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Before 'The Bear,' Chef Charlie Trotter Brought Fine Dining — and Controversy — to Chicago

A new documentary showcases the rise and fall of the legendary Chicago chef.

The recent FX and Hulu series The Bear, about a fine dining chef who moves home to run his family’s Italian beef shop, captured both restaurant culture in Chicago and the hearts of food-loving television watchers around the world. But the Windy City has long been a food town, at the very least since chef Charlie Trotter opened his eponymous restaurant there in 1987. The new documentary Love, Charlie: The Rise and Fall of Chef Charlie Trotter — currently in theaters and streaming — chronicles Trotter’s trailblazing techniques and controversial leadership practices, spotlighting the man credited with putting Chicago dining on the map.

Even as a kid, this writer, who grew up a ten-minute walk from Charlie Trotter’s on Armitage Avenue, understood that Trotter built something vastly different than other chefs. Though I never had the chance to eat at the Michelin two-starred restaurant, I went with my mom probably once a week to the chef’s gourmet grocery store, Trotter’s To Go. In 2000, Chicago Tribune restaurant critic Phil Vettel called the shop "an experiment in translating [Trotter’s] culinary philosophy into an accessible neighborhood place."

For my family, that's exactly what it was. We would pop in after school and buy the crispiest, juiciest rotisserie chicken for dinner that night, or flour-dusted sourdough shaped in triangles that my mom would make into grilled cheese for us to dip into Trotter’s tomato soup. I remember tasting my first sunchoke in that shop from the platters of prepared food set up behind a glass case. And then there were the sweets, which ran the gamut from simple baked goods to complex tarts. But the thing I loved most were the chewy chocolate meringues. My mom persuaded the pastry chef behind the counter to give us the recipe — a story you can read more about here.

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For those who might not be as familiar with Trotter, the documentary paints a picture of a visionary: a self-trained chef obsessed with farm-to-table cooking before that was a buzzword (he was ahead of his time in serving ingredients like quinoa, and the first to offer a tasting menu that was fully vegetarian), and a leader who was both admired and feared — in 2003, Trotter’s staff sued him for abusive labor practices.

Several chefs who came up through Trotter's kitchen make appearances in the film, such as Alinea creator Grant Achatz, who details the complexity of their relationship. "I never knew if we were friends or we were enemies," Achatz said. "And I think we were kind of both, and he wanted it that way." Other chefs, including Wolfgang Puck and Emeril Lagasse, reflect on the legacy of their friend. There's also archival footage of Julia Child and Anthony Bourdain, as well as interviews with members of Trotter's family.

Ultimately, director Rebecca Halpern aimed to tell a story of how Trotter shaped the culinary landscape, his complicated legacy and all. In so doing, the documentary shines a light on a legendary figure who operated a Chicago institution for 25 years, right when the city was at the top of its game in everything from television (Oprah’s show ran for nearly the same quarter-century as Trotter’s restaurant was open) to sports (this was during Michael Jordan’s prime, after all).

Toward the end of the documentary, Achatz explains that his experience working for Trotter shaped the chef he is today. "Literally, I would not be in this city had he not been here."

That's the thing about Charlie Trotter: regardless of his reputation, he had an impact. Emeril Lagasse said it well in an email interview with Food & Wine: "Charlie Trotter will always matter. He changed the way that we think about food."

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