Shock at famed Chicago chef Charlie Trotter's death

Charlie Trotter and Tetsuya Wakuda cook together in 1999.
Charlie Trotter and Tetsuya Wakuda cook together in 1999. Photo: Robert Pearce

Award-winning chef Charlie Trotter, a self-taught culinary master whose eponymous Chicago restaurant was considered one of the finest in the world, has died at the age of 54.

The 54-year-old chef was found unconscious and not breathing in his Lincoln Park home on Tuesday morning by his son, Dylan. He was taken by ambulance to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. The Cook County medical examiner's office said it had been notified, and an autopsy had been scheduled for Wednesday.

Trotter's name is synonymous with US gourmet cuisine. He earned 10 James Beard Awards and provided a training ground for some of the country's other best-known chefs, such as fellow Beard Award-winner Grant Achatz of Chicago restaurants Alinea and Next.

Award-winning chef Charlie Trotter.
Award-winning chef Charlie Trotter. Photo: Getty Images

The self-taught chef burst on to the culinary scene in 1987, when he opened Charlie Trotter's restaurant on Armitage Avenue. His intense creativity and never-repeat-a-dish dictum made Trotter's the most talked-about restaurant in Chicago, and his fame quickly spread throughout the country and beyond.

He was named the country's Outstanding Chef by James Beard Foundation in 1999; in 2000, Wine Spectator called Trotter's the best restaurant in the America. More awards and accolades followed, including a 2002 Beard Award for Outstanding Service; at the time, Trotter called it the award he was most proud to receive, as it represented "a team award".

Charlie Trotter's earned two stars when the highly respected Michelin Guide debuted in Chicago.

"His restaurant shaped the world of food," said Dana Cowin, editor-in-chief of Food & Wine magazine.

"He was so innovative and focused and intense and really brilliant. When he opened Charlie Trotter he was so original".

His legacy will be "a passion for perfection and innovation", she said.


In keeping with his reputation for bold, unexpected moves, Trotter closed the 120-seat restaurant in 2012, saying he planned to go back to college to study philosophy.

On Tuesday, a bouquet of roses was left outside the site of the former restaurant with a card that read, "Chef".

Trotter, who never went to cooking school, wrote more than a dozen cookbooks and starred in the television series, The Kitchen Sessions with Charlie Trotter.

He credited the development of his signature style to his travels in the US and Europe after university and dining at the best restaurants.

He was famous for his reverence for details and he insisted his staff also be sticklers for exactness. Such laser-like precision and military-style organisation was on display a few days before his restaurant closed in August of last year.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel released a written statement on Tuesday honouring Trotter as someone who "changed Chicago's restaurant scene forever".

"Charlie's personality mirrored his cooking - bold, inventive and always memorable," Emanuel said.

"Charlie Trotter will be remembered for serving the finest food and his generous philanthropy, and he will always have a seat at the table among Chicago's legendary figures."

Trotter was a fan of Australian chef Tetsuya Wakuda, and wrote the foreword to Tetsuya's 2004 book Tetsuya: Recipes from Australia's Most Acclaimed Chef. When Trotter's restaurant closed in 2012, Tetsuya flew to Chicago for the party.

The mercurial chef was a stern taskmaster but also a man of uncommon generosity, creating the Charlie Trotter Education Foundation to provide scholarships for culinary students. He received the James Beard Foundation's Humanitarian of the Year award in 2012.

"Charlie was an extreme father figure to me when it came to not just cooking, but life, and seeing things in a different way," said chef Graham Elliot Bowles, one of many famous chefs who worked for Trotter.

"I just can't put into words how saddened I am by all of this. It's a huge loss, not just personally, but for the culinary world."

The news shocked many in the restaurant world, including Los Angeles chef David LeFevre, owner of the restaurants MB Post and Fishing With Dynamite, who worked for Trotter for 10 years.

"He's probably the most important guy in my career," LeFevre said. "I think I can attribute the majority of my attention to detail and the majority of my awareness of what it takes to run a fine dining restaurant to him.

"He had a very acute sense of attention to detail and he saw things that most people didn't see.

"All of us who worked for him are better chefs because we came out of that kitchen."

Sari Zernich Worsham, who worked closely with Trotter for 13 years in his kitchen and on his books and television series, said she and other Trotter alumni were organising a candlelight vigil in front of the restaurant buildings for Tuesday afternoon.

"I just feel like we should do something immediately," said Worsham, now executive director of chef Art Smith's company. "Charlie always called me his little sister, and I feel like I just lost my big brother," she said.

"I'm just speechless. He's welded and sculpted so many people's lives and sent them on the path to success. I can't thank him enough."

"I don't think you can write a sadder story," said Yusho chef Matthias Merges, a 14-year veteran of Trotter's kitchen as chef de cuisine, executive chef and director of operations. "I don't think it's even possible."

Merges emphasised that Trotter should be remembered for his incredible influence and success. "What he's accomplished has been the game changer for the landscape of American cuisine, and we can never discount that no matter what happens," Merges said.