The Entire Season: An Elegy for Charlie Trotter
We were ice cream men and we were pool boys. We survived on Fat Frogs and Choco-Tacos and chlorine. Three of us had hair down to our asses. One of us had sideburns as thick as the rinds of ribeyes. It was summer in Chicago, 1995 — the year of that awful heat-wave that took the lives of nearly 800 people over the course of five days. My ice cream truck was ancient and rickety and door-less, an old converted mail truck; a hole had rusted through the bottom, and the exhaust would seep inside as I tried to drown out the tinny repetition of “The Entertainer,” with my Bon Jovi cassettes, trying, and failing, to keep cool with my 16 Sno-Cone-a-day fix. As I drove the streets peddling shitty ice cream embedded with spheres of frozen chewing gum — Screwballs and Bubble Plays and Bubble O’Bills — lusting after the bikini-clad, crimped-haired daughters of attorneys and surgeons, as they as they ate their ice cream in front of me before returning to giant lawns and their headfirst dives across their Slip ’n’ Slides and Crocodile Miles and Wet Bananas, I felt a strange urgency toward some nebulous sense of adulthood. I felt as if I couldn’t keep up this lifestyle forever — peddling strawberry-flavored carrageenan on a stick; cleaning leaves and Band-aids and sometimes much worse from apartment complex swimming pools with ragged green nets; sucking exhaust, eating Sno-cones, lusting from afar.
In my family, at that time, cooking meant microwaving. For breakfast, my father prepared microwaved omelets (which he actually dubbed his specialty), these rubbery wagon wheels of egg that wouldn’t quite give in to the fork, but just shudder against the tines. For dinner: microwaved hamburgers; boneless, skinless, tasteless chicken breasts. For special occasions, microwaved lamb shanks. For very special occasions, take-out MacDonald’s. And for those rare, earth-shattering celebratory dinners, Popeye’s — 12-piece spicy (for my dad and me), 8-piece mild (for my mom and sister). Soon, my diet prevented me from playing more than a couple rounds of after-school homerun derby before becoming short of breath. I began to wonder why my family so shunned fruits and vegetables.
In my family, at that time, cooking meant microwaving.
With my fellow long-haired friends, I would talk of growing up, growing out of the phases imposed upon us by this cloistered suburban Chicago upbringing. We would talk past midnight in basements over oxidized Crown Royal raided from our parents’ liquor cabinets, or over coffee and pie in diners named Forsey’s and White Alps and The Around the Clock. We would talk in the only way that 20-year-old boys like us could talk — desperately shoehorning any kind of saccharine, moony romanticism into our lives, sometimes while lying on our backs, in a field we nicknamed The Pit, saying words like oceanic and better than this and rebellion and fine dining, while imposing all manner of heavy-handed significance on the stars shooting above us.
We began reading food magazines and watching cooking shows, and even though we didn’t quite know what the term “fine dining” meant, we knew that it was a way out of sorts, an escape, a rocketing forward into a life of luxury, whatever that meant. We felt, somehow, that we deserved it, and that we were badass because of it. Over coffee and pie, the four of us began thumbing through Chicago magazine, heading straight for the dining guide in the back pages, circling the most interesting haunts in red pen. I remember one particular article on Charlie Trotter’s restaurant. The interviewer mentioned to Charlie that some of Chicago’s more unenlightened diners complained that Trotter’s offered only degustation menus, that he didn’t offer his customers a choice. And Charlie responded, “You don’t go to the symphony and tell them what to play.” We were in a Denny’s, I think, and I remember reading that aloud, and high-fiving my friends, and toasting with our coffee cups, as so many Moons Over My Hammys desiccated on the tables around us. It was precisely that kind of swagger that we needed, that empowered us, that gave us some sort of permission (though it was hazy and, at the time, incompletely understood), to break the rules of our milieu, to choose food as the lens through which we would ignite our growing up.
Self-importantly, we told ourselves we were these gustatory militants. In actuality, we were mediocre home-cooks at best.
This was our rebellion. Our other friends broke the windshields of parked cars, or spray-painted crude renditions of genitalia on closed shopfronts, or played mailbox baseball. We got into food, practiced cooking in our parents’ kitchens, and then our own, as we left for college. Self-importantly, we told ourselves we were these gustatory militants. In actuality, we were mediocre home-cooks at best. Eventually, we would all take various restaurant jobs, but “eventually” was years away.
In college, I worked three jobs — proofreading, telemarketing, and washing dishes in the dorm cafeteria. I slowly pooled this money with anything I had leftover from the ice cream truck/pool boy summer. When the first of the four of us was set to turn 21, for his birthday, we decided it was time. We would make a reservation (four months in advance, of course) at Charlie Trotter’s.
We found parking close to DePaul University, because we told ourselves we couldn’t afford the valet. It was November 11, 1997. A Tuesday. We were set to spend our entire bank accounts on one night of food and wine. Because our dress clothes were uncomfortable and ill-fitting, we didn’t wear them on the drive, and we all changed on the street.
Entering the restaurant — a flurry of greetings and shirt sleeves, and doors held open — we were led to our table in the downstairs room, and were struck, at first, by the light and sound in Charlie’s — the hushed din, the meditative tones of voices, the sort of glassware that sounded like an orchestra of gongs when clinked with other glassware. Red wine catching the light and reflecting from the walls and ceiling. Flowers arranged like fireworks, or my paternal grandmother’s orange nest of hair, teased into the brainiest of shapes. The light here was somehow gauzier than any light we’d ever seen, as if everything had soft edges but was somehow sharper in the middle. Moony, overwrought, I think one of us said something about the stars. We’d never seen anything like this — silverware so heavy, tablecloths so thick, seat cushions that seemed to caress us, almost sexually. Those girls could have their Slip ’n’ Slides and their jock boyfriends. We had these chairs.
We’d never seen anything like this — silverware so heavy, tablecloths so thick, seat cushions that seemed to caress us, almost sexually.
In this rarefied light, we tied our hair back with our sisters’ magenta scrunchies — offering our fellow diners a greater view of our stubble and our acne — and looked at tonight’s grand menu. We were unnerved, over-excited, disarmed. We tried to look comfortable, shifted our Salvation Army shoes on the carpet, generating static, cleared our throats, pulled at the sport-coats bunching at our armpits, looked at each other wide-eyed, and shrugging, grinning stupidly, simultaneously congratulatory and incredulous that we actually pulled this off after so many nights of talking about it over diner coffee. I don’t remember any of the items on that set menu that was initially handed to us, but I remember moaning with my friends as we recited each selection aloud. Soon, we spotted Charlie looking at us from across the room in his chef’s whites, his forehead bunched, hands on his hips, whispering to the guy who handed us the menus. Of course, we recognized him and tried to avoid eye contact. We quieted our voices, tried to look inconspicuous. We were both star-struck and worried that he’d throw us out. We did not look like the rest of the clientele here. I’m ashamed to admit it, but, for various reasons, I think we kept muttering, ‘oh, my god.’
Charlie squinted. Pushed up his glasses with his middle finger, which I thought was intentional. He took one step, then another toward our table. We held our menus, and our breaths. Soon, he was upon us. His glasses fell to the tip of his nose and he pushed them up again, this time with his thumb. He put his hands on his hips. The flower arrangement flanked his head like a halo; he looked vengeful, and bemused, and planetary. He opened his mouth. His jowl shuddered like James Dickey’s sheriff character at the end of Deliverance. I did not once think of Bubble O’Bill. He began nodding, and with each nod, his smile grew. He reached for our menus, plucked them from our hands. I felt naked and excited.
In his brash Chicago accent, in what we soon realized was his characteristic clipped and intense manner of speech, he said “you don’t need these damn things.”
We opened our mouths, then we closed them. We pulled the underwear from our ass cracks. Charlie tucked the menus under his arm, and the other diners paused over their champagne flutes, stared at Charlie, at us, twisted their mouths and whispered to one another. I could swear I overheard one old woman with diamond peacock earrings ask her husband, “Who the fuck are these assholes?” I could swear he responded by patting his Gucci cummerbund.
“I’ll have the kitchen whip something up for you,” Charlie said, “I used to have long hair just like you guys.”
This time, here, within the cloistered confines of Charlie Trotter’s, against all odds, Salvation Army was allowed to trump Gucci.
Over the next four-and-a-half hours, Charlie sent out sixteen courses to our blessed and shell-shocked four-top, much to the disbelief and, I’d like to think, dismay of the other patrons. This time, here, within the cloistered confines of Charlie Trotter’s, against all odds, Salvation Army was allowed to trump Gucci. Here, anomaly was celebrated. And the food: It was the first time any of us had eaten (or even heard of, for that matter) salsify (paired with a celery root napoleon and fennel), Pacific Syori (paired with ogo salad, marinated yellowfin tuna, wasabi, and a poached Maine lobster maki roll), Osetra caviar (crowning a Maine diver scallop with crispy lotus root), foie gras (with Jonathan apple terrine and roasted chestnut puree), Hawaiian opah (with tiny shiitake mushrooms and Prince Edward Island mussel broth), Atlantic halibut (with white asparagus and brandade), squab breast (with pearl onion, golden chanterelles, and cider broth), venison loin (with quinoa and roasted eggplant puree)… Whenever Charlie emerged from the kitchen, he came only to our table and, as master sommelier Joseph Spellman further decorated our palates with crazy wine after crazy wine, and we became increasingly intoxicated (both metaphorically and actually), Charlie eventually sat down with us, asked us about our lives, and soon, we were laughing together like new — and then like old — friends.
Charlie somehow empowered us in the face of a clientele who was far more used to being empowered. Tonight, at least, we felt large, substantial, impossible to knock over. Super-heroic, even. My three minimum-wage jobs were certainly out there waiting for me, but they seemed a lifetime away. More than stunning food, more than the inspired wine pairings, Charlie created, in his restaurant, this narrative. That it was okay — no, it was essential — to risk pulling off the seemingly impossible. My mouth full of strange, wonderful flavors, über-woozy, I remember bunching the tablecloth in my fists, trying to make coalesce this hazy new way in which I wanted to live my life. We were still sitting there when Charlie waved goodbye. We didn’t know what to say to each other, so we said all of the obvious things. We were the last table in the house when the server brought the bill. When we opened it up, only a handwritten card that read, “Tonight, you four longhairs have been the guests of Charlie Trotter. Drive home safely.”
We continued to work our multiple jobs, just so we could empty our bank accounts twice a year at fine dining restaurants. When we were about to graduate college, we secured the kitchen table at Charlie Trotter’s for a 6-hour 24-course extravaganza that ended at 3:00am after the chefs took inventory of all the ingredients in the house, and made sure we ate every single one of them (I distinctly remember sous chef exclamations like We have sea urchin! We have rabbit kidney! We have persimmon! We have morels!).
After Charlie divulged that the best meal of his life had been at the famed restaurant Girardet in the farm village of Crissier, Switzerland, we began stockpiling our paychecks. As a gift to ourselves upon graduating from college, we found ourselves in that very temple of gastronomy, communing with some younger, ghostly version of Charlie, as we made our way through course after course. From Crissier, we mailed Charlie a Girardet postcard that read, only, “You were right.” So began a written correspondence. We would send Charlie letters about our culinary adventures, our kitchen trials and our kitchen errors.
Upon returning from Europe, we landed jobs stuffing computer parts into boxes, launching daily fights with the packing peanuts in misguided attempts to seduce the prettiest of the warehouse girls. We would tell them about the things we’d cooked the night before. We used words like demi glace and gastrique. We all had these romantic notions about fleeing Chicago. About testing ourselves in some sort of extreme environment. We spoke often of Alaska, though our only conception of the place came from our ravenous diet of Northern Exposure episodes. When we all amassed enough dough for plane tickets, and an additional $350.00 cushion apiece, we threw the final fistfuls of packing peanuts at the girls, quit our jobs, and lit out for Juneau.
We found the cheapest motel in town, The Driftwood Inn, which bragged about its COLOR TV! and IN-ROOM TELEPHONES! on the curbside sign. We shared a single room and each morning walked across the street to the Channel Bowl Cafe — a greasy counter service diner adjacent to Juneau’s favorite bowling alley for alcoholics, and its well-populated bar. We were running out of money fast. Because it was cheap, we ate breakfast at the Channel Bowl six days in a row and, biblically, on the seventh day, the owner offered us jobs slinging eggs and blueberry pancakes and reindeer sausage.
…we would call Charlie on the phone for cooking advice. Over the phone, he taught us how to make terrines of crab, oxtail stock in which to braise caribou shoulder.
On our days off, we fished for king salmon, smoked it over alder wood, vacuum-sealed it, and mailed it to Charlie. To us, he mailed back 30 jars of his signature sauces — savory and sweet. When local fishermen and hunters came into the Channel Bowl, trading garbage bags full of king crab legs and caribou meat for a week’s-worth of free breakfasts, we would call Charlie on the phone for cooking advice. Over the phone, he taught us how to make terrines of crab, oxtail stock in which to braise caribou shoulder.
When we all lost our jobs when the Channel Bowl closed its doors, we took work doing snow removal and lift maintenance at a ski mountain. The pay wasn’t good, and we couldn’t afford our rent, so, desperate and temporarily homeless during the Alaskan winter, we took to breaking into the homes of vacationing locals. Once, we were caught when a pair of honeymooners came home from Thailand two days early. Though they took pity on us, and didn’t press charges, our cover was blown. We pooled our finances gleaned from our $7.50/hour shoveling and screwdriving and mopping, and moved, the four of us, into a rundown studio apartment with no plumbing we affectionately called The Hovel. We slept next to each other in sleeping bags on the floor. We used the bathroom at the Centennial Hall, a mile away. We befriended the owner of the Driftwood Inn, and she let us use the showers of vacant rooms for $3.00 per 10 minutes. We did not eat well. We did not shower often. It was winter, and we were depressed, and the guy living above us was prone to violently throw dishes against his wall. Our slumlord — a guy named Angstrom — told us that the city was about to condemn the apartment complex. That we had three weeks to get the fuck out. The same day we received this news, we got a letter in the mail, addressed to The Four Longhairs.
It was, of course, from Charlie — an invitation to a private dinner at the restaurant, during which Charlie and famed French chef Michel Trama were to engage in a dish-after-dish culinary duel. Over the next couple of days, we read the invitation aloud to each other. Over suppers of Raisin Bran and tap water (also gleaned from the Centennial Hall bathroom), we read the letter. We stared at our sleeping bags, the lint gathering in the room’s corners, the kitchen counter that had given in to rust, the single bare, brownish bulb that illuminated it all. The winter beat against the one small window, and it rattled in its frame. Outside of it, a wheel-less Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme propped up on blocks; a drunk old man trying to stanch his nosebleed in the snow. We passed the invitation around like a talisman. We had headaches. We crawled into our sleeping bags, turned off the light. The man upstairs shouted Fuck a duck! and something shattered against the wall. There was no moon. We had no money. We knew what we had to do.
We used our credit cards. We felt as if injected with helium as we drove onto Armitage Avenue, bearing traces of Crissier and Juneau in our blood, in our hair, on our dress clothes. Two of us (one was me) scored such clothes, albeit ill-fitting, in the Juneau Salvation Army. One of us changed into such clothes in the foyer of Charlie Trotter’s, and Jean Joho, the chef at Everest, and party guest, made a muffled joke about his Spiderman boxer shorts. I don’t remember exactly what we ate — I remember it as a tornado of lobster and pheasant and caviar and sugared apple shaved so thin you could see through it. In fact, my memory of the night seems glimpsed as if through that apple shaving — indistinct, with soft edges, beautiful and bygone — some other alternate universe decade that could only be described as roaring, or some other ecstatic exclamation. I do remember that we were seated at a table with Guillermo Tellez (Charlie’s former right-hand-man), and Tetsuya Wakuda, the famed Australian chef. I do remember that Charlie, when he wasn’t battling Trama in the kitchen, spent an inordinate amount of time at our table, touching our shoulders and muttering, “Unbelievable. Unbelievable,” before addressing the table-at-large and declaring, “These guys came in from Alaska.”
Charlie busted out a dusty, giant 20-quart Nebuchadnezzar bottle of something red and divine. It took two servers to maneuver the toddler-sized bottle through the space, and to downturn a bit of it into everyone’s well-used glasses.
Of course, the wine was flowing, and it flowed from bottles ever increasing in size — from the standard 750 ml, to magnums, double magnums, jeroboams, rehoboams, imperials, Methuselahs, Salmanazars, Balthazars… As the night came to a close at about 5:00a.m. (the party now milling about the restaurant, in and out of the kitchen where Trama himself was holding court in broken English and perfect French), Charlie busted out a dusty, giant 20-quart Nebuchadnezzar bottle of something red and divine. It took two servers to maneuver the toddler-sized bottle through the space, and to downturn a bit of it into everyone’s well-used glasses.
One of us, the tallest — the one who most suffered from acid reflux — was telling Alaska stories to Charlie, a group of bemused chefs, and Chicago’s dining elite, when his chest gas got the better of him, forcing him to interrupt his story, lurch forward, his hands on his knees, and release a sonorous belch-hiccup combo that lasted for nearly ten seconds and sounded as if stirred from some (albeit privileged) Hades. It was a thick, creamy sound, burbling as if through a film of butter or oatmeal. With the sort of bravado fueled by stunning food, and wine that once lived for decades in a 20-quart bottle, he popped back up, bounced on the balls of his feet and declared, to the gape-mouthed crowd, “Now that’s the sign of a good meal.” I remember Charlie, red-faced, leaning his forehead into my friend’s back. I remember staring at the expanse of Charlie’s chef’s whites, a yellow stain at the collar. It could have been old champagne, or grapeseed oil, or sweat. I remember Charlie’s shoulders bouncing up and down. Then, he lifted his face from my friend’s embarrassed back, wiped his eyes, pointed to the passing server, and called for another round of wine.
As we walked back to our car, unsure as to what had just happened, overusing words like amazing and dream, someone pointed out that I was still dragging the three-dollar price tag from the heel of my two-sizes-too-big dress shoe. As we pulled onto the highway, the sun rose, and we fought to stay awake, and we turned on the radio, and someone said something about the weather.
When we got back to Juneau, The Hovel had burned to the ground. Rumor had it that Angstrom, the slumlord, had set the fire in order to collect the insurance money, before the place was officially condemned. We could still taste the remnants of wine and lobster. We stared at the mass of ash and twisted metal and charred shingles. We had lost the little we had. Even our pillows and sleeping bags were gone.
We survived on the generosity of others — local families who allowed us to crash in their guest rooms. In spite of our reputation as B-and-E-ers, former Channel Bowl customers hooked us up with house-sitting gig after house-sitting gig. Eventually, we left Alaska, and, inevitably, each other. We found girlfriends and we found wives. Separately, we found a series of food-related work. Kitchen apprenticeships in Italy and Argentina. Garde manger work in Key West. Private chef gigs in San Francisco and Vermont. Charlie Trotter’s began to serve as the site of reunion. When the first of us got married, we celebrated at Charlie’s. When the first of us got divorced (the same guy), we found respite at Charlie’s. Even though he wasn’t in his kitchen as frequently as he used to be, he would come down from his home to sit with us, looking as if he’d just woken up, to share a glass of wine. He would touch our shoulders, tell our spouses or girlfriends how long our hair used to be, before sending out desserts like Venezuelan Chocolate Custard with Kaffir Lime, Grilled Nopales and Agavero Jelly, or Sweet Rhubarb with White Chocolate Yogurt and Coriander Shortbread, or Thai Chile Profiterole with Curry Ice Cream, Warm Mango, and Cilantro, none of which were on the menu.
The last significant amount of time I spend with Charlie is at the 2008 Slow Food Nation event in San Francisco, held over Labor Day weekend. I had just finished my first book, Barolo, about my time spent apprenticing in the restaurants and butcher shops and bakeries and wineries of Italy’s Piedmont region, living for a year out of a tent in the garden of a local farmhouse, being paid only in food and wine. I built up a nice little wine cellar collection, which, of course, was housed at the foot of my tent at the bottom edge of my sleeping bag. Charlie had agreed to read and blurb the book and, in celebration, invited me to be his right hand man during his cooking demonstration at Slow Food Nation.
I fly out on a red-eye flight. As instructed, I get there early. Forklifts and purple-shirted Slow Food crewmembers mill about in the early morning Taste Pavilion, one-hour before opening to the public. Celebrity chefs shuffle in, adjusting their performance toques, tugging at their crotches, wiping the sleep from their eyes with their middle fingers. There’s Alice Waters yawning. There’s David Chang picking his nose. Squatting behind a trashcan, Traci des Jardins applies some last-minute deodorant. My cell phone whines in my official Slow Food Nation apron pocket, some mutant baby kangaroo. It is Charlie’s personal assistant calling from Chicago. She is frantic.
“Chef has just entered the building,” she says breathlessly, “He is exhausted. Is there any way you can find him a cup of coffee or a double cappuccino as soon as possible?”
In the Taste Pavilion, in the embryonic stage of the event many newspapers dubbed “The Woodstock for Foodies,” sleepless aficionados set up stations boasting exotic fish, tea, chocolate, charcuterie, wine, beer, spirits, ice cream, honey, olive oil, and, most certainly, coffee. On my way to procure Charlie a cup, a big-eyed tuna stares me down from its mattress of ice.
By this point I know: Charlie and his chef compatriots are keeping longer hours than investment bankers — the up-and-comers often trapped without break for nineteen hours behind the line, the celebrities jet-setting for international events and the occasional appearances at their flagships. For them, a single time zone is the stuff of dream, if only they could get to sleep.
Charlie Trotter has been in San Francisco scarcely an hour. After his forty-minute Green Kitchen demonstration in front of a live studio audience, he will return to the airport, take off to Vegas to surprise the staff of Restaurant Charlie — what was then his newest restaurant venture [which closed soon afterward in 2010] — and, three hours after that, return to Chicago via the red-eye. No wonder his assistant is frantic. I am appropriately giddy, and nodding too much, my bleary and excited body trapped in affirmative gestures. I keep repeating the words, wicked honor, in my head. I am here to puree Charlie’s tomatoes, circulate his plated dishes among the studio audience, very, very careful not to slosh any soup, displace a julienned cucumber.
Charlie shoots the coffee as if booze, downing what must be a gallon of the stuff in a matter of seconds. Almost immediately, his hands begin shaking.
But before all this, Charlie needs his caffeine. I make my way to the entrance, and see the man in his chef’s whites, his head hung, his stubbled face fuller than I’d seen before. I approach him, reaching with the coffee cup. The purple-shirted Green Kitchen crew, most of them employees of Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, descend on him as well, armed with their own stimulant gifts. My cup of coffee is just one of about nine thrust at Charlie, and he accepts all of them with a mouth immune to heat, as the flock of purple shirts coo and squawk. Charlie shoots the coffee as if booze, downing what must be a gallon of the stuff in a matter of seconds. Almost immediately, his hands begin shaking.
Around us, the beer experts snap their suspenders and clap their steins, the sauerkraut crew filling their cardboard cups with extracts of juniper and Meyer lemon. To Trotter, this must seem an insomniac hallucination, albeit a familiar one. He rubs his eyes and forehead and cheeks with his thumb and forefinger as if inspiring his skin cells to wake. A pair of purple shirts whisk him off to an upstairs photo shoot. It’s still quiet enough to hear the fluorescent lights buzz. For half an hour, Charlie stands on one foot while balancing an heirloom tomato on the end of a tablespoon while the photographer and her assistant move like panthers along the floor. I sit against the windows, my knees to my chest, sipping my own coffee, which tastes vaguely of asparagus.
At some point, Charlie tosses me my own chef’s whites, emblazoned with the Trotter’s insignia, and my name stitched in green script over the left breast, and, when he curtly instructs, “Put it on,” I feel knighted. Something strange happens: uniformed in a Charlie Trotter’s jacket, I notice that the purple shirts are now fawning over me, that the first trickles of the public look at me differently, pointing and staring and whispering. I notice that the other chefs begin nodding too, as if thrusting upon me a respect I can’t bear, and certainly don’t deserve. But, boy, do I pretend. I stare back at them, open my eyes a little wider, sip my coffee, and return their nods, as if I know what it is like to be in the fine dining trenches. I think I may even wink at a couple of them. Privately, I do my very best to convince myself I’m not an idiot. I almost accomplish this.
When Charlie and I finally make it back to the Green Kitchen, hovering in the cramped, decidedly unglamorous backstage, the purple shirts abound, removing any trash directly from our hands, offering treasures edible and imbibable. Alice Waters’ pretty assistants — a disproportionate number of them with crimped hair — keep touching my shoulder, raking their fingernails over the back of the crisp uniform. I remind myself I have a wife now.
“My colleague and I,” Charlie says to the assistant with the most crimped of the crimped hair, “would like a bottle of white wine.”
It’s not yet ten in the morning, Charlie just drank enough coffee to raise the dead, his hands are visibly trembling, his jowl again shuddering like James Dickey’s sheriff at the end of Deliverance (albeit a few years further along), and he orders a bottle of white wine. Appropriate time of day is a luxury for those with consistent sleep schedules.
“Yes, Chef!” the crewmembers intone, reminding me that the fine-dining world has become a tasty adjunct wing to the military.
A shy crewmember fills our glasses with Puligny-Montrachet white Burgundy, which Charlie, recalling the gusto with which he gulped his coffee, downs in one sip. He refills it, and downs it again. Surely, he is used to this, having to eat and drink and sleep in minute-long spans before the next alarm clock blares, the next plane departs, the next tomato finds its way atop a spoon that he’s compelled to hold for thirty straight minutes. His glasses slip forward on his nose, but he doesn’t push them up. This close, I can see that the lenses are dirty. I can smell on his breath coffee and wine and traces of toothpaste. His teeth look small.
We tell stories. That Trama dinner. The first time the Longhairs and I dined at the restaurant. The postcard from the Girardet. I tell him about the apartment in Alaska burning down, and he laughs into his own sternum, and says, “Shhhh,” as if quieting himself down, or quieting me down, or quietly arresting the word, “Shit.”
As we polish off the bottle and begin another, Chef Rick Bayless of Chicago’s Frontera Grill and Topolobampo shows up backstage, hangdog, trying to find enough space for himself. He is also unshaven and pale. He also doesn’t look so good.
“Charlie,” Bayless drawls, “I haven’t seen you in about six months. This is a real treat.”
Bayless, wan, on the verge of collapsing, drags a blue cooler full of jalapeños along the floor, shoves it against the rear wall and sits down on the lid, burying his face in his hands. In a matter of seconds, he starts to snore.
After all this coffee and wine, Charlie finally seems to find a state he’s comfortable with. He removes from his backpack an array of vacuum-sealed foodstuffs, and instructs me to slice them open with any available knife. Into a disarray of bowls, among the backstage tangle of electrical wires and abandoned backpacks, dirty glasses and discarded sections of the San Francisco Chronicle, I empty heirloom tomato confit, tomato “taffy,” tomato powder, and four-year-old fermented black garlic from China — “The ultimate Slow Food item,” Charlie would later tell the studio audience. We are to be making Chilled Yellow Tomato Water Soup with cucumber, lime, tomato powder, green carrot tops, and olive oil, and Warm Tomato Soup with roasted garlic, garlic oil, lemon zest, and that exotic black garlic. For Charlie, this is simple stuff. At my calves, I feel Bayless’ breath.
Pulling enough muslin cheesecloth from his backpack to wrap a body, Charlie says, “If airport security stopped me with any of this, I was going to tell them I’m on a special diet.” He squeezes a hunk of the black garlic. It looks like a desiccated peyote button. “I mean, look at this stuff. It’s medicine!”
Charlie continues, “So I organized an apprenticeship at [the now-defunct Catalonia, Spain restaurant] elBulli for my son, so he could feel what an honest day’s work is like. Twenty hours straight, on your feet, no breaks except for a small family meal at the end that you eat standing up. Ferran [Adria, elBulli’s chef] did this one dish with sea anemone, which is poisonous if improperly prepared, and rabbit brains.”
Here, Charlie beams proudly.
“And you know, they, like, spend months coming up with their menu, and then serve it for the entire season. My son’s job,” he says, “day in and day out for like six months, was to go through this pile of rabbit carcasses, split them down the middle, and extract their brains. It’s great. Every morning, he would show up to this pile of dead rabbits and start splitting skulls. He found the whole thing rather repetitive.”
Charlie puts his hands on his hips and his gut asserts itself. In his eyes, a perverse joy. Bayless drools. I thank my lucky stars that Charlie’s gooshy foodstuff of choice today was of the vegetal variety.
“He comes home,” Charlie says of his son, “and I ask him how it was, and he makes this face, right? And he says, ‘Dad, dad. I think I want to be an interior decorator.’”
We can hear now that the pavilion has filled up. The place pulses with voice and footfall and chewing. The purple shirts approach us once again and Charlie knows what this means, so he chugs the remainder of his wine and grabs my shoulder like a coach.
In front of the 200 audience members, if only for forty minutes, Charlie Trotter is excitedly, glowingly awake.
Soon, we’re shoved center-stage, amid a blaze of ceiling lights and six rotating cameras. In front of the 200 audience members, if only for forty minutes, Charlie Trotter is excitedly, glowingly awake. Forced or not, this alertness inspires the crowd. They know not of his multiple plane trips, multiple beverages, the crazy demands he must meet to ride this plateau of success. They know nothing of The Hovel. He gives me some fun-loving shit for the crowd, again makes the joke about how pissed-off he was when Michael Jordan edged him out as “The Meanest Man in Chicago.” I play the role. I say nothing but, “Yes, Chef.” Nothing about postcards from Crissier, or jars of Charlie Trotter’s chocolate sauce mailed to some condemned apartment building in Juneau. The ruse works. Charlie auctions off, charitably, our shallow bowls of soup for $400 each.
As soon as this whirlwind begins, it ends, and Charlie says nothing, but “Goodbye, and thank you,” before disappearing into a storm of purple shirts. Then, he is gone. For the rest of the weekend, I wear his uniform with my name on it, earning the smiles and stares of the security guards, journeyman chefs, and chef groupies. Though he left San Francisco less than four hours after arriving, Charlie lived on in that pavilion, in his insignia emblazoned on my lapel, and in the helium in my chest, having once again made me feel larger, and more important, than I am.
On November 5, 2013, the day after my mom’s birthday (which she celebrated with microwaved pork chops), my phone rang off the hook as if it were a member of my own family that had died. My wife was at work. We live in northern Michigan now, and the rain had started to thicken. When I couldn’t talk about it anymore, I walked into the backyard, to the cinderblock garden bed we had built earlier this year. The dead tomato plants stood like sentries, a head taller than me. The only thing still alive in the garden was this plume of lemongrass, overflowing its bed like some awful pompon. I felt as if I had to say something, as if there were something in my chest I had to dislodge. Prayer, maybe. But something more than that, too.
I knew because the tomato plants told me: winter’s coming. The rain soaked into the cinderblock and a robin dropped dead from the sky right into the middle of the lemongrass. Dropped by a raptor, I thought. This is northern Michigan, I thought. The wind rattled the tomato stalks like castanets, wheat. I thought of the Trotter’s insignia, of that stylized morel mushroom, the sort of which grows right up the road from my house, in the muddiest woods. I did not remove the bird’s carcass. It should ride out the winter. Freeze right there in the garden. On the trees, single lines of sap had dried on the trunks. I thought of boundaries, old surgical scars, bodies halved by the sorts of coagulants that the best of our chefs have to boil and boil and boil to make sweet. I thought of risk, and I said it out loud, “Goodbye, Charlie, and thank you.” At first, I felt stupid for saying it. Then, I didn’t.
I was hungry. It was getting late for breakfast. Back in the house, the phone was ringing and I let it ring. Mechanically, I opened the cabinets, and took out the saucepan. I filled it with water, and a little salt. I drank coffee. I opened the fridge, and then I closed it. I listened to no music, and carefully poached an egg, as the light fell across the kitchen floor.