singh of The Boarding House and Scott Tyree of Tru
“As you could tell by the service, cooking was only one of his many talents…I went to see him this fall at his home and we had a long great afternoon talking and hanging out (about the days when Nahabedian was his boss at Sinclair’s) and he said ‘you know you were really hard on me.’ I don’t recall myself being that mean. But I used to just say ‘it takes as long to do it right as it does to do it wrong. So why do it wrong?’ And I guess it stuck…My sister has Charlie’s dog because when she lost her husband he thought she needed a friend. So we have his big blue lab Madison…At the end of the day he thought of everyone before himself. He would have loved this.” -—Carrie Nahabedian, Naha
“When [former husband and chef] Rick [Tramonto] and I had Bella Luna, Charlie said ‘you have to come to the restaurant’ but we didn’t have many nights off. One night we had an early night and told him we were free but we didn’t have the right clothes. He said it was OK and he could seat us in the kitchen and have the waiter serve us and explain the food there. And that was the first time he did that. He was training back of the house to have the same skills as the front, and he started to blur that line…Also I remember how every night before service we’d sautee a pan of onions and bring them to the dining room to make the room smell like food…I feel like we [the culinary community] have lost our dad. But I hope we don’t lose our way.” ---Chef Gale Gand
“The night after my wedding in Chicago we went to Charlie Trotter’s for dinner and they took us next door (to the private studio kitchen) and we had I don’t know how many courses over the next seven hours, but it was one of the most spectacular meals of my life—rabbit that you couldn’t see because it was so covered with white truffles. It was amazing and he wouldn’t let me pay…I’ve been very lucky to have a lot of great press since I’ve been back to Chicago, and every single time something has been written about me Charlie has sent me a note congratulating me on it. I have a box full of them. He’d say ‘I saw the article in the Sun Times or Tribune and I’m so proud of you.’ That’s the kind of guy he was. - —Kevin Hickey, Rockit Ranch and Bridgeport
“If there was a male way to say this I would say that I keep thinking of the old Lulu song [“To Sir With Love”] of how do you thank someone who took you from a young age to an older age. He was the most supportive man outside my own family I have ever know. He was the most, in many ways loyal, funny, brilliant man…Look here today [at all of Trotter’s former chefs] and you can see the lineage of Charlie in Chicago. He was one of the major tributaries like the River itself. And it’s a good river, a kind river and a delicious river.” —Norman Van Aken, Norman’s, Orlando
“Charlie meant everything to Chicago’s culinary scene…He was so far ahead of the curve with chef’s tables, avante garde cuisine and farm to table. He put American fine dining on the map…If it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t be that shining jewel of a food city we are today.” —Steve Dolinsky, ABC-TV
“Everybody talks about the culinary part of Charlie, but Bill [Kurtis] and I got to know him philanthropically. And he was really as generous as he was talented, not only with his own foundation but he helped us at Steppenwolf Theater. He was always the first to step up and auction off a dinner. And nothing would go for a higher price than a Charlie Trotter dinner…He was always stepping above and beyond what he needed to do.”—Donna LaPietra, executive producer at Kurtis Productions
“He was an original and always had this reputation as being one of the best chefs in the country. I went to the 20th anniversary dinner with Thomas Keller [and other top chefs from all over the world] and it was spectacular. And they were there because they all loved him.” —longtime anchorman Bill Kurtis, Kurtis Productions
“I gave Charlie Trotter a job as a busboy when I had Sinclair’s American Grill in Lake Forest. That’s where he met Norman Van Aken who ran the kitchen and Carrie Nahabedian, who ran the pantry…He looked like he was 15 years old but he told me he was 22. I knew him as Chuck and he was just a young busboy but very attentive and focused on doing what needed to be done. He was very special from the beginning.” —Gordon Sinclair, of the erstwhile Chicago restaurants Sinclair’s and Gordon