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Meet the chef - Isthmus

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When a guy named Chuck left UW-Madison in 1982 with his political science degree in hand, he took his newly found love of food on a trek across Europe and the US to learn absolutely everything he could. It wasn’t just the food he wanted to know about, but also the wine and the service and what made a restaurant truly great.

What happened next seems the stuff that movies are made of and a new documentary, Love, Charlie: The Rise and Fall of Chef Charlie Trotter, such as celebratory and cautionary tale. Chuck became Charlie, as in Charlie Trotter, the legendary Chicago chef who died of a stroke in 2013 at the age of 54.

Trotter was one of the first true celebrity chefs, with his eponymous restaurant opening in 1987. It was before the Food Network, before chefs were so well known that they had their own brands of cookware, before most people had heard of quinoa or the concept of farm-to-table. He put his native Chicago on the fine dining food map, where he has remained ever since.

“I think his legacy does stand to be lost to time because people are so used to flipping on TV and watching Chef’s Table and that’s who the culinary world is,” filmmaker Rebecca Halpern says in a Zoom interview. “What we fail to realize is there’s a long legacy of chefs on whose shoulders these current day chefs stand and Charlie Trotter deserves to have a place in that pantheon of greatness.”

Trotter’s is a complicated legacy. In time, he became known as temperamental and difficult. But he was also generous, committed to helping young culinary students through scholarships and training. In 2012 he was the James Beard Society’s Humanitarian of the Year. He gave the winter commencement address at UW-Madison in 2001, and recorded a commercial for the university in 1998.

“When I was hired to direct this film part of my mission was to make sure that his legacy would be remembered for the right reasons,” Halpern says. “I didn’t want to make a puff piece though. I really tried hard to show warts and all.”

As Trotter’s success grew, so did his reputation in the kitchen — and not just for the food. His tyrannical approach placed him No. 2 (behind Michael Jordan) in a 1996 Chicago Magazine poll of the 50 meanest people in Chicago. Staff sued him over compensation and labor violations.

Other great Chicago restaurants emerged, some run by Trotter proteges, like Grant Achatz (Alinea). In 2012, Trotter closed his restaurant with a plan of attending graduate school to study philosophy.

“Anyone whose identity becomes consumed by their work runs the risk of losing sight of their true self. Charlie Trotter became consumed by the role of Charlie Trotter and if you play the same role long enough for 25 years, ultimately do you become that person?”

Identity is a theme throughout Love, Charlie. As a kid and college student, Trotter went by Chuck, not Charlie. The name change came because Trotter thought “Chuck Trotter’s” would sound too much like a steakhouse. In the film, we get to know Chuck through a huge cache of postcards and letters. He was a prolific correspondent, and the filmmakers had access to more than 350 postcards and letters Trotter had written to friends and family throughout his life.

The correspondence shows a joie de vivre, a curiosity and a lifelong pursuit of excellence. The latter was his blessing and his curse, something not everyone appreciated.

“You got him or you didn’t and he didn’t feel the need to explain himself too much,” Halpern says. “He didn’t need to explain himself — the work spoke for itself.”

Love, Charlie will be released theatrically on Nov. 18 and stream on Amazon Prime and Apple TV+.