By J.M. Hirsch
and Caryn Rousseau
CHICAGO: With a culinary style he likened to improvisational jazz, Charlie Trotter changed the way Americans view fine dining, pushing himself, his staff, his food and even his diners to limits rarely seen in an American restaurant. Yet it was his reluctance to move beyond those limits that may have defined the last years of his life.
Trotter, 54, died Tuesday, a year after closing his namesake Chicago restaurant that was credited with putting his city at the vanguard of the food world and training dozens of the nation’s top chefs, including Grant Achatz and Graham Elliot.
Paramedics were called around 10 a.m. to Trotter’s Lincoln Park home, where they found him unresponsive. An ambulance crew transported Trotter to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where he was declared dead after unsuccessful attempts to revive him, Chicago Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford said.
His wife, Rochelle Trotter, on Tuesday expressed the family’s shock at his death and appreciation for the many tributes pouring in from all quarters.
Trotter’s name was synonymous with cutting-edge cuisine. He received 10 James Beard Awards, wrote 10 cookbooks and in 1999 hosted his own public television series, The Kitchen Sessions with Charlie Trotter.
Trotter’s food was grounded in classical French technique, but blended seamlessly with Asian influences. He believed fervently in the power of simplicity and clean cooking, turning to simple vegetable purees and stocks — rather than heavy sauces — to deliver stand-up flavor in menus that changed daily.
But in time, the food world caught up with him. And food culture changed, with celebrity often trumping skill. It was a world to which he adapted poorly.
In 2012 — and in keeping with his reputation for bold, unexpected moves — Trotter closed his iconic 120-seat restaurant. His plan? Return to college to study philosophy.
“The one thing it will do for me is let me wipe a certain slate clean. And while I’m studying and reading and applying myself to something else, if I decide to come back to the restaurant world, I think I’m going to bring a different perspective,” he said in an interview last year.