A Hamburger Today
A Tribute to Charlie Trotter From Wine Importer Terry Theise
When we heard of his death a few days ago, we agreed to pull a special bottle with which to drink to him, and the memory of his kindness to us both. I think he met my wife Odessa Piper while he was still a student at the University of Wisconsin, by which time she was running her restaurant L'Etoile. In any case, he was unfailingly kind to her, but not only kind—respectful and collegial, as he was to those whom he thought authentic.
I felt we should drink something old. Young wines seek to excite you; they have something they want you to taste. Old wines seek to send you into dreams; they have something they want you to understand. An old wine in good condition is a meditation on the natures of time and memory. Fitting, that we should drink to the memory of a chef who made the most meditative food I have ever eaten.
When I started selling wine to Trotter's, his was among the first restaurants in the echelon of the stellar to really make a statement about German wines, which in those days were all I offered. I knew in some barely formed way that these wines were good with food, especially refined food, but not very many agreed with me, and Trotter's filled me with hope and gave me no small quantity of bragging rights.
Dining there for the first time, I was somewhat dismayed to see that some of the prevailing critical clichés were justified. This was highly cerebral food, stopping just short of preciousness, and while everything tasted excellent I had to suppress a chuckle when the servers took longer to describe the dishes than it took us to eat them. But these were early days, and when I returned a year or two later, I had the first of many years' worth of entirely lovable meals, as charming and lyrical as food could ever be.
By then I knew some of the Trotter's staff personally, and heard my share of insider anecdotes. These were little more than tales of an obsessive-perfectionist-chef, interesting but unexceptional. Somewhat more darkly, I spoke with a friend who'd dined at the chef's table in the kitchen, and who solemnly swore he'd never return, so sadistic was Charlie's treatment of his staff while customers watched and winced. But there'll be plenty such stories in the weeks to come, and even while his body was still warm there were profiles of Charlie's life couched as Shakespearean tragedy. It was a large life, Charlie's. Many years later my chef's-table friend agreed to let me buy him a Trotter's dinner, and Charlie was so warm and kind that evening, and the food so heart-rendingly beautiful, that the bitter memory was at least somewhat effaced.
All I ever received from Charlie was kindness. Mostly it was kindness I couldn't fathom how I'd ever earned. On the occasion of the 20th-anniversary celebration dinner, Charlie paraded me through the rooms as a "VIP-guest," which was both amazing and absurd, insofar as most of the other diners' shoes cost more than my car. Later when I mentioned casually to Charlie that my book would come out the following year, he both offered to write a blurb for it and insisted that any event I might do in Chicago be done at his restaurant.
"Seriously?" I asked.
"Of course, seriously," he answered. "I'll be furious at you if you don't."
For many years I imagined his regard of me was largely the reflected regard he had for Odessa. We had our engagement dinner at Trotter's, and ate the first of many meals that would stretch glowingly through the years as some of the most loving food I've ever eaten. However obsessive or perfectionistic Charlie may have been, the result was a strangely egoless cuisine, more meditative than "spectacular," more delicious than "thrilling." I tried to write about it, actually in a thank-you note to Charlie, and when all I managed was a yearning fulsome mess I thought I hadn't better send it. But I remember one part: the classic Zen-archery image of aiming not for the target, but through the target. Other restaurants, including many I love very much, confer a feeling equivalent to observing the aurora borealis, but Charlie's food was like gazing on the sleeping face of your lover or your child.
I actually was able to prove this, thanks to an appallingly gluttonous evening one summer a few years ago. My dear friend (and Austrian agent) Peter Schleimer had never been to Trotter's, and so I decided to take him. We had an early table, and arrived separately in the midst of a hellish thunderstorm with tornadoes not far away. We ate a lovely and loving dinner. I pointed out that Charlie's food seemed to give energy rather than deplete it, so that you emerged sated yet alert. Peter agreed, and when we made our way out onto West Armitage, the storm had passed and the air was sweet and cool. So we decided to take a stroll around the neighborhood, and grab a taxi some time later.
We passed by Alinea. The night felt so fresh and young. "I wonder if we walked in, whether they could feed us just a few little things," I mused. "I'm not ready for this evening to end."
So in we went, we two intrepid souls, and had the temerity to ask if we could graze on a few dishes without wrenching the kitchen from its carefully practiced rhythms. It transpired we could, and we were seated and fed, oh perhaps seven or eight dishes, after which we made our wee-hours way into the taxis and off to our beds.
The next morning we couldn't be sure we hadn't dreamed the whole thing. But it showed me something valuable, to contrast those two cuisines cheek-by-jowl. Alinea explicit, galvanically emotional, psychedelically sensual, Trotter's murmury, implicit, beautiful as from a small distance, coming toward you just close enough to catch a scent. I never understood anyone needing to "rank" the two places or deciding which one should have more points or whatever. It felt vulgar and ungrateful.
I sometimes was bemused by Trotter's wine list, thrilled though I was to contribute to it. Let's say, it was very large, and also that it seemed to have a lot of wines designed to attract and reassure a certain kind of "well-heeled clientele" without particularly referring to the food. But this is an abiding complaint of mine; restaurants with massive capital tied up in red-wine inventory when 95 percent of their food is white-wine food. And yes, I've heard all the protestations that "people expect it," but if someone "expects" a 16-ounce T-Bone steak he isn't going to Trotter's to find it. Why should he "expect" to drink Silver Oak Cab with his quince soup? If I'd been Trotter's sommelier I'd have loaded the list with allusive, meditative, searching and haunting wines, and probably cut the customer count by half. I appreciate, albeit grudgingly, the perquisites of the "real world."
And I must say, I have never seen a restaurant that respected wine more than Trotter's. Many times I experienced the now-legendary adaptations of dishes to the wine on the table. Once I asked Charlie, "Did you really change that dish because I'd ordered (X) wine?" He said, "Of course I did; we do it all the time. What's in the bottle can't be changed, but I can tweak a dish to make the match work perfectly."
To this day I wonder at the modesty of it, especially from a chef often presumed to be obsessed and autocratic. Charlie always said his cooking was like jazz, and this was more than lip service. It was never food of Artifact, but rather always food of Invention. It was truly divine food. And Charlie himself was like some unaccountable angel who walks unseen off to the side of your life, but who brings you good fortune. He'd certainly have shooshed me if I'd ever tried to tell him such a thing, but alas, he can't shoosh me now.
The restaurant can only live in memory. As long as Charlie was alive, there was always a chance....a chance, he would open again, and make us the dream food we can barely believe we ever ate, but now there are only candles on the sidewalk, and little tributes such as this one, to a man who, somewhere in his difficult life, found room for me.
About the Author: Terry Theise won the 2008 James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professional. He imports artisanal small-production wine from Germany, Austria, and Champagne, and is the author of Reading Between the Wines.
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