Chef Trotter and I both hail from Wilmette, although a generation apart, I knew who he was growing up. Which is kinda weird, I admit, but that’s what happens when you grow up with kids, some of which, have rich parents.
The above link is something of an abridged history of Trotter’s. And it got me thinking: why has the news of his decision to close the restaurant remained on my mind all week?
I wasn’t raised in a culinary family (Red Lobster was fancy) but I’ve been aware of how the other half lives since a very young age. I grew up among the 1%. My young classmates went to Trotter’s with their families. It wasn’t until high school that I grasped the ridiculousness of that - kids going to Trotter’s? Is doesn’t make sense, almost as if I created this memory, but regardless, Charlie Trotter has been a name I’ve recognized since too young of an age.
In high school, while part of me was all “f*ck this rich, fake bullsh*t”, another part of me poured over the restaurant reviews in Chicago Magazine (parents subscribed) and Chicago Social (comped subscription because our zip code was their advertiser’s target market). I read of amazing meals and imagined the well-heeled in beautiful dining rooms dropping more money on a bottle of wine than I made in a month (between babysitting and being an office assistant). So if you can imagine the few culinary experiences I’ve enjoyed in life have left their mark.
During winter break of my sophomore year in high school (‘97/’98), I remember my friend’s dad treating us to Topo Gigio in Old Town and it being the most expensive menu I had laid eyes on (remember: Red Lobster was fancy). Pretty sure I ordered the cheapest pasta dish. What a polite 14 year old I was.
Sophomore and junior year we dined at Bistro 110 before the spring formal. Senior year, a guy in our group was part of a “culinary family” so we dined at their Japanese restaurant overlooking the Mag Mile. I knew I was spoiled. I knew this wasn’t normal.
Towards the end of my first semester at college, a large check from the university showed up in my dorm mailbox. I had been awarded a $1000 scholarship from UIUC’s art school and here was the first half for my first semester. After a little celebratory thrifting, Lindsey, Lexi and I went to Bacaro, which had just opened in downtown Champaign to rave reviews. It was modern & as close to fine dining as you were going to find in Central Illinois in 2001. I donned jeans, gym shoes and my finest red down vest (a winter wardrobe staple). Then I enjoyed my first risotto.
I tried dating a chef when I was 19. I was living in Urbana. He had just moved back to Chicago after graduating from the CIA in NYC. It was a task. It didn’t work out. But I think all I really ever wanted was for him to cook for me. To watch a professional. Now he is heading kitchens on the East Coast. It’s funny seeing his name on GrubStreet.
It was the summer of my 23rd birthday and my boyfriend announced he had a huge surprise for me. He was taking me out for a meal neither of us would forget. And then he tried to make me guess the restaurant. I ran through the list of all the places we had talked about (but I never imagined us actually finding enough money to go). Everest? No. Spiaggia? No. Arun’s? No. I demanded he tell me because I needed to know how to dress. So he let it out: Tru. I think I screamed. We went. It was fabulous. I still remember the soup course. And we made plans to go check out a new fancy restaurant once a month. Of course that never happened. But it’s the idea that counts, right?
I’m 28 now and still not in the financial position to treat myself to $150 tasting menus, but old habits die hard (if at all) and I continue to follow the restaurant news, the buzz, the hype, the openings, and it’s totally masochistic. Being a “poor foodie” is really just being a glutton for punishment.
But maybe if I’m lucky and I pinch my pennies, maybe I’ll make it Trotter’s before this Chicago classic bids us farewell. Twelve year old Jess would be very pleased with that.
RIP Chef Trotter. You trained the best, you inspired a city and you had a passion few of us can understand.