What Charlie Trotter means to me

I can honestly say there has been no other meal in my life that has meant more or had more impact on my life than the first meal I ate at Charlie Trotter’s.

If there were no Charlie Trotter or his eponymous restaurant, I would not be sitting where I am at this moment.  The course of the last nine years of my life would no doubt have been dramatically different.  I won’t pretend that he gave me the courage to make some of the decisions I have made, but sitting in his restaurant on a mild September evening in 2004 had exactly two immediate effects on my life.  First, it awakened a curiosity within me about food.  And second (a direct result from the first), it helped thaw what had become an icy relationship with my father-in-law, giving us a common ground to begin our friendship anew.

Did I like everything that we were served that night?  No.  I was a picky eater, and I was nervous about eating there, knowing that there was no à la carte menu.  For me it was the beginning of letting go, of getting past the pretense that I’m in control of anything let alone everything.  I know many people who would never order a tasting menu because of the loss of control, the feeling that you’re totally dependent on another person’s sense of taste.  That sense of letting go, of abandoning that sense of control would have and still has greater implications in my life outside of food.

At the time I didn’t like seafood.  We were served a scallop dish with osetra caviar and an oyster, and after one or two bites, I whispered to my father-in-law that if he could discretely remove the scallop from my bowl then it was his.  He obliged without any sense of discretion, making a show of it whilst saying to me “If you don’t like that scallop, then you don’t like scallops”.  I hate the fact that I gave that scallop up, a feeling and sense of loss that grows with every passing year, because I know that now not only would I be able to appreciate it, I would love it.  But I have to remember that I had to start somewhere and that without passing on the scallop that challenged me, my life would may not have unfolded as it has.

I ask you to dwell upon the simplicity and absurdity of what I’m saying:  the course of my life was dramatically altered because of a scallop, an oyster, and osetra caviar that I refused to allow myself an attempt at enjoying.

In the summer of 2005 when I turned 30, I had a vastly changed (or changing) outlook on food.  That meal haunted me in a way, and I vowed to start tasting everything again that I thought or had believed I didn’t like.  No preconceived notions, no listening to other people who were saying “yuck”.  Tomatoes, mushrooms, scallops, shrimp, crab, and nearly everything else that lived under the water, that I had previously claimed not to like, I proved to love.  And my new eating habits had a knock-on effect for Erin:  she was being challenged or was able to eat things once again at home that she loved but that I thought I didn’t like.

I started reading, Bourdain at first, then Ruhlman, and then I’d just walk over to the Barnes & Noble at Webster and Clybourn and browse the cooking section.  Names like Carême, Escoffier, Point and Troisgros became meaningful.  A whole world that just months before I had eschewed now appeared before me, and I felt like I knew so little.  To quote a friend of mine, I was like a pubescent boy who’s obsessed with breasts and legs and all things female, only for me it was food.  In short I became possessed (and still am) by learning to be a better cook, learning about different ingredients, and by eating well.

The resulting decision to quit a corporate job and become a cook and everything subsequent have all been influenced by this one meal.  It’s not often that anyone can attribute so much to any single event, perhaps other than being born, and I’m lucky to be able to do so, especially because the event and the consequences have generally been positive.

When I learned last week that Charlie Trotter had died I was so much sadder than I might have predicted I’d be.  True, my day-to-day life isn’t impacted by his passing; but in the larger sense that my day-to-day life is what it is, I owe that to Charlie Trotter.  And though he closed his restaurant a little over a year ago, as long as he was alive there was always the hope that he may open a new one.  And sadly now, there’s no chance of that happening.


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