CHARLIE TROTTER AND THE DEFINITION OF “CHEF”

Twenty five years.

Twenty five years is a long time for anything.  In the restaurant business, it’s an eternity. Yet that’s how long Charlie Trotter’s restaurant thrived in the hyper-competitive Chicago restaurant scene.

On November 5th , the influential Chef passed away at the age of 54.

One of the world’s most respected Chefs and successful restaurateurs, Trotter suggested in an interview with DocsOnline that fine dining was one of life’s most accessible luxuries. People can have an unforgettable culinary experience with a platoon of people working on their behalf for around sixty dollars an hour. Good point. Try renting a yacht or the penthouse at the Waldorf for that price.

Trotter could definitely be called a Renaissance man. He is the author of 14 cookbooks and almost as many books on management.  He earned a degree in political science from the University of Wisconsin before turning to a life of food. He claimed that his studies of politics and philosophy were essential to his culinary career.

While Trotter did study at several prestigious culinary institutes, it is unclear whether he earned a degree in culinary arts. While it is very obvious that this had no impact whatsoever on his career or his influence, some of the obits handling his untimely death call Trotter a “self taught Chef.”

To some, the phrase self taught could be seen as impressive; someone of Trotter’s stature having the drive to achieve so much in a chosen* field without “formal training” (*Trotter said that a life in food chooses you). On the other hand, some may see the term self taught to be an asterisk next to one’s name that means “no degree”.

Cooking is definitely one of those of professions in which one can move up the ranks and achieve incredible success with little or no formal training. Mario Batali spent a total of three days in cooking school. Thomas Keller is another notable, influential and wildly successful “self taught” chef.  This does not mean Batali and Keller locked themselves into rooms with copies of Escoffier and On Food and Cooking and then emerged as brilliant Chefs. In the culinary world, “self taught” can be translated as working ones way up. Nobody is literally self taught.  There is an impressive tradition in kitchens of peers and elders assisting those who may be a bit green but demonstrate genuine enthusiasm.

There is no way around the benefits of cooking school. If one finds themselves working in a kitchen and the Sous Chef barks that he or she needs  four cups of mirepoix, it would be good to know what they’re talking about.  Cooking school teaches almost all the terms one needs to know to function and follow orders in a kitchen (although to survive in some kitchens one might need to bone up on their colorful swear words). Work ethics, chain of command, management, even how to properly sharpen and clean knives:  priceless benefits of studying at a reputable cooking school.  Pursuing a culinary education is good for fostering connections once one is finished and it’s also a place to take stock in one’s own personal dedication to the craft.

But can you call yourself a Chef when you get that diploma from the Culinary Institute? What is an honest to goodness Chef?

What better place to ask this question than at the Chefs Center of California?

“I get asked this question a lot.” Said Stefan Niemczyk, owner of Elite Eats. Elite Eats is a rapidly growing company that creates and delivers gourmet paleo meals.  “The label is a sign of respect. It means someone has dedicated their life to preparing food and respects food as an art form.”

“It is something that you earn.” Said Vice, one of Niemczyk’s  Chefs. “You cannot give yourself that title. It comes from your peers.”

There are many touching and inspirational stories of the day a mentor referred to his culinary protégé’ as a chef.

Wikipedia and other sources define the title of Chef as anyone who cooks professionally and is highly proficient in all aspects of food preparation.  This looks good on paper, but there is an intangible element that most people allude to when questioned on the topic.

One word that comes up again and again: passion.

“It’s all about passion.” Said Larry Bressler, General Manager of the Chefs Center.  “You don’t need a degree to be a Chef. Some of the French traditions of rising to the level of chef include an apprenticeship that starts at around the age of twelve. That’s dedication.”

Trish Bales, owner of Capital Kitchens, a shared used kitchen based in Austin added, “A Chef is not only someone who earns a living cooking but someone who is passionate about cooking, is innovative and has a leadership role, either with clients or staff.”

 Vice quoted one of his mentors to illustrate that there is no way to fake passion. It will show up in the product: “The worst food you will ever have will be made by a cook who calls himself a Chef.”

Passion seems to be the driving force for those who succeed at vocations that do not necessarily require a degree: sports, art, show business. It is that “genuine enthusiasm” mentioned earlier that will move a seasoned Sous Chef to show an eager prep cook how to truss a roast. If the prep cook was miserable, lazy, simply untalented or all of the above, the Sous Chef wouldn’t waste his or her time with a demo. Passion, in the beginning stages anyway, is the currency a newbie uses to gain knowledge from those with experience. Passion is on the job tuition.

The word passion is derived from the Latin verb pati, which means “to suffer”.

Anyone who has worked a kitchen line day in and day out, standing, cutting and burning themselves, filling in when the dishwasher quits without notice, and is still optimistic, enthusiastic and driven is certainly familiar with the kind of suffering that can be translated as passion. Charlie Trotter, in his self styled apprenticeships at Sinclair’s in Chicago then under the tutelage of Norman van Aken in Florida, surely did his share of peeling, standing, cleaning and sweating.

 Passion is apparent at the Chefs Center on a daily basis. Not just in the quest for excellence from the experienced, career Chefs who create great food, but the food entrepreneurs who might have had a slow run at the farmers markets on the weekend but still show up the following Monday at five AM ready to tweak their recipes, put in their time and start all over. These people may not call themselves Chefs, but they have the kind of passion that leads to success.

John F. Kennedy was credited with saying, “Time either exposes or promotes.”  For twenty five years, time promoted Charlie Trotter in his namesake restaurant alone. Add the books, other restaurant ventures and philanthropic endeavors, and it’s clear that Trotter was a force that breached the swinging doors. At the core, Trotter knew the suffering of the kitchen. He clearly had the passion. He was indeed a Chef’s Chef. 

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One comment

  1. The best post I have read on the business of cooking and a chef called Charlie Trotter. So accurate that I sunk in deep thoughts. I never heard of Charlie Trotter, I never met him but now I wish I had.

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