We were in Paul Elledge's photo studio, shooting the art for a cover story on Charlie Trotter I was writing for Time Out. It was something of a sabotage, as Charlie didn't necessarily know I was going to be there. We had met two or three times already, each time on his turf, at his restaurant. Now we were on neutral ground.
There was a pinball machine in the corner of the room, and I leaned on it as I watched Charlie have his photo taken. When Elledge was busy changing the set, Charlie wandered over to where I was. He made his way to the pinball machine and touched the controls like he had never seen anything so beautiful.
"You like pinball?" I asked.
Charlie looked up suddenly. Somehow, he had forgotten I was there, and I had surprised him.
"What?" he said.
I repeated the question, but Charlie just looked at me, completely helpless and without a single word. It was a question for which he hadn't prepared an answer.
Charlie liked to be at the wheel always, and when it came to the press, he tried, mostly successfully, to control his image. He touted himself as a creative perfectionist: always reaching, always pushing, always improvising like the jazz masters whose names he'd often drop. Meanwhile, disgruntled employees told a different story, of a Trotter who was a tyrant, somebody who made them wear tape on their shoes to pick up crumbs on the floors (as if this were somehow inhumane) and screwed them out of their tips. But these images seemed like two sides of the same coin, so the press ran with a composite: Charlie Trotter, tyrannical genius.
That was an easy and compelling story to tell. But what made Trotter a great character was what I saw in his face that day at the pinball machine. It seemed clear to me that his head was spinning with all sorts of emotions, some of which didn't fit neatly into his reputation. There was confidence and irritability, fear and intelligence, and—most surprising to me—insecurity. It was 2007, and the infatuation with Alinea was at its peak. And Trotter seemed scared to death that he would never be seen as a visionary again.
There was something heartbreakingly sweet about seeing this master worry about being liked. But Charlie did not make himself vulnerable to me. Seconds after our pinball exchange, the fear was gone from his eyes and he was back on the set, posing with a bunch of knives.
And yet, a few years later, I thought I saw Charlie's armor start to come down.
First, he hired a friend of mine, a young man with a lot of problems that I met through the job-training program Blue Sky Inn. My friend had no fine dining experience and applied to Trotter's on a whim. Charlie took a chance and was sweet toward the boy, sweet in a way that the caricatures the media had drawn of him did not seem possible.
And then there was a phone call three years ago. I was working on a freelance story, calling chefs all over the country and begging them for tips they could give to home cooks. It was a silly story that I was under no delusion that Charlie would care about. But I called him anyway, and a week later, as he was boarding a plane, he called me back.
The bravado I was used to hearing from him was nowhere. Shockingly, he sounded honored to be considered for the story. His voice was very gentle as he gave me some cooking advice to pass on to home cooks in places like Ohio and Delaware. When we hung up, I sat at my desk for a minute, marveling at how different he seemed.
I realized that he had sounded happy, and settled, and at peace. I don't know if I ever really pegged Charlie correctly. But, God, I hope that's the moment I got it right.