Even if you didn’t personally know chef Charlie Trotter, who was one of the greatest culinary artists in the world, you’ll likely recognize his name (or at least the unfortunate reputation that comes with it). Revered by foodies and gourmands, Trotter was a groundbreaking chef who shook up the fine dining world with creative, reimagined American haute cuisine which played a massive role in making the city of Chicago the culinary powerhouse it is today.
Trotter’s raw talent was often overshadowed by his notorious affinity for being difficult and complicated, and writer / director Rebecca Halpern‘s documentary “Love, Charlie” gives a thorough look into the chef’s legacy, telling his life story through a food-focused lens. By exploring hundreds of letters and postcards written by Trotter over the years (with the majority penned before he opened his first restaurant in the 1980s), the film exposes a very different and more intimate side of the man.
The documentary will be of particular interest to those working in the restaurant industry as well as foodies, as this comprehensive film celebrates the world of gastronomy and all of Trotter’s accomplishments. It’s a story that’s both inspiring (he was a self-taught chef who shunned culinary school) and cautionary (pride and obsession eventually led to Trotter’s downfall), and a look at what happens when a person’s identity becomes completely tied to their work.
Trotter worked in the food industry early on, and his first job out of college was as a busboy. After gaining on-the-job restaurant experience, he decided that his chosen career path would be as a cook. What started out as a hobby of reading cookbooks and experimenting in the kitchen became a full-blown aspiration to open his own restaurant. Obsessed with precision, Trotter took his time before opening his very first dining destination. He traveled the world, carefully studying the service, ambiance and menus. He took prolific, detailed notes so he could be the best. When his namesake dining room finally opened its doors, it was a smash success and changed the foodie scene forever.
The documentary lists an astonishing number of things that can be attributed to Trotter, from 10-course tasting menus, serving exotic meats, and making vegetarian dishes the star of the plate. He founded the idea of the “Chef’s Table,” where a select group of diners could sit in the actual kitchen and observe the inner workings during a service. This did little to help Trotter’s already bad reputation as being a perfectionist who demanded zero errors from his line cooks, and word quickly spread among customers that the chef was a major jerk in the kitchen, especially to his staff.
Halpern interviews former customers and employees, and they aren’t shy when describing their experiences with the chef. He was often known as being a “tyrant” who was impatient and unkind in the kitchen. Trotter’s intense persona was overbearing, with a very quick temper and a penchant for screaming. In other words, he was a typical control freak. Former workers describe a cutthroat environment that saw a high turnover, and not many stayed to work for one of the most prestigious names in the culinary realm.
The most eye-opening interviews come from those who knew Trotter best, including his ex-wives and famous chefs who worked with the man or were deemed his rivals (including Emeril Lagasse, Grant Achatz, Rick Bayless, Art Smith, and Wolfgang Puck). It’s their stories that paint a sadder portrait of a chef who made his life all about reaching perfection in his restaurant. It was this unhealthy obsession that would eventually lead to Trotter’s downfall and early death, as he was bewitched with the idea of control. He would sleep on the floor of his restaurant, spending many nights alone. He developed a disdain for his patrons, even going so far to claim that “the customer is rarely right.” He wanted to control every single aspect of a diner’s experience, and was only willing to give them what he decided they wanted.
“Love Charlie” is a detailed look at the professional and personal life of a chef who was as callous as he was brilliant. It’s a balanced film that celebrates Charlie Trotter’s accomplishments but doesn’t sugar coat the demons that haunted him for decades. It’s an interesting look of a chef who, over a 25 year career, never served the same dish twice. That’s exactly the type of obsession that food lovers can understand, and this is the film about Trotter’s life that we needed.
By: Louisa Moore