On about a decade ago, I received a day in Charlie Trotter’s kitchen as a gift from some friends. They had purchased it for me at a charity auction. I like to cook for my friends and do so often. I also worked in restaurants through my teens and college so I have nearly a decade’s experience at the prep and line level. As far as home cooks go, I consider myself a pretty good one, but by no yardstick a chef.
Charlie Trotter’s, if you do not know, was – maybe still is – one of the most important restaurants in culinary history. Following Alice Water’s legendary focus on highest quality dill for salmon and chocolate for cakes, Charlie Trotter blew it up by putting the chocolate on the salmon. Chicagoans were lucky that he built his practice in Chicago. His was the spear tip that drove culinary innovation. His protégés sparked countless award-winning restaurants and turned Chicago into one of the finest restaurant cities in the world.
By the time of this story, these kitchen certificates were standard fare and had been given to charities for years. They were more special to the recipient and less expensive for the restaurant than a gift certificate. Hundreds had gone before me, and the program was well established. I was greeted at the door by the sommelier and escorted into the secondary dining room where lunch was awaiting me. He explained the day which included some time in the kitchen, the pre-shift meeting with the manager and servers, some front-of-the-house time, and some other experiential but out-of-the-way activities. He also asked about my expectations. I told him I wanted to experience the true Charlie Trotter’s working environment. “How are your knife skills?” he asked. “Pretty good, I think, but you can be the judge.” With that I was sent down to change into my awaiting restaurant-supplied whites.
The kitchen was abustle when I entered. Bright lights, colorful ingredients, and a dozen rapidly moving chefs gave the room a magical intensity. I was set-up on a prep table and handed 2 dozen sous-vide artichoke hearts. I was instructed to quarter them and carve each part into the shape of a flamingo – the choke making a colorful beak. I’m sorry what? The chef picked one up, pulled a raptor knife from his pocket, and with one deft slice, turned the vegetable into a bird.
I wasn’t deft but I figured it out. I guess I did a passable job, because when I was finished, they let me stay. Next came in an overflowing tray of morels. You could have bought a used car with what these mushrooms were worth. I cleaned and cored them for maybe an hour. “Next?’ I inquired? Out came 4 flats of strawberries – each to be cored, cut in half, and then sliced onto 32 equally thick pieces, which would then be added to the maceration solution. On this task I spent the next two hours.
Another give-back that Charlie Trotter created was a program that hired inner-city high-school kids to work in the kitchen. They cleaned, prepped food, and assisted the chefs. I am sure that many of them went on to successful careers in the culinary industry. I wish I remembered the name of the fellow in this roll the day I was there, because he is important to this story but for that I apologize. We had been working side by side for a while, chopping away, when he referred to me as “Chef Curt.” I chuckled humbly and informed him that I was just renting the spot for the day and a chef by no means. For the first time that day, he stopped moving, looked straight into my eyes and asked me, “are you working in Chef Charlie Trotter’s kitchen today or not?” I agreed I was, and he informed me, “then today you are Chef.” This soon turned out to be truer than I could have imagined.
I had been working at the team’s disposal for so long – and perhaps so quietly – that the front-of-the-house staff forgot I was there. I missed the pre-opening meeting and the shift meal with the wait staff. In fact, by the time I proudly lifted my head from that glorious vat of liquifying strawberries, the kitchen was buzzing in a whole different way. I ventured to the front of the room and found a safe place to observe. Dinner had started and the staff had moved to their action positions around the line. Well-dressed waiters were coming in, grabbing plates, wiping the edges, and heading out. Charlie had not yet arrived, but the chef in front, likely the sous chef, controlled the room like a conductor directing an orchestra. There was commotion, but also a sense of forced, busy quiet.
As entrees started going out, the appetizer dishes started to pile up. I noticed with interest that there was not person assigned as dishwasher. This organization was so flat that every chef was expected to do everything of which he was capable. I also noted that the institutional dishwasher was a brand I recognized from my own high-school restaurant days. It was many decades newer but worked basically the same. I set to work rinsing the plates, placing them in the racks, opening the door, running the machine, and removing them to airdry. The process took about 60 seconds per load. I had no idea where they went, so I just stacked the dishes on the counter and prepared the next load. After about 10 minutes of this, I heard a sharp request. “Chef Curt! Did anyone tell you to wash those dishes?” “No sir” I replied, “but I know the machine and figured I would help.” “Chef Curt,” he now ordered, “I need you behind the line at the sauté station!”
You want some context? Imagine, you are sitting at Wrigley Field in some hard-won front row seats. Anthony Rizzo has been yanked, and David Ross approaches you and tells you that you are needed at first base – right now! My job was sautéing salmon – four to six pans at a time, moving between them, ensuring that none stick, and flipping when ready. Once to temperature (no thermometer, you tell with a touch), they were plated and garnished. I was getting along surprisingly competently when Chef Trotter arrived and asked what I was doing there. I learned later that in all the years of the charity certificate, I was the only recipient who had ever received this honor. I was sprinkling brightly colored flowers across a plate while I introduced myself, and he responded with, “well, welcome, now, damnit, more purple!” I absolutely beamed.
This is one of my favorite stories and not without lesson. The whole day turned with an earnest and insightful request from a teenager that I reconsider how I view myself. I had hoped for a terrific spectator vantage leading to improved understanding of people I admired. But when my heart and mind opened, the experience carried me beyond my expectations. I came to observe the show, but in the end I was part of it.
Following my 10 minutes behind the line, I was handed a glass of fantastic Brunello and sent downstairs to change out of my whites. My wife and another couple were meeting me there for dinner, and I had brought a change of clothes. In my excitement, I accidentally (I swear) put my restaurant supplied whites into my backpack with my own dirty clothes. I meant to return them, but the restaurant closed several months later. Those whites have hung proudly next to my suits, for the past 9 years as a reminder of the time I got yelled at by Charlie Trotter for not putting enough purple flowers on top of a piece of salmon and was able to live-out a real-life fantasy because a kid told me to be more than I thought I was.