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Signature Dish: Charlie Trotter

In Pursuit of Excellence, Not Perfection
Trotter Lamb

"I’m the opposite of most chefs in my approach. The taste of wine is fixed more or less when you open it, while the food is adjustable.  I can add fat or acid or garlic puree, any number of things to match the wine."

After 25 years, his eponymous Chicago restaurant is being retired, but Charlie Trotter, the chef, continues his journey.

The Chef: Charlie Trotter

Charlie Trotter is known for demanding great performances from himself and his staff at his restaurant on Chicago’s North Side, now going through its farewell “tour” of sorts as it nears its August closing date after 25 successful years. Perfect food, perfect service, critics say.  Yet “excellence,” not “perfection,” is the word Trotter prefers.

And an odd thing about Chef Trotter, and perhaps one reason for such a long run for his top-rated restaurant, is that with him “excellence achieved” has a brief half-life.  He is not the kind of person who creates something exquisite, wraps it in a box, knots a bow around it, and sends it off to a museum to be admired. If you loved the meal you had at Charlie Trotter’s tonight, he will be truly delighted.  But if you come back tomorrow night, that entree or dessert that was “just so” will have evolved into something else or, more likely, not be listed on the tasting menu at all.

No, to really understand what Trotter and his restaurant are about, listen to him explain how he will happily change a dish in mid-service to make it better.

“We’re the only restaurant to have graduated 10 Master Sommeliers,” Trotter says proudly. He values his wine service as indispensable to the meal, so these well-acclaimed sommeliers often visit him in the kitchen after consulting a customer on a range of wines that might go with the entree.
“Larry Stone joined us in 1989, and he must have been in the kitchen 30 times a night,” Trotter laughs. “He would say, ‘Don’t plate that oyster dish yet!  The customer ordered a Viogner, and we need to change it because the match is not quite right.’ And we would.”
“I’m the opposite of most chefs in my approach,” he continues. “The taste of wine is fixed more or less when you open it, while the food is adjustable. I can add fat or acid or garlic purée, any number of things to match the wine.”

On-the-Job Training

Perhaps one of the reasons that Trotter is so iconoclastic in his approaches is that, unlike most chefs these days, he was not formally taught. He became interested in food in college, where his college roommate at the University of Wisconsin loved to cook, and it rubbed off on Trotter.  When he took a year off to read books midway to a degree in political science, he slipped in cookbooks among the volumes on philosophy. Back in college, he started his own catering business on the side.

After graduation, Trotter did his own world tour of famous restaurants, then resumed his catering, using his now-standard tasting menu format. After working in kitchens with chefs such as Gordon Sinclair, Norman Van Aken, and Carrie Nahabedian, he opened his own restaurant at the callow age of 27 with his late father as partner. From the beginning, there was a degustation menu and a vegetarian menu.

Trotter says his philosophy is the same as one of his favorite musicians, Miles Davis.  “Miles might play ‘My Funny Valentine’ night after night, but each time he played it, it was different,” he says. “In trying to achieve beauty or excellence, there is still room for quirkiness, for soulfulness.  Perfection stamps out the soul!  At the same time, if you decide to do something, it’s worth doing correctly.”

He describes the nightly reinvention of a tasting menu as a “high-wire act that is actually fun. We have one customer from New York who has eaten here more than 400 times,” he says, “and he’s never been served the same thing.” Of course, Trotter is very aware that each dish must fit with the concept of the total meal. “Each meal has to have a beginning, followed by a build, a crescendo and then a tapering. Each dish has to make sense to each other, and you need to avoid redundancies.”

With Trotter’s constant reinvention of dishes, is there a problem in putting them down permanently in a cookbook, of which he has written 14 along with three management volumes?  “Not really,” he says. “Cookbooks are a snapshot in time. We’re cooking up to the day the dishes are photographed.”

During his 25 years, Trotter has done his share of mentoring, and he likes to hire people who would expect to be out of his restaurant and into their own within a few years. “I love loyalty and longevity—many people have been with me a long time—but I do admire ambition,” he says. He also believes in giving back, and his philanthropic ventures have been legendary.

And now what’s in store for Trotter? 

After 25 years of pursuing—and achieving—excellence on a nightly basis, it might be time for some new stimulation. Many projects and consulting jobs are lined up, but what Charlie Trotter really wants to do is to go back to where it all started—back to college as a graduate student, probably in philosophy and political science. “I’m not ready to say where just yet, but it’s the next thing I plan do to.”

The Dish: Rack of Lamb

“The products speak to you,” Trotter says. “New ingredients come in every day. In my opinion, there are not four seasons, but 52 seasons. Plus, you look at the fresh ingredients differently today than you did a year ago.”

With this entrée, Trotter starts with the lamb and explains his creative process:

“This dish features the succulent texture and delicately assertive flavor of lamb against extravagant cumin-scented porcini mushroom pieces,” he notes. “Next, the controlled sweetness of the plumped raisins not only cuts into the luscious fat on the lamb, but also nicely accentuates the profound flavor of the cumin. A loose puree of potato adds substance and a sensual mouth-feel. Finally, the oregano leaves deliver the perfect whimsical accent.”

A recipe from Charlie Trotter also leaves room for individual interpretation, and he notes that a variety of protein can be substituted—beef, pork, chicken, or veal.

Finally, the chef gives his notes on how he would match a wine: “While the spicy cumin and fragrant oregano ask for Cabernet Franc, the sweet raisins demand a new-world style. Nelson Estate in Sonoma produces a spicy-style Cabernet Franc that handles the strong herbaceous notes with big, extracted fruit.”

Lamb Rack with Cumin-Scented Porcini Mushrooms,
Golden Raisins, and Potato Purée

Yield: Serves 4

Porcini mushrooms, sliced 2 cups
Butter 1 1/2 Tbsp
Cumin seeds, coarsely ground 1 Tbsp, divided
Rice vinegar 1 Tbsp
Water 1/3 cup
Olive oil 1 Tbsp
Golden raisins 1/2 cup
Salt and Pepper, to taste
Lamb rack 1 large with 4 chops, frenched
Salt and Pepper
Grapeseed oil 1 1/2 Tbsp
Potato Puree 1 1/2 cups
Oregano Oil (recipe follows) 8 tsp
Small fresh oregano leaves 4 tsp

To prepare:

1. Place the mushrooms in a sauté pan with the butter and 1 teaspoon of the cumin and saute over medium heat for 2 minutes.
2. Add the rice vinegar, water, olive oil, and golden raisins and cook for 3 minutes, or until the mushrooms are tender.
3. Season with salt and pepper.

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
2. Season the lamb with salt and pepper and sprinkle with the remaining cumin.
3. Place the lamb in a hot roasting pan with the grapeseed oil and sear over medium-high heat for 3 minutes on each side.
4. Roast in the oven for 15 minutes, or until cooked medium-rare.
5. Let rest for 3 minutes and slice the rack into 4 chops.

For service:
1. Spoon a large ring of the warm potato purée onto each plate.
2. Spoon the mushroom mixture along with any juices that remain in the pan into the center of the ring.
3. Place a lamb chop over the mushrooms and drizzle the Oregano Oil around the plate.
4. Sprinkle with the oregano leaves and top with freshly ground black pepper.

Oregano Oil

Yield: 1/2 cup

Fresh oregano leaves, firmly packed 1/2 cup

Spinach, firmly packed 1 cup

Grapeseed oil 1/2 cup plus 1 Tbsp

Olive oil 1/4 cup

To prepare:
1. Saute the oregano leaves and spinach with 1 tablespoon of the grapeseed oil in a small saute pan over medium heat for 2 minutes, or until wilted.
2. Immediately shock in ice water and drain.
3. Coarsely chop the mixture and squeeze out the excess water.
4. Puree the spinach mixture with the remaining 1/2 cup grapeseed oil and the olive oil for 3 to 4 minutes, or until bright green.
5. Pour into a container, cover, and refrigerate for 1 day.
6. Strain the oil through a fine-mesh sieve and discard the solids and refrigerate for 1 day.
7. Decant, and refrigerate until ready to use, or up to 2 weeks.

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