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Charlie Trotter dies at 54; Famed Chicago chef remembered at Lincoln Park vigil

Mourners remembered Charlie Trotter as a trailblazing chef who transformed fine dining.
November 5, 2013 8:32:43 PM PST
Charlie Trotter, one of Chicago's most well-known chefs, died Tuesday at the age of 54.

According to the medical examiner's office on Tuesday night, there were no signs of foul play. Charlie Trotter appears to have died of natural causes, but a thorough autopsy will be performed on Wednesday.

On Tuesday night, a vigil was held to remember Trotter outside his now-closed Lincoln Park restaurant.

With lit candles in hand, members of Chicago's culinary scene, came to Trotter's now-closed Lincoln Park restaurant to remember a chef who put Chicago on the restaurant map. They worked for him, they were influenced by him and they all say Charlie Trotter changed them.

"Chef Trotter and everything he stood for personally and professionally, it's a loss that you can't really describe right now," said Graham Elliot, chef and former Charlie Trotter's employee.

"It goes beyond having a restaurant. It's the personal touches he taught me and a lot of people who are here," said Bill Kim, chef and former Charlie Trotter's employee.

Michael Taus was of Trotter's first employees and talked with the chef last week.

"I think he was doing fantastic, I had never seen him so happy," said Michael Taus, former Charlie Trotter's employee.

"He took us places to places that we didn't think he could take us, he was the man of excellence ," said Art Smith, celebrity chef.

Trotter was found unconscious in his Lincoln Park home and transported to Northwestern Memorial Hospital on Tuesday at 10:45 a.m., where he died.

Danielle Human placed flowers and a card, simply labeled 'Chef,' on the stairs of Charlie Trotter's now-shuttered Lincoln Park restaurant. The aspiring chef says Trotter was an inspiration for her and countless others.

"I just wanted to leave a thank you for Charlie for inspiring an entire generation and changing the way everyone in Chicago, and really the country, looks at food," said Danielle Human, aspiring chef.

A graduate of New Trier High School and the University of Wisconsin, Trotter spent several years in various culinary schools before opening his famed restaurant, Charlie Trotter's in 1987. Trotter himself won a number of awards, including Best Chef in the Midwest in 1995 and Best Chef in the Nation in 1999. His restaurant also won many awards, including earning a two-star Michelin rating.

"He changed the way people sourced food, found local products, beautiful fresh produce. You know, everything in Chicago before that was steakhouses, and now there's chefs doing amazing things," said Human.

His upscale Charlie Trotter's restaurant in Lincoln Park closed in September 2012.

Trotter said he wanted to go back to school after closing the restaurant.

"After 25 years, Mayor Daley said I'm taking a hiatus here, and after 25 years in Chicago Oprah said, 'I'm ready for something different,' so I guess I'm following their lead a little bit," Trotter said in January 2012.

Matthias Merges worked for Charlie Trotter for 14 years. On Tuesday night, he's opening his own restaurant in Hyde Park-- a restaurant that will definitely have many influences by Trotter.

"America has its own kind of cuisine now, and I think Charlie Trotter was a major force behind that," said Merges.

His restaurant was missed by many Chicago foodies.

"The experience was extraordinary," said diner Bita Fakoori. "It's nothing like you have ever seen at any other restaurants. Mr. Trotter knows how to pick the menus and he does a really good job."

On Tuesday, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel released a statement, "Charlie Trotter changed Chicago's restaurant scene forever and played a leading role in elevating the city to the culinary capital it is today. Charlie's personality mirrored his cooking - bold, inventive and always memorable. Charlie Trotter will be remembered for serving the finest food and his generous philanthropy, and he will always have a seat at the table among Chicago's legendary figures."

Sam Toia, president of the Illinois Restaurant Association, echoed the mayor's sentiments on Trotter's legacy in Chicago in a statement on Tuesday: "Today, we have lost an inspiration and unmatched talent. The restaurant industry has been forever changed by Chef Charlie Trotter's culinary vision. His talent placed Chicago on the worldwide culinary map, and influenced countless chefs and hospitality professionals worldwide. His impression will last long beyond his young years."

Chef Graham Elliot said he's known Trotter for 15 years. In a statement, Elliot said, " His dedication to excellence, the city of Chicago and the culinary world at large inspired countless cooks to find their own voice and follow their dreams. He now belongs to the ages."


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