Chuck, full of ambition

Twenty years after opening his world-renowned restaurant, Charlie Trotter still wants everyone's full attention.

Photograph: Paul Elledge

On January 2, 1999, 23-year-old Graham Elliot Bowles, a new chef at Charlie Trotter’s, ventured out onto Halsted Street and into the worst snowstorm in the  city’s history to receive an order of fish. Snow was pouring from the sky, and Bowles—covered in tattoos and vehemently antiestablishment—was not into following orders. But he pulled on his clogs anyway, loath to disappoint his boss the first day on the job.

It seemed a pointless task. Inside the restaurant, reservations were being canceled as people realized that getting there would be impossible. Only residents of Lincoln Park who lived within a block or so were braving the weather and walking to Trotter’s, hoping they might finally be able to score a table. Back outside, the snow was already more than 18 inches high, and Bowles’s clogs were soaking wet as he trudged to meet the fishmonger.

Trotter’s would remain open, of course—even though the governor would declare Illinois a disaster area two days later. Yet what Bowles remembers most from that three-day snowstorm is what he overheard when he came back inside. A coworker was talking to chef Trotter, giving him the news that Mayor Daley had officially shut down the city.

“I remember hearing him saying ‘I can’t believe he shut down the city without asking me first,” Bowles says. “I remember being extremely impressed, as well as extremely scared...and I still don’t know if that was a joke.”

But that was eight years ago, when Trotter’s was a different place. Bowles—now the celebrated chef at Avenues—was in the kitchen, and so was Moto’s notorious Homaro Cantu. Belinda Chang—the wine director for Rick Tramonto’s Cenitare group—was in the front of the house pouring wine, and she was supervised by famed sommelier-turned-distributor Robert Houde. It could be considered Trotter’s heyday, a time when all of Chicago’s best talents were under his roof. Then again, Trotter’s always had the best talent in Chicago back then—there simply weren’t many other fine-dining restaurants in existence.

Charlie Trotter the man may still be a Chicago darling—August 17, his restaurant’s 20th anniversary, was officially declared “Charlie Trotter Day” and a lavish anniversary celebration is upcoming on October 6—but in the past few years the city’s  relationship with Charlie Trotter’s the restaurant has changed dramatically. The pristine style of cooking, the obsessively attentive service—these aspects of the restaurant, so innovative in 1987, lost their luster years ago. For years now, the public (and the media) has instead been drawn to the molecular innovations coming from Moto and Alinea. And instead of sitting at a white tablecloth for four hours, fine diners seem more content to sit on the communal benches at crowded hot spot Avec.

Of course, nobody is more attuned to the culinary sea change than Trotter himself. Despite an outward appearance of calm, Trotter is furiously making plans for his return to the limelight. After years of operating only one restaurant in America, he has two new projects in the works, one of which he hopes will bring him back to the forefront of Chicago’s restaurant scene. After all, he basically made Chicago the restaurant destination it is today. And as anybody who knows Trotter will tell you, he’s not the kind of guy to go down without a fight.

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