I was in the kitchen making breakfast for the kids when my wife came in with an alarmed look on her face.

“Charlie Trotter died.”


The name stalled in my head, it took me a moment to process the news. And then I was hit with a wave of shock: Charlie Trotter, the boyish Chicago chef whose smiling face grinned out at me from three or four cookbooks in my collection.

“He was only 54,” she added sadly.

Charlie Trotter arrived in my life just when I needed him — at least his cookbook did. There have been points in my life as a chef when a culinary influence has come right at the time I could most use it. And Charlie Trotter’s Vegetables was one such influence at one such moment.

The book was $50, which must’ve seemed to me like a thousand when it came out in 1996. It was categorized by season, featured beautiful photos of farmers in the fields and foragers in the woods, and the star was vegetables of all kinds — glamorous vegetables, knobby rooty vegetables, leaves and tubers, fungus and ferns. It was the first time I’d ever really thought of the vegetable in something other than a support role to the meat, fish or pasta. And here were collard greens folded in tortellini with bleeding heart radish sauce, yukon gold potato puree with truffles, fennel flan with black trumpet mushrooms, rutabaga gnocchi with mustard sauce, morels stuffed with yellow grits, cardoon lasagna, elephant garlic soup, root vegetable cobblers and on and on and on. Ingredients that at the time I had no experience with were given top billing — fiddlehead ferns, salsify, sunchokes, gooseberries, ramps. There were techniques like making a reduction sauce from a vegetable’s juice or roasting mushrooms or root vegetables to a bacon-like crispness that are still central to my cooking today.

I followed it up shortly thereafter with Charlie Trotter’s Seafood, organized by wine pairings, which included such revelations as gooseneck barnacles, baby eels, shad roe, farmed abalone and skate wing. For months, I cooked nothing but seafood.

Morels with yellow corn grits, okra and morel juices — from Charlie Trotter's Vegetables

Morels with yellow corn grits, okra and morel juices — from Charlie Trotter’s Vegetables

Thinking of Charlie, I looked at the books now, and they seemed somewhat dated. The images of the dishes were no longer as startlingly creative as they once were, the food too big and the presentation somewhat sloppy, especially given the exquisite art in ensuing decades of the likes of Ferran Adria or René Redzepi. But I still carry with me the influences they bestowed — things we take for granted now, like eating seasonally and locally, and giving humble ingredients their moment. And I discovered something I’d not noticed 17 years before in the opening pages of Vegetables, a dedication:

“…to my son, Dylan, who eats some vegetables, when coaxed.”

I thought of my own son, Flynn, who also eats some vegetables when coaxed. It was Charlie’s son, Dylan — now a man — who found him unresponsive in their family home.

I worry about chefs. They stay up late and drink too much. They eat too much fois gras and pork belly. Like rock stars, they embrace excess and burn too brightly and too quickly. The life of a chef is fine and well in your 20s, but many chefs in their 40s and 50s are showing their age. It’s hard to look at a chef like Mario Batali, and not think his heart must be working harder than it’s supposed to. My dad’s best friend, the corpulent French chef Pierre Dupart of L.A.’s Dar Maghreb, had a massive heart attack on an airplane somewhere over Belgium in his early 60s.

Charlie Trotter was looking bloated in recent pictures I’d seen of him. His boyish beauty had been replaced by puffiness, and he was looking less Harry Potter and more Paul Prudhomme.

I don’t know what Charlie Trotter was like in life — I’ve read conflicting reports that he was generous and big hearted, and that he could be petty and vindictive. People are complicated creatures. And it’s not necessary to love the artist to love the art (witness: Pablo Picasso and Van Morrison).

I read that he had a small stroke recently, possibly had an aneurysm inside his brain, had been told not to fly and had flown anyway. Maybe his death had nothing to do with being a chef. Then I read that he was on medication for seizures, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Being a chef couldn’t help.

Ominously, shortly before his death at the culinary conference he was not supposed to fly to, he was asked what he would choose for his last meal. “A 1900 Chateau Margaux,” was his answer. A chef to the last.

Charlie Trotter’s Vegetables opened with the following quote:

“Live each season as it passes, breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit and resign yourself to the influences of each.” — Henry David Thoreau

Godspeed, Charlie.

*    *    *

Charlie Trotter’s morels with yellow corn grits, okra and morel juices
serves 4

*This is one of my favorite recipes from Charlie Trotter’s Vegetables, and one of the easiest. I like to add a little mild white cheese to the grits — fontina, for example — for extra creaminess, and finish the morel sauce with a tablespoon of cold butter.

8 morel mushrooms
5 sprigs thyme
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
salt & pepper
1 cup water
1 cup hot cooked yellow corn grits
8 whole okra, blanched

Place the morel mushrooms in an ovenproof pan with 1 sprig of the thyme, 1 tablespoon of olive oil, salt and pepper to taste and water. Cover and bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes, or until done.

Remove the mushrooms and reserve the liquid in the pan. Pour the morel juices in a small saucepan. Simmer over medium heat for 3 to 4 minutes, or until reduced by one-third. slice the morels in half lengthwise and fill 12 halves with the hot cooked grits. In a small sauté pan, warm the okra in a few teaspoons of water and slice into 1/4-inch pieces. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Assemble: Place a small amount of okra in the center of each plate. Place 5 of the stuffed morels on top of the okra along with a plain morel half. Place a sprig of thyme on each plate and spoon the reduced morel juices over the mushrooms. Drizzle the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil around the plate, and serve.

5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Benjamin Thompson
    Nov 08, 2013 @ 01:33:54

    Funny, I opened the e-mail assuming the subject line had indicated that you were about to expound upon a new love of traditional “soul food” or French charcuterie.

    I worked in the upper-end of Chicago dining for a few years and I knew other waiters who worked for Trotter . . . and that’s about all I’ll say. I will say this, he was good at what he did and one of the front runners in the field that is now flooded with replicas. I have worked for many a chef who dispenses with traditional social graces to focus on their craft. I admire their focus, anyway.


  2. Michelle
    Nov 08, 2013 @ 01:45:34

    Very nice post. “People are complicated creatures,” for sure. Clearly Trotter had a great influence and is gone far too early. Now I’m really wishing I’d bought the Vegetables cookbook I was looking at a few months ago at a used bookstore. (I do have a nice Charlie Trotter’s corkscrew that somebody gave me as a gift years ago.) I have to say that the one meal I remember at the restaurant a decade or so ago was rather joyless. Perhaps we went too late.


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