Charlie Trotter has just announced that his 25-year-old testament to obsessive restaurateurship is closing next August. In recent years, even he admitted business was off a little, but his reasons are to pursue other interests — a philosophy degree among them. His decision makes one remember both how very famous he was (and is) and what it means to be a chef.
In an era of quickly-minted TV reality show “celebrity chefs,” it can be hard to recall that chefs used to really cook — and to remember that cooking is doing the same movements, the same recipes, the same preparation and clean-up over and over and over. It’s not winning a contest or being the loudest in the room, but instead perserverance, and as he once told me “just showing up.”
I looked up a piece I wrote on Trotter for The Boston Globe in 1999, when Charlie Trotter’s was a slip of 12 years old, and the chef came to Boston for a cookbook event (remember when cookbook publishing was important?). He agreed to talk to me, but it had to be at 11 p.m. because he was cooking with Rene Michelena who had worked for him, in La Bettola, a tiny South End restaurant where Petit Robert Columbus is now. That meant that Chef Trotter, then one of the two or three best-known chefs in the US, was hoisting pans and cutting garnishes in a kitchen the size of a closet.
When we talked in the basement office, Trotter’s first words were about the valet service at the restaurant the night before. No one greeted him when he got out of the car, and he thought that was disgraceful. We talked for over an hour, and despite the lateness and the fact that Trotter had been cooking all evening, and would leave for Chicago early the next morning, he could not have been more engaged, thoughtful, and passionate. He’ll take those attributes into his next career. And his example, if not his style of restaurant, should be the plan to follow for the chefs of tomorrow.