For Charlie Trotter, 2011 wasn't a great year for press coverage (it's hard to brush off The New York Times declaring you "a leader left behind"), but now that he's announced his eponymous Chicago restaurant will close, it's time for the plaudits to roll in. Much of the praise with which Trotter is being remembered has to do with his role, outgrown as it may be, as a leader in his field. A lot of the trends that have come to define modern American cooking can be traced back, at least in part, to Charlie Trotter. But unless you've been reading the Chicago food sections for the last 25 years, exactly what advances the chef helped spur may be a little blurry. So to put Trotter's legacy in perspective, here's our guide to the food trends he inspired and the dishes he created to do so.
Degustation menu: Trotter was among the first U.S. chefs to popularize degustation menus, better known as tasting menus, just two years after his restaurant opened. The menus would go on to become one of his signatures and a major trend in the world of haute cuisine. The Chicago Tribune announced his entry into the European-dominated world of degustation menus in 1989: "Chef Trotter's eight-course menu will change every six to eight weeks. One of the current courses is ravioli of Norwegian salmon and smoked salmon with julienned leeks and lobster sauce."
Vegetable Menu: They're not exactly a dime a dozen these days, but vegetable tasting menus have become something of a staple in high-end dining, with restaurants such as Thomas Keller's Per Se carrying them regularly. Back in March, GQ critic Alan Richman told The New York Times, "Alice Waters may have discovered vegetables, but Trotter was the first man I know who cooked them beautifully." To get a sense of what Trotter did with vegetables, savor this description from that same Times piece:
Mr. Trotter is particularly virtuosic with vegetables. A plate arrives bearing what looks like a cross section of slab bacon, but it’s really a terrine of three separate beet purées — red, golden and chioggia — that have been set in a mold and then sauced with another purée, of horseradish and roasted parsnips: a root-crop tour of the five taste sensations. A porridge of amaranth is enlivened with green cardamom, toasted pistachios and a slice of raw persimmon: a dish at once vaguely South Asian and satisfyingly Moosewood-y. Charlie Trotter’s offers a more traditional grand menu, but it’s the vegetable menu — an ever-changing, never-boring meatless dégustation — that is his crowning culinary achievement.
Seasonal Dining: Long before locavore was a word or seasonal menus were driven by anything but necessity, The Times described Trotter's cuisine in a 1997 article: "Mr. Trotter is known for his degustation menu, a parade of six courses cooked in the French tradition influenced by Asian minimalism that riff on seasonal ingredients." In his September four-star review, Tribune critic Phil Vetel wrote that "Trotter's kitchen crew never works off a set menu, but begins each day with the market's bounty and a blank sheet of paper." He went on to describe " a gorgeous study of hearts of palm, presented in thick, raw slices, a gentle puree and pastalike ribbons curled around chopped olive; porcini tart with fig and goat cheese over eggplant puree (a composition so rich and smoky I searched the plate, vainly, for pieces of stealth bacon); and squash blossom beignet next to strips of grilled zucchini, pea puree and Australian black truffle."
Chef's Table: When a Brooklyn grocery store can erect a table in its kitchen and receive two Michelin stars, you know the form has arrived. Charlie Trotter first invited patrons into his kitchen 22 years ago, in 1989, and by 1995 the chef's table or kitchen table was a bonifide trend. It's one of the most exclusive seats in Trotter's house, booked months in advance, and while the food's generally similar to what they're eating in the dining room, the show makes the exclusivity worth it. A 1997 Tribune feature elaborates: "In the heat of battle, Trotter sometimes forgets for a moment that guests sit a few feet away. A sloppily presented dish, a gaffe in service will trigger the chef's extended vocabulary."
Raw Food: When the first raw restaurant opened in New York in 1999, raw food seemed like a really weird and experimental thing. But Trotter was already on board, and he published a cookbook, Raw, in 2003. By the time The Times was writing trend pieces about raw food finding its way into high-end resorts in 2006, Trotter and his restaurant's optional raw menu were considered among the movement's stalwarts. "For us, raw food is here to stay. It's part of our repertoire at this point. It's not that we just dabbled in it," he told The Times. A 2003 CBS preview of the book included recipes for "Bleeding Heart Radish Ravioli With Yellow Tomato Sauce" and "Portabello Mushroom Pave' With White Asparagus Vinaigrette," which it described: "The meatiness of the marinated portabellos is enormously satisfying, but the aromatic flavor of jalapeno, garlic, ginger, cilantro and soy are what pushes this creation over the top. The creamy white asparagus contributes richness and acts as the perfect cohesive element."
Offal: Many Chicagoans were not amused at The Times headline to its Trotter farewell: "Chicago Losing a Chef Who Refined Its Stockyards Palate." Quipped public radio game show host Peter Sagal: "Sure. Before Charlie Trotter all we Chicagoans ate was offal and boiled hooves." But actually, offal is hot stuff these days. Chefs like San Francisco's Chris Cosentino have been making the stuff trendy over the last five years or so. But Trotter has been an offal fan for years, and has proved his mastery of the insides through his haggis recipes, which he's apparently been perfecting for decades. He won a Distinguished Citizen Award at Chicago's 166th annual Feast of the Haggis in September, where, according to the Tribune, "Trotter gave the organizers his recipe that has a little bit of an Asian bent to it. 'It’s a little bit lighter. It’s got ginger and lemongrass and things that cut into the richness of it. From my standpoint, the only wine that can possibly stand up to it is a huge syrah that can just cut into the richess and the pungency of the flavors. Otherwise it’s going to blow away any other thing.' "