The last time I was in Chicago was May 2002. I was with my late wife on what I want to say was a business trip, but I don’t recall the details. And besides, no matter. It turned out to be a lovely time of the year to be in the Second City, for sure for the weather. However what made the trip memorable was my primary reason for being there.
Linda may have been there for business. She was manager of a global program that was one of a broad range of corporate services offered by a company called IBM. However, I was on a rare excursion to accompany her, because the fates and the many interconnecting gears of business had fortuitously aligned so that, after years of enticement, we could fulfill a long held out invitation from one of my closest friends. A former colleague, which was how we originally met, Philip had come to be a regular at gatherings all over the country. He was an account supervisor at an industrial ad agency based in Boston that represented, aside from a full roster of industrial, commercial and technology clients, a number of trade organizations.
One of Phil’s more interesting accounts entailed some wing of the turkey growers of the United States. It was his job to oversee the formulation and execution of communications strategies to ensure Americans ate a growing share of their diets in the form of the flesh of the bird that Ben Franklin preferred as his choice for national bird of the country he was instrumental in founding. No doubt part of the reason for more and more year-round meals including turkey was a product of the intentionality of a sustained marketing campaign. A large part of the major objective of the advertising and pr effort was to ensure that people understood that turkey was, in effect, not just for Thanksgiving.
Among his duties, Phil was expected to accompany food service industry bigwigs – people like the national food and beverage managers of major restaurant and hotel chains – when they assembled for the larger trade shows. There was no bigger show than the one for the National Restaurant Association, or, as it’s known, “the other NRA.” The gustatory version is impressive in its own right. At present, it serves over 380,000 member eating establishments. It was of comparable size in 2002, and attendance at their annual convention, always held in Chicago and usually in May, was a necessity for exploiting the leverage of having so many important target customers accessible for schmoozing.
After years of wining and dining the executive managers and chefs of the restaurants among the most recognized, prestigious, highest volume, or distinguished for gustatory excellence in the country, Phil had acquired a cadre of restaurateurs, maîtres d’, hosts, bookers and the like at the most desired tables in Chicago. He was recognized on sight, and a last minute reservation was usually no problem.
For the course of our friendship of over 20 years at that time, Phil and I shared a love of food savory to the palate and lovingly prepared. This meant we mainly enjoyed the fruits and the comforts of entertaining one another at home. Or, once we no longer worked under the same roof, gathering for lunch, which was easiest, or dinner at a restaurant, usually a hidden gem or little-known local masterpiece of a dive that happened to serve incredible dishes. More often than not it was ethnic.
Indeed, it was our great fortune that what is still the best Turkish restaurant I’ve ever dined at—idiosyncratically open only for lunch, mainly because of the location, which was the only spot the immigrant chef/owner could afford at the time—was two blocks from the office we both worked at mid-way in our careers as ad men. “Sultan’s Kitchen” has opened, and quickly found itself serving lines out the door, on Broad Street in the financial district. That’s because that’s where the greatest concentration of an audience jaded on fast food and sandwich machines congregated every busy day, on account of they had to for work, and they appreciated inexpensive, healthy, incredibly delicious meals prepared to order, and could be done either dining communally on the spot, or taking an entire meal back to the desk, and all for about ten bucks.
That’s the kind of fare Phil and I especially appreciated, but mainly for the care in the preparation and cooking, the quality of the ingredients, and the infectiously friendly attitude of chef Özcan Ozan. But I have gotten ahead of myself, and diverted you from my tale of a visit to a meal at the signature restaurant of another master of the kitchen, an American named Charlie Trotter. So, let’s back to Chicago from our detour to Boston. By the time, Linda and I showed up there, Phil had become as conversant with the bill of fare and the wine list of Chicago’s finest. As conversant as he and I had become with the variety of kebabs that Ozan had on offer every weekday.
In 2002, Charlie Trotter was at the pinnacle of the culinary food chain in the United States. Always named as one of the top three chefs on virtually any list at the time, Trotter was a known genius for inventiveness, for being an unrelenting perfectionist in every aspect of fine dining, and, at time, it was said, a ferocious boss, who earned the respect of his staff, but was inflexible in demanding as much from each of them as he clearly did from himself. There was a softer side to Charlie, which he wasn’t afraid to hide. A human side. Evident enough in the daily presence of his mother, who served as a kind of auxiliary host and ambassador of the mission of the Trotter eponymous restaurant on Armitage in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, not too far from the lake.
Charlie Trotter’s was considered a kind of mecca—a clichéd designation for a place that, in fact, was substantiated and reinforced by invariably being named the best restaurant in a city full of great places to eat. On the one hand, it was the kind of place that could still require “gentlemen will wear jackets in the dining room,” but, on the other hand, this kind of requirement seemed not too fussy when it was well-known that you couldn’t get away without spending well over a hundred dollars a person for dinner, and far more with wine. And yet, tables were impossible for dinner except well over a month or two in advance.
When I had first-hand experience of how my friend Phil was excluded from such obstacles, not only at Trotter’s, but virtually any other table in the city, I was very proud of him for having acquired the skills necessary to thread that particular needle. He had given me a standing invitation, any time we could manage to be in Chicago to join him for dinner—even if, and I didn’t understand the import of this provision at the time, it was a last minute rendezvous. He said I simply, if possible, someday had to eat at Charlie Trotter’s.
Which is how we ended up at the front door of what I otherwise thought looked like not much more than a stately urban brownstone building of an owner who was enjoying a solid, if modest, round of success. Phil met us at the door, and we entered, and immediately Phil was greeted by everyone on staff within eyesight, including the maître d’, by name, with a broad smile. We knew instantly we were in for a memorable evening.
Seeing my friend enter, restaurant staff faces brightened. They said his name and greeted him hands outstretched. There is little that compares to being known as one in the party of greatness, however parochially it may be defined. And there is nothing strictly parochial about the most fundamental of affinities: true friendship. Not only were we glad to be in a literally world-famous restaurant, about to be seated to dine. We were glad to be in the select company of those recognized as “one of us.” Moreover, I was glad, petty as it was at bottom, that all this greatness was not for a single centavo to be at my expense. We were invited as Phil’s guests.
He was paid semi-handsomely for his exertions on the part of the turkey growers, as well as other clients. A significant part of his emolument was a personal expense account, on the one hand potentially taxable as income, on the other, amounting to such a munificent sum annually that strategically his bosses put him in the position of using it up, according to that poetic bit of doggerel philosophy, “use it or lose it.” So that night, he was showing an important IBM executive and her husband his appreciation in the form of a very nice dinner. And he simply refused my participation.
There was another remarkable occurrence, long before food began appearing systematically and with a certain arcane periodicity at the table; clearly not as a dish was ready, and clearly not some rigid mechanical interval. Linda had ordered the vegetarian “Degustation,” which is what fancy places such as this called what has become the prosaic “tasting menu” (and more on that phrase later), while I had the default omnivore’s portions. Not at all alike, each course was, nevertheless, perfectly in sync with all components. But that memorable presence I alluded to was not substantive and plated, so much as maternal. No other than Charlie Trotter’s mother appeared at our table, warm, congenial, welcoming, with an aura that softened the somewhat austere ambiance of the decor.
Not tall. Not short. Not thin. Not heavy. Neither overtly stylish, and by no means haute couture, but appealing and modest, understated while at the same time very present. Her smile was genuine. Her hair, grey, was genuine. Her loving praise of her son’s cooking was genuine.
She seemed genuinely pleased we were there to partake of her son’s handiwork – more than that, of course, it was universally accorded to be overall the artisanship of food as attained by genius, with or without a mother’s validation. We were promised an evening of superlative wining and dining, but what became memorable in larger part, at least for me, was this note of grace and warmth. And all afforded by the simple gesture of having the chef’s mother glide around the room putting every guest at ease and in a positive frame of mind. It was singular, and in my experience, it has remained as much. Nothing speaks of being welcoming than to make people sincerely welcome.
By this point in my life I have eaten in thousands of establishments in North America and Europe. And surely the mother of more than one restaurateur or cook was somewhere in the vicinity, though not, to my perception, in strong evidence. None, other than Mrs. Trotter, ever introduced herself or otherwise made her presence known. I remember the meal that night most generally as overall a classic display of haute cuisine, brilliantly prepared and plated and presented with a level of service to match. But no one dish was so singular as to distinguish itself or the evening – to make it memorable as only a unique detail can render one’s clear recollection – as much as the presence of that pleasant woman of, shall I say, advanced middle age, gracefully introducing herself, announcing her preparedness to answer any question about the menu, or her son, and offering her assistance with meeting any reasonable need.
In case you haven’t picked up my gist, and an appalling lack of testimony about the menu, or the food it proffered, or the wine, or any of the no doubt fine details of smoothly functioning service, let me be clear. I frankly remember almost none of it.
I know we had, as I mentioned, the two menus on offer, one for omnivores and an alternative for vegetarians. I know there were eight courses – or was it ten – including the desserts, which I remember least of all. Not to suggest that the food we were given was not superb. I’ll stake my unsupported belief in it to say that it was. I just remember none of it.
The fault is no doubt mine. It takes quite a bit for me to remember specific dishes I’ve had, especially in venues I’d never been to before and to which I have never returned. And returning by now, for sure, would be impossible, because Chef Charlie died in 2013, of somewhat indeterminate causes given the vagueness of the reporting about the autopsy performed on him, aside from drugs or alcohol or foul play being ruled out, as well as the dismissal of any chance of a notorious rumored burst aneurysm on his brain.
His brilliance lives after him by lingering reputation, and more substantially in the form of several enduring cookery books. The one I prefer is the one he wrote about cooking at home, called straightforwardly enough, Charlie Trotter Cooks at Home. Though the more defensible landmarks of his are a series of genre cookery books: one devoted to Seafood, one to Vegetables, one to Meat and Game, and, of course, one to Desserts. The more compendious general subject of his innovative way with classic dishes and the freshest ingredients, and titled simple, like the restaurant was, Charlie Trotter’s is still in print, in hardcover, after 24 years on the market, and five years after his death.
They all are enlivened with a quiet authority and assuredness about the food. Trotter was, as I have noted, known to be a perfectionist. He had a sure hand with the cooking, and a sure hand about how things should look on the plate, and how to taste once they arrived at ground zero, the diner’s palate. But getting there, for him, required the utmost care and preparedness.
Nowhere was this more evident at his restaurant than in the place that became the tableau and focus of what clear memories I had of that memorable dining experience. Not, as I have confessed, for the food, an evanescent collection of evidence in any event. And not even for that, I’ll admit, second-most memorable aspect of that evening, the engaging and warm presence of his mom – another deft touch on his part, accepting and also requiring her presence. A softening perhaps of the hard edge of his perfectionism and precisionism.
No, the most memorable part of the night came about with an invitation to tour the scene of the sorcery practiced every night in the fulfillment of ten measured courses of food. We were asked if we’d like to see the kitchen, and before anyone could say anything, I responded with an emphatic yes.
Entering was what I would have imagined it to have been like to enter the control room of a submarine in silent running, or given the amount of light and the sleekness of the overall design, it brought another kind of ship to mind. Something from the future, a starship’s bridge, with fewer seats and fewer dials and many hands on deck in immaculate whites.
What was most striking though was the silent operation. Sotto voce conversations; brief ones at that. No shouting. No scurrying. No wasted motion, though with all deliberate speed.
There was spotless stainless steel everywhere. Every station was well-lit. Every station was immaculate, even as they prepared meals for a dining room still full of patrons. Overall, the room was so quiet, I could hear the small printer that spit out short snippets quickly shorn from the lip of the machine and perused by a man, also in white, standing alone at the center of all the activity at the stations surrounding his post. The chef de cuisine.
He occasionally issued terse low-voiced commands to one cook here, or the garde manger there. It was more like he was coordinating a precise intensive operation, meant to save lives and not merely plate courses for some very indulged guests.
The air of calm and the steady intense intuitive sense I had of complete control under severe pressure never broke. As studiously as we observed the staff, no one changed stride, looked up or appeared interrupted. Discipline and order ruled, and as I say, proved far more impressive than the food. The fare had been exemplary, but the production of it – in a sense even more evanescent, because it existed only in time, possessed no mass or volume, but simply happened and was done. Altogether it was as much an unintended performance as a display of ingrained professionalism – yet repeated reliably and flawlessly six days a week.
I’ve had many great meals, and yet so few stand out. Usually the memorable dishes were individual; over a lifetime a scattered constellation of a great main course here, an unforgettable starter there. But only one kitchen operation stands out, akin to a great concert performance by a renowned orchestra start to finish, every movement perfection.
It’s possible, I suppose, for a particular dish to be so good it defies capture in the mind of anyone but the most practiced and refined connoisseur. I would never claim to be that, and I am prepared to be judged as one not capable of appreciating what appeared on the plates of a Charlie Trotter meal. And that’s the reason I suffer the anomaly of remembering a great meal, but being incapable of describing none of it from “amuse bouche” to the final sweet nothing of a mignardise.
But I have also seen many kitchens in full array during a meal, and there is still only the one I will never forget.