Remembering Charlie Trotter (1959 – 2013)

Maya Silver |
Culinary Personalities

He was a pioneer here—not only as a destination restaurant owner, but for the many young cooks that went through his kitchen, and then went on to become great chefs themselves. 

Many aspiring chefs pay their dues (literally) by attending culinary school to lay down a proper educational foundation. What did Charlie Trotter do to prepare for a culinary career? The self-taught chef took a year off from college to read as many books as possible, many of which were cookbooks. This led to the launch of a small catering business, a fine-dining expedition across the U.S. and Europe, and, shortly thereafter, a leap into the shoes of a restaurateur.

His eponymous Chicago restaurant, Charlie Trotter’s, was nothing short of an institution. For over a quarter of a century, it served as a breeding ground for many of the chefs and techniques that constitute ever-evolving modern American gastronomy. “His legacy is a contemporary cuisine that paved the way for a lot of people in Chicago,” explains Ryan McCaskey, Executive Chef at Chicago’s Acadia Restaurant. “He was a pioneer here—not only as a destination restaurant owner, but for the many young cooks that went through his kitchen, and then went on to become great chefs themselves.”

In addition to earning a reputation for innovation, Charlie Trotter’s also won tremendous critical and popular acclaim. The restaurant boasts a Forbes Five Star Award, 11 James Beard Foundation Awards, and the designation as one of the “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” by Restaurant Magazine. Trotter, besides helming such a celebrated restaurant, was a culinary empire unto himself, conquering 14 cookbooks, a PBS cooking show, and humanitarian work to advance access to culinary education.

Whether or not you’ve heard of Mr. Trotter, you’re probably acquainted with his inventions and influences, including elaborate tasting menus, sustainably-sourced proteins, organic produce, and the popularization of quinoa. 

Trotter was also known for being somewhat of an uncompromising maverick. Always on a quest for excellence and perfection, Trotter introduced the concept of “firing your customers” in one of his books. “What an odd concept,” chef McCaskey says. “But it mostly just confirmed that what he does—and what many high-end chefs do—isn’t always going to be for everyone.”

One of Charlie Trotter’s favorite quotes comes from jazz musician Miles Davis: “A legend is an old person with a cane known for what he used to do. I’m still doing it.” Trotter’s indelible mark persists in his vast influence, his philanthropic work, and the comprehensive cookbooks he’s bestowed upon generations to come, aspiring to excellence. Up until his very last day, Charlie Trotter was indeed still “doing it.” 

Take a moment this season to remember Chef Trotter in your kitchen by preparing a timeless recipe from "Home Cooking with Charlie Trotter:"

 

Olive Oil-Poached Cod with Tomatoes and Broccoli Rabe from the Late Chef Charlie Trotter

serves four

Note: Poaching in oil may sound like it would produce oil-soaked fish, but it actually seals in the juices and results in tender, moist fillets. It is a good cooking technique for firmer fish such as cod, swordfish, or salmon. The key is for the oil to be warm, but not hot. Keep the thermometer in the oil as the fish is cooking, and adjust the heat to maintain a temperature of 110-115 degrees. If you cannot find broccoli rabe, you may substitute one small head of broccoli.

Ingredients

Tomatoes:

3 large tomatoes

3 garlic cloves

1/2 c extra virgin olive oil

1/4 c balsamic vinegar

2 sprigs thyme

salt and freshly ground black pepper

 

Broccoli rabe and cod:

1 bunch broccoli rabe, cleaned and blanched

2 Tbsp unsalted butter

2 c, plus 1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil

4 5-oz cod fillets, skinned

1 tsp fresh green basil leaves

1 tsp fresh purple basil leaves

salt and freshly ground black pepper

 

Method

For the tomatoes: Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Bring a large pot of water to boil. Blanch tomatoes in boiling water for 30 seconds and then peel off their skins. Cut each tomato into 8 wedges, place in a small roasting pan. Toss with garlic, 1/2 cup olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and thyme. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until tomatoes are soft. Remove tomatoes from pan, season with salt and pepper, cover, and keep warm. Strain cooking liquid through fine-mesh strainer, season with salt and pepper, and keep warm. 

For the broccoli: Cook broccoli in butter in a small sauté pan over medium heat for 5 minutes, or until warm. Season with salt and pepper.

For the cod fillets: Warm olive oil in medium saucepan over very low heat. Season both sides of fish with salt and pepper and place in warm oil. Cook for 3 minutes, flip fish over, and cook for 3 more minutes, or until just done.

To plate: Ladle roasted tomatoes in center of each plate and top with a fish fillet. Arrange broccoli rabe around plate and drizzle with tomato cooking liquid and 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Garnish with green and purple basil.

Reprinted with permission from Home Cooking with Charlie Trotter by Charlie Trotter, copyright © 2008. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House. Photo credit: Kipling Swehla © 2008