“People think I’m some obscene perfectionist,” the Chicago chef Charlie Trotter told me. “But I have coined a term for myself. I think I’m more of an ‘excellence-ist.’ And there is a difference. I’m interested in monitoring every little detail.”
I did a profile of Trotter for the New York Times. As a magazine-trained person, I still haven’t mastered the quick in-and-out of newspaper writing; the article looks long in print and online, but it contains about a tenth of the thoughts (and, okay, the self-indulgent bits of writerly nuance) that I wanted to include. I won’t yammer on too much here, but I will say that Chef Trotter has long intrigued me, in that he’s not the vision of the “celebrity chef” that we have come to know in the last two decades: the smiling, eager-to-please, camera-ready showman.
Trotter is an intense man who calls himself not only an “excellence-ist” but “a devout Ayn Randian.” With his wire-rim eyeglasses and scrubbed appearance, he looks like a nineteenth-century burgher. All of this puts him at odds with the liberal-humanist bent (and facial-hair-friendliness) of today’s food world—but that’s part of what I find refreshing about him. He’s true to who he is, even if that doesn’t make him fashionable or lovable—and he still runs one of America’s best kitchens.
The Times article focuses on the extent to which Trotter, whether through stubbornness or the simple passing of time, has been eclipsed by younger, more marketing-savvy chefs. But one conclusion I came to, which didn’t make the article, is that perhaps he is his generation’s version of André Soltner, who ran New York’s Lutèce and couldn’t be bothered with being anything more than the chef-owner of one great restaurant.
Trotter didn’t totally agree with this characterization, in that he can be bothered with dreams of expansion and off-site restaurants. But he did recognize in himself a bit of Soltner and a bit of his idol, the Swiss chef Frédy Girardet, also a one-restaurant guy until the day he retired. “I can relate—the only time Girardet ever missed a service was the day that the city of Lausanne gave him a key to the city,” Trotter said.
“So is that, ultimately, who you are?” I asked.
“Perhaps it is,” Trotter said. “Perhaps it is.”