This week, the restaurant community lost one of its greatest chefs and restaurateurs: Charlie Trotter. The 54 year old Chicago chef who closed his eponymous restaurant in 2012 after 25 years of service, was found unconscious in his home on Wednesday morning. He was later pronounced dead the Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Deemed a trailblazer and known for a fiery temper and a demanding work ethic, Trotter as named the country's Outstanding Chef by James Beard Foundation in 1999. Accolades continued over the years including, Wine Spectator calling Trotter's the best restaurant in the nation in 2000, and receiving the James Beard Award for Outstanding Service in 2002, and being awarded two Michelin stars in 2010 when the famed guide made its debut in Chicago.
Chefs and restaurateurs from Denver and across the country reacted to Trotter's death on social media and beyond. Eater asked Jim Soulier, who worked for the chef, chef Bob Blair of Fuel Cafe, and master sommelier Bobby Stuckey of Frasca Food and Wine to talk about the influence that Trotter had beyond food: in providing excellent service.
Jim Soulier, one of the best front of the house people Denver has to offer, worked for Charlie Trotter in 2003. Soulier, who is now at Rioja, had this to say.
Working for Chef Trotter was both an honor, and an experience.
I worked at Charlie Trotter's during the summer and early fall of 2003. What I learned working in his dining room is to always maintain excellence in everything that you do, all the time. Chef used to call it the excellence reflex. He believed by being excellent in everything you do, you will instill within you the habit of sucvess. Every day during your sometimes thirteen hour shifts you were expected to always be in the now-or present moment. You were never to allow smudges on wine glasses, litter on the floor, or fingerprints on dishes as they left the kitchen. You learned to scan the dining room, or kitchen as you walk to look for things that are out of place. If there was a smudge on the table cloth that the back server missed, you replaced it. A single ice cube on the floor, you simply picked it up.
What I really thought was valuable was that Chef Trotter wanted the servers to have an understanding of how the kitchen ran. New servers, as part of their training to move into the dining room started out as a food runner. Part of the runner's opening side work was to dissect the ten course tasting menu before pre-service by going to all the chefs in the kitchen and putting together descriptions of their course on the tasting menu. By doing this, I learned many cooking techniques, and was quickly taught the hard work and dedication each chef puts into their course. Once, you have gathered all the descriptions of the tasting menu, it is then your responsibility to describe all the courses to the entire service team, and chef Trotter at the pre-service meeting. At this time, the Chef, fellow servers will ask you questions about allergies, hidden ingredients, or questions about the preparation of each course. Looking at your notes was a definite a huge no. You had to memorize and recite the entire menu to the entire group as though you were talking to the guest.
What is astonishing is the chef legacy that Charlie Trotter left behind. Almost every James Beard, or Michelin starred restaurant in Chicago is run by a Trotter alum. So imagine how the excellence reflex comes into play into their kitchens and dining rooms. I do recommend anyone in this industry to read Lessons in Service from Charlie Trotter by Ed Lawler. A journalist, Lawler writes about his experiences following around the service team at Charlie Trotter's and Chef Trotter shares the importance of excellence in his restaurant. This book made me want to work for Chef Trotter, and I feel any restaurant owner, manager, or server that wants to take their guest's experience to another level, should read this.
Chef Bob Blair, owner of Fuel Cafe had this to share about his experience at Charlie Trotter's restaurant.
To me, Charlie Trotter's is the benchmark for service in the United States. My wife and I were fortunate to go to Charlie Trotters back in 2004 and it was perfect. The food, the atmosphere, the expectations that they lived up to, everything. Our favorite experience of the evening was the service. We probably had 3-4 servers help us throughout the evening. It was pulled off seamlessly. The servers spoke very quietly and directly, then disappeared. When we became more curious about the food, we simply asked a few questions and 2 of the servers very graciously engaged at our table. They gave us the exact type of service that we were looking for that night. We wanted a lovely quiet evening with each other, and they gave that to us. We also wanted to know more about the food and the wine and the kitchen too. When we asked, they gave that to us too, but only then. That experience at Charlie Trotter's taught me the importance of having servers read their customers. Be aware of the type of experience your diners are looking for. It could be different for every diner, and it usually is. Of course, the kitchen delivered amazing food that evening and the sommelier paired wines perfectly to go with the food. The service is what stood out the most though. We were not able to meet Charlie the night we visited, and we completely forgot to ask for a copy of the menu. A few weeks later, I received a package in the mail from Charlie Trotter's. My wife, Catherine, had called the restaurant and asked for a signed copy of our menu. It was a huge surprise, and something I treasured then, but will now look at a little differently now. Thanks for setting the bar Charlie.
Bobby Stuckey, master sommelier and co-owner of Frasca Food and Wine, a restaurant that this year received the James Beard Award for Outstanding Wine Service shared this:
I remember the first time I ate at Charlie Trotter's in 1998 in the post-Larry Stone era. When I think about Charlie, he was trailblazer in a lot of ways. He was among the first owners that embraced wanting to have stellar wine people work the front-of-house. The only two Americans to win the Best International Sommelier in French Wine- basically the world champ of sommeliers- are Larry Stone and Joseph Spellman – both of whom worked at Trotter's.
At the time, there seemed to be two styles of service in the restaurant world: young, enlightened, and bright service on one hand and on the other, the old guard, which was fussy and hyper-technical. In the late 90s, I was so amazed: wow, I thought; they have this great combination of enlightened people working the floor that are embracing and mastering the craft of old school restaurateur in a more accessible way. Trotter's staff was a great combination of maturity, polish, and youth. They were poised and informed, and, for me, it was one of first super fine dining establishments that embraced that service style.
If you went to a four-star restaurant in NYC at the same time, the front-of-house was run by old school mercenaries. At Trotter's, he had a lot of young, home-grown Chicago people in dining room who were full of excitement about fine dining. For his staff, Trotter had the ability to infuse soul and precision with a youthful energy.