It's always nice to see David "United States of Arugula" Kamp in DI/DO, but this was a curious sort of piece. Charlie Trotter raised the bar for dining in Chicago, and still runs this exellent restaurant. And he brings in utes, cooks them nice food, and tries to motivate them. His former employee, Grant Achatz, has three stars, while Trotter has to content himself with two. Even that is a dis:
Alinea, the standard-bearer of technologically forward cuisine, got three stars, the guide’s highest rating, as did the modernist seafood restaurant L2O. The one-star tier was rife with relative newcomers of gonzo-hipster bent like Longman & Eagle, where the menu features a wild-boar sloppy Joe. In between, at a dutiful but unsexy two stars, was Charlie Trotter’s.
Evidently, a lack of bacon trapezes (Alinea) or wild-boar sloppy Joe (gonzo-hipster)* consigns a chef to the unhappy fate of simply running a really good restaurant. The bigger knock, however, is Trotter's failure to establish a beachhead in NYC, or to thrive in Vegas. Trotter's absence from Top Chef Masters goes unmentioned here, but seems of a piece with the larger concerns with what Trotter's done since opening the best restaurant in Chicago at the age of 27.
What strikes me about Kamp's piece is not any lack of sympathy on his part, but how much the yardsticks for cheffly success have changed. Not that long ago, holding down two Michelin stars in a relatively out of the way part of the dining world would have been something to celebrate. Indeed, a two-Michelin-star chef who screams at his cooks sounds like MFKF's bread and butter. Put Trotter's in France a generation ago, and it's a Thing. Evidently, Trotter's food is very good:
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.
I'll take that over a wild-boar Sloppy Joe, thanks. In general, what Kamp describes -- a chef-proprietor with some love from Mr. Bib, who consistently cooks really good food and yells at his staff -- is what used to be the epitome of Chef. Now, lack of an outpost in Dubai, and failure to hobnob with Padma, put you in the also-ran category. Were I Trotter, I might be saying something to myself about how it's the pictures that got small. (Speaking of pictures, in the print ed of the Times, the big B&W pic seems to be laying it on a little thick, considering that it was taken in 1991, when color photography was widely available. Based on available images, the B&W seems like a reach.
*Achewood fans cannot read the words "gonzo" and "restaurant" in the same sentence without recalling the Sani-Taco story arc.