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Charles the Excellent


It was late into the second dinner service; smartly dressed plates of venison and salmon and heirloom cabbage still marched out the kitchen’s swinging doors with brio. But the world-famous chef had pulled me away. He led me to a dimly lit nook and, summoning up two glasses of white burgundy from a waiter, gestured toward the sofa. We sat. He flattered my writing and introduced me to his mother, who was passing through with a group of tennis friends. I flushed at his praise.

He expounded on his theories of excellence and achievement, then escorted me to his second-floor office, where he read from scores of thank-you cards sent by students who’d come through the four-star restaurant. He asked me where I’d gone to college and the evening began to take on the tenor of a very long but not unpleasant first date. He majored in philosophy, too! We have so much in common!

And then there, in the darkened office, softly lit by the street lamps and maybe even the moon, he confessed to me, “I am a libertarian capitalist.” I, sodden with foie gras and fine wine, could only nod. But I knew it would never work out.

“It’s all about excellence,” begins Charlie Trotter’s first cookbook, “or at least working toward excellence. Early on in your approach to cooking—or to running a restaurant—you have to determine whether or not you are willing to commit fully and completely to the idea of the pursuit of excellence. I have always looked at it this way: if you strive like crazy for perfection—an all-out assault on total perfection—at the very least you will hit a high level of excellence, and then you might be able to sleep at night.”

In October 2001 an item appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times that caused a stir in certain quarters. Trotter—chef, owner, and figurehead of the tony Lincoln Park restaurant that bears his name—had announced that he was thinking of taking some time off. He didn’t know if the restaurant would be open a year from now. If it was, he couldn’t say that he would be involved. He wanted to walk the Great Wall of China, read Kafka and Thoreau, and just generally chill out. (A year later the restaurant remains, but the scuttlebutt around town is that he’s headed for London by year’s end.)

For a 42-year-old white man at the top of his game, such midlife musings aren’t unusual. But coming from Trotter, a man once named the second-meanest person in town by Chicago magazine and who’s built his reputation on the dogged pursuit of perfection at all costs, it came as something of a shock.

Two years ago I dined at Charlie Trotter’s with a friend. We’d come into some money, a celebration was in order, and—curious—I made a reservation. The restaurant takes bookings four weeks in advance for weekday evenings, and two months in advance for weekends. A meal runs around $125 per person for the food alone. Wine can easily double the tab. In the six weeks between that phone call and T-day, I had a lot of time to think about what we were doing.

I’m not exactly a foodie. I mean, I like food. Who doesn’t? But I frequent the same four restaurants, most within walking distance of my house, where the average tab is maybe $10 per person. What were we doing? Were we just buying into established standards of what constitutes a good time, a just reward? Could we really justify blowing our windfall on seven small courses of wildly sauced food?

What were we doing? Could we really justify blowing our windfall on seven small courses of wildly sauced food?

Charlie Trotter, a culinary school dropout from Wilmette, opened his eponymous restaurant in Chicago in 1987, at the tender age of 27. Charlie Trotter, named after Charlie Parker and himself a jazz fan, sees the concept of the multicourse fixed-price tasting menu as something vaguely akin to musical improvisation. Charlie Trotter, “the Michael Jordan of cooking,” has snared multiple championship rings for his team. The James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Wine Service Award, 1993 and 2002; Outstanding Chef Award, 1999; Outstanding Restaurant Award, 2000; and Outstanding Service Award, 2002; Wine Spectator’s Best Restaurant in the World for Wine and Food, 1998 (but just Best Restaurant in the United States in 2000.)

I knew full well that a meal at Charlie Trotter’s is a dizzying parade of exquisitely prepared food, rigorously assembled and fastidiously garnished. You are warned to set aside four hours for the dining experience. No hard liquor is served; jackets are required. It starts with a complimentary amuse-gueule—French for “amuse the mouth.” It is not explained how, in a $125 fixed price meal, it is determined that this bite of caviar—of diver scallop, of morel flan—is, in fact, free.

Trotter champions the use of the freshest organic and local produce. He flies in free-range meat and line-caught fish from around the globe. Every fig, every leek, every lobster is inspected upon delivery. He’s pioneered the use of vegetable-juice-based vinaigrettes and light, emulsified broths for flavor, scorning the classical chef’s reliance on butter and cream. Furthermore, the flowers in the dining room are ruthlessly fresh, and each course arrives on a different china pattern. Wine is served in crystal Riedel stemware and the walls are covered with custom-woven fabric.

I knew that Charlie Trotter has a thing about lint. Maddened by the unpredictable appearance of loose fuzzies on his otherwise immaculate dining room carpets, he fretted over possible solutions. Breaking out the Dustbuster in the middle of dinner service was out of the question, and even a discreet dip on the part of a watchful waiter was deemed too distracting. Finally, inspiration: waiters at the restaurant wear double-sided tape on the bottom of their shoes.

I knew all this because in the weeks leading up to that dinner I’d started reading the collected Trotter hagiography. Charlie Trotter is more than just a chef, you see; he’s a branded multimedia industry. In addition to his eponymous cookbooks—each crammed with page after full-color page of impossibly glistening polysyllabic food fantasies—he’s got his own PBS series, The Cooking Sessions with Charlie Trotter, with accompanying guidebook, and has written himself into the big yellow zeitgeist with Gourmet Cooking for Dummies. He has a line of spices and December 2000 saw the long-awaited debut of Trotter’s to Go, a gourmet takeout shop in Lincoln Park.

He’s also inspired two business primers, Paul Clarke’s Lessons in Excellence from Charlie Trotter (1999) and Edmund Lawler’s fawning Lessons in Service (2001), in which the chef’s rules for living are examined in minute detail and then applied to corporate conduct. “To be a superb leader,” writes Clarke, “you don’t have to be sensationally charismatic—but you do need to act as a truly passionate and inspirational model for your staff all day, every day.” How passionate and inspirational is Trotter? Clarke cites this voice-mail message left by the chef for his staff while on a business trip: “The wine bottles on the upper left-hand rack, third row from the left, are out of chronological order. Please see that they are reorganized according to the vintage year. Also, the cups next to the cappuccino machine are spotted.”


On the appointed day we arrived at the townhouse restaurant in dreary November rain. The valet strode over, opened the car door, escorted us to the front stairs under an oversized umbrella, then ran around in front of us to open the discreetly marked door. Inside, the hostess took our coats and almost immediately we were seated by a solicitous waiter who pulled the table out for me to slide onto the banquette, then pushed it back asking, “Is that all right?” It was a nice table, in the second-floor balcony dining room. A low partition and an elaborate floral arrangement separated us from our neighbors. The room was austere, conservative, and a little frumpy.

Food arrived; we ate. Each dish was announced by the waiter with affectless clarity. Slow-roasted Scottish salmon with saffron-infused cauliflower puree, wilted arugula, and a spicy cucumber and chive emulsion. Muscovy duck breast with duck leg confit, collard greens, porcini mushrooms, and roasted parsnips. When I got up to go to the bathroom a hand appeared and opened the door for me. When I returned to the table a fresh, folded napkin awaited; the old, soiled, flawed napkin was gone.

Then came the wine. A shiraz, recommended by the waiter. Served the way it’s supposed to be—a small puddle at the bottom of a very large, ballooning glass. I lifted it to take a sip and my nose—my whole face—plunged in. It was overwhelming. I would have gladly forgone the rest of dinner for another glass of this wine. I didn’t get to examine the soles of the waiter’s shoes, but I bought it—I bought it all.

And yet, we were disappointed. It was all too too, and our spirits flagged. As the townhouse door closed behind us three hours and $370 later, we felt oddly deflated. Almost depressed. Weeks later, after trying to pinpoint the source of my discontent and running over and over the exquisite service, the micromanaged attention to detail, the broad white plates set with precisely machined food constructions—hot pink salmon under a neon green layer of chive-cucumber froth, two small pieces of lamb propped up on mounds of cabbage and accessorized with swooshes of bean puree, a complimentary ramekin of fresh ricotta topped with dark, wet huckleberries—I decided to write up the whole experience for the Chicago Reader, where I work. The piece (fair but critical; it did note that the lamb was barely lukewarm) ran accompanied by a drawing of the diminutive Trotter perched atop a pedestal, right hand tucked into the breast of his chef’s jacket, a waiter cowering in the background.

Two days after the story appeared, Charlie Trotter invited me over. He’d read my article and responded, as a good CEO should, with prompt and decisive action, sending a letter via messenger the day the paper hit the streets inviting me to spend a day in the hallowed kitchen as a “guest chef”—a privilege usually extended to those with the resources to purchase such access at a charity auction—in order “to better understand what we do here at the restaurant.” After I RSVP’d in the affirmative, he sent me flowers. Two exquisite arrangements—understated and tasteful yet clearly expensive—arrived at my office by lunch. The tulips were from Charlie; the lilies were—enigmatically—from the florist. “With highest regards,” read the card. I was floored, but, based on my research, I shouldn’t have expected anything less.

Management gurus from grandpappy Tom Peters on down to hopeful sycophants like Clarke and Lawler, the authors of the aforementioned Trotter-inspired texts, are fond of lessons about the importance of utter servility before the customer. Embrace your critics, say the masters, and be prepared to do it on your knees. Thus, Lessons in Service is full of anecdotes about employees who’ve comped problem diners $400 bottles of wine, driven guests home in their own cars when cabs were in short supply, and given away their ties to admiring patrons. These examples of abasement in service of the elusive goal of “excellence” are framed as instances of employee empowerment and creative problem-solving—but it’s worth noting that it’s not Trotter driving guests home at 2 a.m.

On the appointed day I’m ushered to the upstairs office and instructed to fill out a waiver absolving the restaurant of liability should I stab myself with a paring knife. In short order I’m given a white apron, chef’s jacket, and paper toque, ushered into the kitchen, and left in the custody of a sous chef in her late twenties or early thirties. Let’s call her Kristin. Kristin worked for Andersen Consulting until one day, a few years back, she’d had an epiphany and followed the call to culinary school. When she asked how I’d wound up in the kitchen, I said I’d written an article—that mean article—about your boss. This whole “pursuit of excellence” business, I ventured, it seems like he’s just setting himself up for failure.

“Oh really?” she said, and laid down her knife. “I’d like to say a few things about excellence if I may.”

I was expecting to chop, not to jot, so unfortunately the particulars of her testimonial to the virtues of excellence are a hazy memory. Something rhapsodic about the challenge of being the best she could be, every day, surrounded by like-minded compatriots. But I do recall the fanatic’s gleam in her eye.

Her enthusiasm for Charlie Corps was echoed by Jennifer, a pastry chef produced a few hours later to address a group of high school students participating in the restaurant’s Culinary Education Program. “Jennifer,” said Trotter, “would you tell our guests what ‘excellence’ means to you?”

“Certainly, Chef,” she replied, and you could hear the capital “C.”

I spent eight hours in Trotter’s kitchen, chopping parsley, pitting fruit, and trying to stay out of the way. The kitchen staff is uniformly young and fresh-faced and all business. “No leaning,” Kristin admonished, as I rested my hips on the cutting board. I straightened up, chastened. “Do you need anything?” asked the chef de cuisine, repeatedly. “Mineral water? Juice? Champagne?” None of the bona fide members of Team Charlie were indulging; I declined.

Trotter materialized in the second hour, shaking my hand (which was, itself, strangely, shaking) and thanking me for coming. “Have you seen the store yet?” he asked earnestly as he took his leave. “You should really see the store.” Ninety seconds later a brisk, cheerful woman appeared at my elbow. “Chef Trotter wants you to see the store. Why don’t you come with me.”

The cult of excellence, when applied to Trotter-style gastronomy, squeezes the joie de vivre out of dining along with the butter.

Later, as I gouged out the seeds from a football-sized passion fruit, the solicitous chef de cuisine reappeared at my shoulder bearing a spoonful of grits. He popped it in my mouth, and watched as I rolled them around on my tongue. “Makes you want to change careers, eh?” he grinned. They were creamy and dense and really, really good. They were also ridiculously pedigreed—organically grown and milled, I was informed, on a 300-year-old millstone in West Virginia—another brick in the construction of this temple to consumer privilege. My grits, I can say, are—like my pottery and my hand-knit sweater and my secret vacation spot in the Yucatan—special; not like everyone else’s; and I have the taste and education, not to mention the capital, to seek out, procure, and consume them.

This notion is reinforced when I’m taken to observe the Culinary Education Project in action, a program that, in addition to providing scholarships to promising culinary students, also offers two weekly meals at which high school kids are treated to an afternoon’s immersion in fine cuisine, table manners, and the power of positive thinking. In an article on the project in the trade magazine Chef, Trotter references the chaos theory trope that “if a butterfly flaps its wings in the Alps of Switzerland, two months later it will be experienced as a tsunami in Japan.” Similarly, he believes, exposure to his platform of excellence will seed discipline and drive in the students’ later lives.

It’s an interesting question, what makes some people “disadvantaged” while others are excellence-prone. Is it mostly to do with impediments such as poverty, horrendous public schools, violence, and society’s general indifference to their welfare? Or is it all about attitude? And what really can the well-meaning well-to-do actually do about it?

When Charlie started talking politics, I remembered Paul Clarke’s admiring revelation that Trotter encourages his staff to read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, so as “to better understand integrity and commitment.” I haven’t read the book, but the 1949 King Vidor movie is a hoot, featuring Gary Cooper in a scenery-chewing performance as Rand’s hero, architect Howard Roark, who destroys his own building rather than water down his vision with the ideas of weaker men.

Rand’s philosophy centers around the imperative of self-actualization. Freedom to fully exercise one’s creative potential is the only thing worth a damn in life, and if absolute self-interest is the ticket, then so be it. She championed the employment of rational self-interest in the service of capitalism, and had no truck with the liberal welfare state; private charity will take appropriate care of social ills.

This logic threads its way through many aspects of the Charlie Trotter experience. The Culinary Education Project, in its promise to sanctify the children by admitting them to the realm of the virtuous—this luxury temple maintained by its priests’ careful adherence to the doctrine of discipline and minutiae—is a good example. I am all in favor of scholarships and broadening experiences. Let’s even grant Charlie his butterfly-effect miracle. But what of the other teens who pass through the dining room, who carefully sip their vegetable juice vinaigrettes, poke nervously at their venison loin, and dutifully write their thank you notes the next day. The whole exercise may well just serve to reinforce a social order where some folks care that their grits are ground on a 300-year-old grindstone and others just plain like grits.

The cult of excellence, when applied to Trotter-style gastronomy, squeezes the joie de vivre out of dining along with the butter. Trotter is the merciless, impossible-to-please capitalist every captain of industry thinks he should be. Though his staff strives to adopt his style (no leaning!), they are (to take it from those who haven’t “made the cut”) as intimidated as they are empowered, and perpetually anxious about serving and indulging others. Trotter is no good-time Charlie; the regime of idealism and virtue that rules his restaurant must be a terrible strain. I wonder if humanity ever infiltrates the kitchen.