Charlie Trotter’s pressure cooker

As the restaurant prepares to close after 25 years as a Chicago fine-dining institution, chefs who worked there recall a high-stakes push to create flawless dishes that exceeded all expectations.

Everyone knows Charlie Trotter as the chef of Charlie Trotter’s. It’s his name, his restaurant, and he’s the boss. But that title “chef” has many meanings, and Trotter has embodied just about all of them during his 25 years at Charlie Trotter’s.

For instance, there are cooks who have worked there during the past 15 years who make this statement: “I never saw him cook.” By then his notion of “chef” had changed, and he was doing his creative culinary work “100 percent upstairs,” he says, pointing to his noggin. But soon after the restaurant opened in August 1987 and he was a gangly ex-gymnast on the cusp of turning 28 — and before the restaurant’s staffing caught up with its volume of diners — Trotter did pretty much everything there was to do in the kitchen.

Recalls Rick Tramonto, who worked as a daytime sous chef at Trotter’s for a year in 1989: “He was in there every morning, doing dishes, doing pots, and it was a very different time.”

“My role definitely changed little by little,” Trotter says. “I think for the first two years I never stepped one foot off the hot line. I was one of the guys on the line cooking in a station and expediting at the same time. And as we got busier, I realized I needed to have a different perspective.”

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