Charlie Trotter is internationally recognized as one of the world’s most formidable chefs. With the opening of Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago in 1987, he played a critical role in changing not only the face of American cuisine, but the method by which chefs interact with their purveyors. Choosing to work with only the highest quality of local and seasonal products, Chef Trotter was able to depart from traditional, fat-laden cooking methods and embark upon a journey of flavor innovations that continue to delight gourmets from around the globe.
Above all, Chef Trotter is known for his relentless pursuit of excellence, a trait that pervades all aspects of a culinary empire comprised of restaurants, cookbooks, a television series, cooking tools, and gourmet food products.
He counts Ayn Rand among his heroes, and credits her with having a significant influence on his approach to life. In this interview with Jennifer Iannolo for the Atlasphere, Trotter discusses his philosophy, his unique approach to business, and his views on the world (and future) of cuisine.
The Atlasphere: How did you discover Ayn Rand's writings?
Charlie Trotter: When I was a junior in college, around twenty years old, I was feeling somewhat isolated — I couldn’t really relate to the fraternity or party scene, to the people out in the mall every day protesting one thing or another. I felt like there was no one I could relate to.
My older cousin Katy Trotter was doing her grad work at UC Berkeley, and she gave me The Fountainhead to read. It was like music to my ears — for the first time in my life someone was espousing my point of view. What I was reading was already part of my psyche, but finally someone else was saying “it’s okay to walk alone.”
And to me, Rand’s philosophy exalts our possibilities here on earth – that anything less than the pursuit of excellence is a crime.
TA: What gave you this initial point of view? Where did you learn it?
Trotter: I actually grew up with a somewhat Randian outlook. My father could have been a character from one of her books. He was considered to be the “black sheep” of his family. He spent his youth hustling in pool halls, and started a jazz band called the Trotter Sextet. He played the trumpet.
His father tried to tell him what course to follow with his life, that he should seek a future with stability, and my father did end up going off to college. He earned his degree from Northwestern, and after graduation he wanted to go to work for a little startup company called IBM. His father strongly advised against it, saying “They’ve got no solid foundation, no reputation!” But he did it anyway. After a successful run there he wanted to follow his dream and start his own company. His father said, “Why would you want to leave a successful company like IBM? They would give you a solid future!”
My father started an upper-level executive search firm called Source EDP — now Source Services. Eventually he had ninety offices around North America. People still come into the restaurant and tell me how grateful they are to my father, that his company helped to change their lives.
When I was a kid, he pulled me aside and said, “Your mother and I will support you no matter what — spiritually, emotionally, and even financially if necessary — but you are not coming to work for me. You must choose your own path and be your own boss. It is the most satisfying way to live, and the only way you can experience the joy of charting your own course.”
So I was really raised as a capitalist, around a true entrepreneur.
I also observed my father’s style of living. He was not much of a materialist — he didn’t really care about things like that. The one treat he did give himself was a new Jaguar every few years. But he had a great deal of modesty and generosity — an old-fashioned approach to life. He always did things with commitment and follow-through, and had sort of a Midas touch. Incidentally, he helped to turn part of Northwestern University into the Kellogg School of Management.
Trotter: Yes. As an undergraduate I had a broad swath of learning that covered so many topics — it was an experience in itself. When I talk to young cooks who want to go to culinary school right out of high school, I advise them instead to study something useful in liberal arts or humanities. They need to learn how to think critically, how to argue opposing ideas. It is important for them to learn how to think. You can always cook.
TA: When it comes to cooking, you are almost completely self-taught. How did you manage to learn enough to open a restaurant in your twenties?
Trotter: I had a lot of jobs. I felt like I was starting late in the industry when I began to work in restaurants. I was twenty-three and had finished college, so I decided to go to culinary school. After attending the California Culinary Academy for a short time I felt stifled — I wanted to start working in the field. So I would go work at various restaurants, approaching each one with the philosophy that “I will work here until I can’t learn any more.”
I always committed myself to giving back more than I took for the job I had to do, and worked hours and hours at each restaurant. Sometimes after two weeks I wouldn’t agree with the way things were being run, or the cleanliness level, and would move on. I think I worked at forty restaurants over a four-year period. I would think to myself, “I can at least do what they’re doing here.”
TA: You have said that Chef Fernand Point was your spiritual mentor, and Chef Fredy Girardet your philosophical mentor. Could you expand upon this?
Trotter: If someone were to take away all my cookbooks except for one, I would keep Fernand Point’s Ma Gastronomie. For me, his philosophy instilled what cuisine is all about: generosity and hugeness of heart. Point said that if you are not a generous person you cannot be in this field. I think you’ll notice that chefs, as a whole, say yes to any project, fundraiser, or tasting because they have such a generous spirit.
Fredy Girardet, to me, is the great poet of the kitchen. His is more of a living, breathing cuisine, and he captures the sense of being in the moment with food. In autumn 1985 I took a three-month trip to France to eat and learn. I started out at Point’s restaurant, La Pyramide, and it was magical. The restaurant was more than the sum of its parts. Three days later at Girardet I had a transcendent experience — his restaurant elevated dining to the profound. All four elements were happening in equal measure — the cuisine, the wine, the service, and the overall ambience. It taught me that dining could happen at a spiritual level.
TA: You have made the analogy that you approach cooking as a musician would approach a jazz composition. In fact, you are named after Charlie Parker, a famous jazz musician. What inspired you to approach food this way, and where do you draw the similarities between the two?
Trotter: When I think of Coltrane, or of Miles Davis, they never played a song the same way twice. They might speed up the tempo, Coltrane would switch to a different sax, or Miles would mute his horn — the song would keep evolving and changing. This is more the style of Fredy Girardet. To cook like that, one must know combinations, one must have a true knowledge of food to be in the moment.
A jazz musician can improvise based on his knowledge of music. He understands how things go together. For a chef, once you have that basis, that’s when cuisine is truly exciting. Chef Alfred Portale once said that “any young cook with a couple of squeeze bottles can be a dangerous character.” Similarly, you could have a young musician who is in a famous punk band, but could he play jazz music? He would not have enough knowledge of the fundamental elements of music.
TA: Being a renowned chef now comes with rock-star status. Do you find this to have a positive or negative impact upon the industry?
Trotter: If one considers the free market approach, it really is a positive thing. If you want to take advantage of economic opportunity, it’s all up to you. As to what it’s doing to cuisine, it certainly doesn’t hurt. Even if the Food Network is attracting housewives from Des Moines, Iowa, in the end, it exposes more people to cuisine.
We have a country where even though we’re plagued with obesity we also have an extremely sophisticated population with regard to food. It’s fascinating to watch its growth. If I were doing this even twenty years ago my position would have been considered to be blue-collar.
These days it’s incredible what you can do as a chef. We get to stand on the shoulders of the giants who came before us, chefs like Girardet, like Paul Bocuse, who did not experience this, and there will be another generation standing on ours, doing even greater things.
TA: You have a reputation for being the enfant terrible of the American food scene. In fact, a few years ago Chicago magazine named you the second meanest man in town. What was your reaction to this characterization?
Trotter: I was very upset, because I never like being number two. (Laughing.) It was actually quite interesting, because it was a story about Chicago’s ten "meanest" people — those who will do whatever it takes to be at the top of their field. Michael Jordan was number one. I actually had CEOs come in to the restaurant who were upset at not making the top ten.
TA: With standards as high as yours, what methods do you use to screen your employees? What do you look for?
Trotter: We have a dialogue. I ask them what they like to read — it helps me to get inside their heads a little bit. I look for humility, self-motivation, for someone who dreams of being a leader. I ask them why they want to work for me. If they answer “because I want to be a manager,” I tell them that that is the most worthless goal to pursue. Why would anyone want to be a manager? They should want to be a leader. I also observe the little details: I watch to see if they push the chair in at the end of our meeting. I’m a first-class observer. I am known for noticing the details and attending to them.
TA: What do you do to motivate your staff?
I always tell them that there is only one way to be successful: you are never working for anyone else — you are only working for yourself. So your own standards have to be higher than those of your boss.
Occasionally I will hand a book to a staff member if I think the subject will interest the person, if it’s something I’ve found to be inspiring. Sometimes it's The Fountainhead, sometimes Atlas Shrugged, sometimes The Idiot by Dostoevsky.
TA: You may have the most well-read staff in the food industry.
Trotter: They are a pretty bright group.
TA: Speaking of Dostoevsky, you have said that he is your favorite author, yet his writing style and philosophy seem diametrically opposed to Rand’s. Can you please explain how and why you are able to appreciate both?
Trotter: I love him as much as an author as I do as an artist, for the words he writes. He is such a beautiful writer. Despite what people might think, there are more similarities between Rand and Dostoevsky than not. They exalt the individual and his accomplishments — they glorify individuals willing to go against everything to pursue a dream.
People accuse me of being a perfectionist — but I like to fail, I like quirkiness. I think these give life real beauty. I think it is important to try as hard as you can try, and Dostoevsky’s characters exhibit this pursuit. At the same time, human failings are appealing and beautiful because you learn so much from them. If one knows nothing but success, one can become complacent. I always tell young chefs never to believe their own press.
TA: You’ve done something unique and daring with the design of the kitchen at Charlie Trotter’s. I noticed that it has no walk-in coolers — something I have never seen in a restaurant before. What is the reasoning behind this radical approach?
Trotter: Ten years ago we ripped out a great kitchen, and a million dollars later we had an even greater, more beautiful kitchen. The decision not to put in the coolers was completely deliberate: it means there is no cheating. It ensures that we always use the freshest ingredients, the best products, because they cannot be held over.
TA: Chef, you have been known to utter the statement, “What the customer wants is irrelevant.” In a business like yours, and with your attitude toward service, how can that be true?
TA: To shift to a somewhat political issue, there is a significant movement worldwide to preserve the artisanal approach to farming: small crops and/or batches, no genetic modifications, no pesticides. In fact, several years ago you came out publicly against the genetic modification of foods. Some would call this anti-progress, and would argue that genetic modification will enable more people to be fed worldwide. What is your response to this?
Trotter: My position on this has evolved. I’m less anti-modification, because the more I’ve researched it the more I’ve found that there are improvements to be had, ways we can make food better for the world’s population. For example, we can add vitamins to certain vegetables to make them healthier.
TA: Chef Trotter, I am hoping you can assist me in resolving an apparent contradiction. Emeril Lagasse is considered by many in the food world to be the “clown prince” of cooking, and they think he has “dumbed it down” for the masses. Your approach seems completely opposite, yet the two of you are great friends. Can you please explain what common ground you share?
Trotter: Emeril and I have known each other for fifteen years. Most people only know Emeril the television character. But if he stopped doing the TV show and closed some of his restaurants, focusing on just one sixty-seat restaurant, he would have one of the best restaurants in the country in a very short period of time.
Emeril was one of the first chefs to support the small farmer — he was doing this at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans in the mid 80s. Commander’s Palace is an institution of American cuisine, owned by the Brennan family; many well known chefs have come from their kitchen.
The Brennans brought in Emeril as a chef at the age of twenty-five, replacing the famous chef Paul Prudhomme, and the first thing Emeril did was to round up all of the canned ingredients. He dumped them. He started making everything from scratch. He gave his fisherman a cellular phone so he could call with the latest catch, and the restaurant could prepare a menu around it. He gave a farmer money to start a quail farm so he could have it fresh for his menu. His final year there, he was simultaneously the Executive Chef and the General Manager. That’s when he decided to leave and start his own restaurant.
He is so generous, and a big sweetheart. He is so excited about food, and wants to share it with everyone.
TA: You have just published a new cookbook entitled Raw with Roxanne Klein. From hors d’oeuvres to desserts, the entire collection of recipes has been created without cooking. Can you explain what caused this shift in your culinary perspective? Will this new approach have a significant impact on your restaurant menus?
Trotter: Michael Klein, Roxanne’s husband, used to bring the Grateful Dead to the restaurant so they could eat high-quality vegetarian food. Then when he married Roxanne, they would fly in on their private plane to eat. I was excited by it. They challenged me to create foods I had never prepared before. After a time Roxanne and I decided to write a book of shared combinations — it was like two musicians playing together.
We do have a raw degustation [tasting] menu in place at the restaurant. It’s not offered on the main menu, and is not likely to be, but it does exist for those who want it.
Sixteen years ago we had a vegetarian tasting menu. No one else was doing it at that time. Now every restaurant offers vegetarian options.
Raw is the next phase of that. Chefs need to have an understanding of raw food, of an approach to it from the flavor perspective. A chef has to continue to express himself, to constantly challenge himself.
TA: You give a significant amount of your time and income to fund charitable organizations. Some might construe this to be altruistic, and may question why you, as a fan of Rand, would support doing so much for others. What is your response to that?
Trotter: I think that success and philanthropy go hand in hand. It’s wonderful to have the money to enjoy life — to travel, to eat well, to drink great wines. But when you know people are going without, it isn’t as much fun. I think it is a businessperson’s responsibility to affect some good. Not only to improve your own business, but also your neighborhood and community.
For us, I see it as a three-tiered goal. One, an aesthetic contribution: to pursue beauty for its own sake. In our neighborhood, we rip up the sidewalk and plant trees in the middle of the night because the city of Chicago won’t give us permission to do so. Two, a cultural contribution: museums and other organizations are assets to the fabric of a city. At the ten-year mark, I felt that we had become an asset to the city of Chicago. Three, a social contribution: I thought, it’s easy to write checks, but what can we do beyond that? So we started an organization called the Culinary Education Foundation. We’ve raised about $4 million, and have given half of it away so far.
We also have a program three nights a week where students are bused in to the restaurant to learn about “the excellence experience.” They eat an eight- or nine-course menu — whatever is being served in the restaurant that night — and while they are eating, the staff members talk to them about the pursuit of excellence from their own perspectives. The students learn that you get what you give — that if you work hard, for yourself, the rewards will come to you. Then we go around the table and every student has to ask two questions. At first there are questions like, “What’s the most expensive bottle of wine you sell?” But then questions turn to things like, “What was the most inspirational book you ever read?”
It’s a great deal of fun to watch as they leave at 5 p.m., heading toward buses that are jockeying for position among stretch limousines. Our customers sometimes wonder if they are at the wrong address.
TA: Chef Trotter, you are seated on the throne of a culinary empire. You have helped to change the landscape of cooking in America. You have an enormously successful operation in Chicago, a new restaurant in Mexico, a boutique at Marshall Field’s, a full line of gourmet products, a cooking series on PBS, a collection of award-winning cookbooks, and the title of “Outstanding Chef in America” from the James Beard Foundation. In addition, your face can be seen in advertisements endorsing everything from cookware to raisins to insurance. What is your next adventure?
Trotter: We are opening a restaurant in New York in October 2004. It will not be a Charlie Trotter’s, but it is going to be located in the new Time Warner building along with restaurants by Thomas Keller, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Masa Takayama, among others. Chef Matthias Merges, the current Chef de Cuisine at Charlie Trotter’s, will be starting up that project.
In general, I always try to find new means of expression. I try to justify my existence every single day.
For more about Charlie Trotter, visit www.charlietrotters.com.