Editor’s Note: Sadly, Charlie Trotter, one of America’s most respected chefs, passed away on November 5, 2013, leaving behind both a culinary empire and a wife and son. Trotter rose to prominence in the late eighties when he opened his eponymous restaurant on Chicago’s Armitage Avenue. He went on to receive numerous accolades and three James Beard awards. Curtis Duffy, the chef at Grace who worked under Trotter in Chicago, eulogized his old boss, telling Eater Chicago that he was “still going to have an impact on the restaurant world 100 years from now.” Here’s the ‘Men’s Journal’ interview with the chef, which ran in the September, 2012 issue of the magazine.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
My father was a successful entrepreneur. When I was 13, he said, “Whatever you want to do in life, that’s great. But the one thing you’ll never be able to do is work for your old man because you’ll never be satisfied. The best way to achieve any kind of fulfillment is to be your own boss. Because if you fail, you fail on your own, but if you succeed, then it’s your own doing.”
What’s the one skill every man should have?
To make the perfect omelet. You cook it slowly, and you use enough butter, fold in some goat cheese and spinach, cover it with beluga caviar, and you serve it to your wife so that you can get on her good side, in case you get anything wrong.
When should a man raise his voice?
At home, a man is entitled to raise his voice maybe once a year, if something really gets under his skin. At work, it’s different. I raise my voice all the time. Not out of malice but to get things right. It’s never personal. It’s to raise the game, kind of like Michael Jordan would: He’d play harder against the rookies. It wasn’t personal – it was to raise the game.
When is perfect the enemy of good?
It’s not so much about perfection – it’s about excellence. Some people don’t understand the difference. Excellence is about fighting and pursuing something diligently, with a strict and determined approach to doing it right. It’s okay if there are flaws in the process – it makes it more interesting.
What advice would you give the younger you?
Give out more compliments to crew members. It doesn’t really cost you anything, and it could go a long way in helping boost someone’s morale.
What drives you now?
Same as it ever was. I’m gonna paraphrase the great Christopher Walken, who once said, “I realized when I was a kid that I was not exactly everyone’s cup of tea.” And the minute I read that, I was like, “I’m the same way!” I knew who I was when I was four years old. I might have been weird, I might have been goofy, I might not have been that bright, but I had a purpose in life. And I feel the same way [now] that I did then.
How do you know whom to hire?
You can say, “Go over there and wash dishes for 15 minutes, and then I’ll let you know if we can hire you.” You can see how determined someone is, how detail-oriented they are, doing what is supposedly a mundane job.
How do you respond to critics?
Do I have any?
How does a man find his calling?
You can’t be afraid to not have everything figured out. There’s too much pressure on young people today to have it all figured out when they’re in college. I was lucky enough to not really know what I wanted to do, and I just kind of fell into something, and when I did, it was magical. Basically, just have an innocence about what you do. Be, like, “I’m doing this because I love it!” That mind-set will take you a long way.
What should every man taste at least once?
1900 Château Margaux. If the Earth was going to blow up tonight, it’s the last thing I would want to taste.
What book should every man read?
‘The Idiot’ by Dostoevsky. It’s exceedingly profound. It taught me humility. And it taught me that however great you might be in other people’s eyes, you’re really not that great.
How do you know when it’s time to walk away?
I’ve been trying to move on to something else for literally 15 years. And I love what I do. It’s unbelievable, it’s exhilarating, but I must do something else because life’s too short. My thing is that when I go back to college, and, say, they flunk me out after two months, I can always go back to the restaurant business. How cool is that?