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By Phil Vettel Chicago Tribune 8:57 p.m. CST, January 1, 2012
New Year's Eve is a time for drama, but chef Charlie Trotter outdid himself Sunday. Shortly after midnight, in front of some 100 guests in his eponymous restaurant, Trotter dropped a bomb: At the end of August, after the acclaimed restaurant celebrates its 25th anniversary, Charlie Trotter's will close.
"Right after we rang in the New Year," said WGN news anchor Tom Negovan, who was in attendance, "he and his wife, Rochelle, climbed up on the countertop near the wine cellar. He said it's been a wonderful 25 years at the restaurant, and hoped the next eight months would be even more incredible. He said the restaurant's going to close and he'll move on to other things. "Some of us were slack-jawed and really shocked; we didn't know if he was joking," Negovan said. "Charlie's got a pretty unique style, kind of a jokester. ... The crowd fell silent, then started to applaud and cheer. They love them some Trotter.
"He talked about wanting to go back to school and pursuing philosophy," Negovan said. "As much as we think of him as an incredible chef, he's first and foremost a brilliant mind and academic." His restaurant has been the standard-bearer for fine dining, and perhaps more important, for fine-dining service, for at least 23 of its 25 years. Trotter and his every-day-a-new-menu kitchen have led and inspired a generation of chefs and have developed and cemented Chicago's reputation as a magnet for top culinary talent. For the restaurant to close on its own terms, on a day solely of the chef/owner's choosing, is quintessential Trotter: Decisive, defiant and always a step ahead of the expectations of others.
Trotter, who was unavailable for comment, may have given a hint to the restaurant's closing in a Tribune interview a few months ago. Back in September, he reflected on, among other things, being taken for granted. "I honestly believe," he said then, "that if we were to close this restaurant and six months later reopen a mile across town, and changed nothing, it would be, 'Oh my god, this is so awesome.'" He may put that speculation to the test. Trotter says he's not closing the Lincoln Park restaurant for financial reasons, and that once he completes his master's degree he will open another restaurant. This isn't the first time the chef has contemplated shuttering his restaurant. In a 2001 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, he spoke of exploring other interests and hinted that he "might not be here" a year from then. But he quickly backed away from that statement. This time, Trotter announced the closing in front of dozens of people and gave a date. Charlie Trotter's has long been considered one of the finest restaurants in the United States, with Trotter having won numerous awards from the prestigious James Beard Foundation over the years. Charlie Trotter's also has been a training ground for some of the city's top chefs, including Grant Achatz, Homaro Cantu, Curtis Duffy, Graham Elliot, Matthias Merges, Mindy Segal, Michael Taus and Giuseppe Tentori.
For some chefs who worked with Trotter over the years, the timing of the announcement was surprising, but the news itself wasn't. "I think this has been brewing for some time," said Merges, who worked for Trotter for 14 years and was the restaurant's director of operations. "He's a Renaissance man in a way," Merges said. "He's dedicated himself for so long to one thing, but he has loves for music and literature and politics, and he's always learning and reading and exploring." "He's been doing this so long, it's a wonderful thing for him to do a little traveling and experience life more," said Taus. "In this industry, we don't get to experience that very much. And I think we'll see some very exciting things from him in the future, as well. Charlie always has something interesting up his sleeve. Who knows what will happen?" Chef Rick Bayless of Frontera Grill couldn't resist firing off a sly Tweet: "Frontera turns 25 n Mar; not closing :)." Other Twitter users found it hard to understand all the fuss. "I'm shedding no tears over Charlie Trotter's closing," tweeted one man, while another user commented, "Lots of Tweets about the closing of Charlie Trotter's. What will the people of Chicago do without a $400 a couple restaurant?"
But Oswego resident and self-professed foodie Chris Ross said he plans to call Tuesday to try for reservations, a long-time wish for himself and his wife. "It's on our wish list because of Mr. Trotter's accomplishments as a chef, and the recognition of his namesake restaurant in the culinary world and as a premier dining experience in Chicago," Ross said. The next eight months at Charlie Trotter's are less likely to resemble a drawn-out wake than a well-earned victory lap. They will be packed with events (some already planned for the restaurant's anniversary), at least one book release and a whole lot of celebrating.