Charlie Trotter and the Culinary Cult of Personality

By

“Right from the start you have to know clearly that no master is perfect. Any master is just a human being. What is important is your own practice, which has to consist of following the imperfect master as perfectly as possible. If you follow your master in this way, then this practice is the basis on which you can follow yourself.” —Uchiyama Kosho Roshi

***

I never thought I would find myself defending Charlie Trotter, at least not unironically. His instantly recognizable work incited a culinary craze for presenting meticulously crafted food in the form of towering, sometimes precariously cantilevered stacks of counter-intuitively coordinated comestibles.

But Chef Trotter passed away earlier this month, after a series of trivial but very public embarrassments that began with the closing of his eponymous restaurant last summer. As of this writing, autopsy results indicate that death was likely due to an aneurysm and foul play is not suspected, but soon after his body was discovered, the sensationalistic obituaries began. They reran year-old photos of him—bloated, disheveled, unshaven. They reprised stories of megalomaniacal public outbursts, erratic financial moves, lawsuits, and other manifestations of an implied mental imbalance. They juxtaposed the detached, perfunctory remarks of a handful of once-close protégés who had fallen out with Trotter with those of his disciples and colleagues who still revere him as a saint.

I began to notice a few of my Facebook friends (none of whom had worked in the restaurant industry, as I have) remarking derisively that the death of this has-been control freak was hardly worth mention, let alone fuss—as though the decline and fall of his restaurant and his reputation as a vitriolic, hard-assed perfectionist disqualified him from being so honored. And though a spiteful part of me agreed with this appraisal, I also found myself growing angry. Though I had never met him, Charlie Trotter had once been, if not a hero of mine, a man whose art and sensibility I respected and admired. I had once worked and studied in his field, and though I never reached his grand epicurean heights, I felt I understood a great deal of his perspective and philosophy of food. And while as time passed I had reason to become deeply ambivalent, even bitter, about the entire project and aim of haute cuisine and its proponents, my feelings and reasons were too complicated and deep to just dismiss with a sneer.

Some backstory: In the early 1990s, having lately studied something uselessly abstruse at a respectable liberal arts college and obtained a baccalaureate which conferred no prospect for real employment in a flattish economy, I—along with thousands of other young people of greater or lesser native intelligence, talent, and ambition—enrolled in a culinary school. It was the new Thing To Do. Or, in my case anyway, it was Something To Do, something interesting that might actually lead to stable employment. The American fascination with haute cuisine that had emerged in the mid-’80s had hit its stride: flashy new restaurants showcasing daring flavors and pomo presentations had metastasized out of Manhattan and the Bay Area and colonized the whole country. Cooking schools and cooking shows flourished. Chefs—Emeril Lagasse and Bobby Flay and Wolfgang Puck—were macho celebrities, philosopher-kings, like the two-fisted abstract expressionist painters or the steely-jawed Apollo astronauts of earlier generations. And the greatest of these chefs (because he exuded class and gravitas, because he did not stoop to hosting trite half-hour cable cooking shows or shouting, “Bam!”) was Charlie Trotter.

Even then, before he was honored as the country’s most outstanding chef by the James Beard Foundation in 1999, Trotter had a certain reputation, or rather two diametrically opposed yet complementary reputations.charlietrotter1

There was the public Charlie Trotter. (Always the whole name, the four syllables a conjuration.) The genial, puckish host. The apostle of dégustation, without which molecular gastronomy would have been impossible. The genius author of pricy, handsome cookbooks that adorned the office shelves of zealous chefs like illuminated Bibles and were pored over raptly by ardent young cooks—line, pantry, and pastry alike—whenever they could steal a moment away from the kitchen’s bustle.

And then there was the dark Charlie Trotter of the service line, of whom we, the culinary novitiate, spoke in quiet, anxious tones, as if he might be around the corner listening. The irascible, caustic Charlie Trotter, infamous for regularly reducing his staff to tears over trifles, for demanding sixteen- to eighteen-hour shifts. For being the omnipresent, hypercritical Eye of his kitchen: aware of everything, accepting only of platonic perfection. The Charlie Trotter who could make or break your career with one withering remark. The Charlie Trotter that everyone I knew fantasized about one day working for. To understand the desirability of such a position requires a little unpacking.

To be young and self-serious is to need an ideal, a role model or venerable institution to follow, a paragon of rigor in the pursuit of a worthy end. That much is a truism. If it were not so, there would be no Bolshoi Ballet, no United States Marine Corps, no Shaolin Monastery, no professional sports or fine arts, no technological or medical or scientific advances, no aspiration to greatness in any endeavor. Mediocrity would be its own satisfaction. Learning the art of fine cuisine is this type of rigorous vocation, and to most young Americans twenty years ago, it was a fairly novel and untried one, and so doubly exciting. For me—initially, at least—a big part of the attraction was in creating small, perfect works of art that were impermanent, deliberately ephemeral, like a Tibetan Buddhist sand mandala. And to learn how to do that, I had to study with a master.

Not that I ever worked for Trotter, of course, but the difference between training in most fine kitchens and training at Trotter’s was one of degree rather than kind. And as with joining the Marines or taking monastic vows, to apprentice in a distinguished chef’s kitchen is to give yourself up willingly, to be broken and reset like an improperly healed femur. You know that the experience will be extreme and perhaps self-annihilating. That’s why you do it: the exhilaration of being made into something better and new, but with roots in something bigger and older than your mind can wrap around. You know that your chef will be an ogre and the work will be unending and life will suck for a time, but those are selling points of learning the trade, and you wouldn’t have it any other way, because that is how you become seasoned and acquire proficiency and cred.

It is perhaps impossible to say whether testosterone-soaked professions such as cooking tend to attract a certain sadistic type or if they mold indifferent personalities into its brutal image. I suspect that both factors come into play, if it even matters. I do know that the fascistic culture of male-on-male cruelty has unintended consequences, as it does everywhere it prevails. In Europe, the tradition of the mercurial, violent-tempered chef is centuries old. The first two chefs I worked for, who were both trained in this tradition, were true to the stereotype—screamers, throwers of pots and pans (really), makers of unreasonable demands, insulters of ancestry—but both men had the thing I wanted: the virtuoso chops to justify that kind of intolerable behavior. (I mean “justify” in the circular sense that behaving like a spoiled child achieves results and also that anyone who can achieve results like that can behave however he goddamn well pleases.)

Thus public perception of chefs and their milieu is formed and reinforced: chefs are often portrayed as raving, merciless bullies, as exemplified by the callous, abusive Gordon Ramsay of the popular TV series Hell’s Kitchen (who is said to be nothing like his persona on the show), or as reckless, nihilistic hedonists, epitomized by Anthony Bourdain of No Reservations. The viewer expects this kind of Grand Guignol of violent discord, shouting, insults, snark, and the occasional gross-out, and the shows’ producers demand it: We want drama! And so life imitated, or at least got a big boost from, art. The kitchen remained one of the few workplaces where such arbitrarily cruel treatment of employees could go on in plain sight.

And so I learned to accept the unfairness, the hurt pride and bruised ego, just as I accepted the cuts and burns, the sore feet and back, and the lousy pay of being an apprentice. I drank away my resentments and learned to quietly tolerate the outbursts and cruel punishments, such as the time I was out sick for one day—legitimately! with a doctor’s excuse!—and when I got back, the chef dressed me down in front of the whole kitchen and then assigned me to grind frozen stale dinner rolls into breadcrumbs for an entire week. That was one of many such “lessons.”

The ostensible reward for taking all this abuse was the deferred opportunity to be the cruel bastard in charge of tormenting the next batch of wretched apprentices if you hung tough and made the cut. And you would deserve that sadistic opportunity because you’d earned it, the same hardscrabble way you’d earned the skills necessary to cook $45 entrées to perfection every time, 50 or 80 or 100 times a night. And so the road to enlightenment is paved with hazing, in kitchens of distinction as elsewhere.

As a boy who grew up small, bespectacled, not good at sports, not popular with girls, I feel certain, looking back, that acquiring a veneer of toughness, of manliness, was as much on my agenda as gaining cooking experience. But my problem, and in part my downfall, was my revulsion toward and unwillingness to take part in the rituals of stupid cruelty. Men who are not good at the hazing game, or not interested in playing it, can have a hard time gaining respect and getting ahead. (Determined female cooks, however, are usually considered by the men to be outside the game—not noncombatants, exactly, but somehow not to be taken seriously. And so those women who learn to recognize how the macho game works—and the most important insight is that most of the men who play it don’t realize it’s a game—are often able to play it to their advantage by not becoming ego-invested, by working hard and getting ahead while the men are busy jockeying to be alpha dog. This phenomenon is outside the scope of this essay, but deserves its own elaboration. Many of the best chefs I know are women, and they got good and won respect by concentrating on the job at hand instead of the dick-swinging.)

charlietrotter3If all this competition, malevolent posturing, and pointless turmoil seems like an elaborate but petty distraction, it is. But more importantly, it’s the inevitable byproduct of a team of people, each with his or her own ideas, trying to create art in concert with (or, just as often, in spite of) their fellow team members, under conditions of incredible stress.

Which brings us back around to what is often glossed as the “human cost” of all this striving toward perfection. There are the celebrity chef suicides: Bernard Loiseau and Colin Devlin, among others, who succumbed to the erosive mania for perfection, for fame, for more financial backing to do more things. Also, the lifestyle of kitchen workers is perceived to be—and often is—extreme: work hard, play hard. (Again—thank you, Mr. Bourdain.) Of course, the ravages of playing hard have as much potential for doing damage to the individual as the stress of working hard. One of the best chef-restaurateurs I worked for had previously been a long-time sous chef under a talented but virulent alcoholic. I myself eventually had to leave the industry in large part due to a predilection for stress-induced substance abuse—the stuporous calm of drink and drugs—that gravely threatened my mental and physical health.

In the end, a kitchen is like any other workplace: management sets the mood and defines what is acceptable behavior. The student must choose how to define himself in relation to the abusive chef. Some emulate him and perpetuate the atmosphere of bullying. Others (including many of the best chefs working today, who were part of my age cohort or a few years younger) push back against that culture, opting to institute a more democratic, cooperative approach. Grant Achatz, in his memoir Life, On the Line, includes a chapter detailing his brief tenure at Charlie Trotter’s and how he found that he couldn’t thrive under the chef’s tyrannical management style and the extreme tension and mental stress.

And so we return to Charlie Trotter and his precipitate end. How easy it would be, how elegant and fitting, to blame his death directly on his way of life somehow, on his management style and value system. He fancied himself a bit of a philosopher, and was known to hold uber-capitalist, Randian, and social-Darwinist views, after all—the takedown almost writes itself! (Besides which I could write a whole other Marxist critique of the political economy of modern gastronomy.) Was Trotter a reactionary? In some ways, yes. He was a tremendous, almost pathological egoist—do we have a psychoanalyst in the house? His truculence toward many other chefs and toward animal rights activists was legendary—a-HA! We have explained everything about him.

Haven’t we?

Yes, well, except for one small thing: his art. An art that, because of its ephemeral, esculent nature, exists now only in photographs and the memories of those fortunate enough to have occupied a table at Charlie Trotter’s. An art that redeems the flaws of the man. An art that I, and many others, would have willingly worked a year in hell to perfect under Trotter’s tutelage.

***
Listen to Eric read his essay:

Update Required
To play the media you will need to either update your browser to a recent version or update your Flash plugin.

Second image credit.

Third image credit.


Eric Kroczek grew up in Michigan City, Indiana—famed for its prison, where John Dillinger and Etheridge Knight did time, as well as for its outlet mall, well known among Chicagoans for fashion savings. He attended Wabash College and the Pennsylvania Institute of Culinary Art (which is now called something else), where he learned to make Monte Cristo sandwiches from scratch. Since his retirement from professional cooking, Eric lives with his lovely wife in Muncie, Indiana, where he ekes out a living notarizing reverse mortgages for shut-ins. He does not watch cooking shows. More from this author →