This article was first published on February 25, 2005.
All my life I had followed a strict policy against meeting my heroes. I liked to keep them preserved on their pedestals, where they would not disappoint me.
But in a singular moment, that cynicism was eradicated as I encountered a noble spirit whose consecration to his work was one I had admired for many years.
Some consider him to be a tyrant, others a genius, and still others a benevolent example of capitalism at its best. Whatever the label du jour, it cannot be denied that his impact on cuisine changed the dynamic of fine dining in America.
His name is Charlie Trotter. He is my culinary hero.
Charlie is so much more than a chef — he is a human being in constant pursuit of excellence, whether in or out of his kitchen. That his staff remains loyal through the trial by fire of working for CHT Corp. is a testament to his virtues.
The circumstances of our meeting were not what I would have chosen, but they were perhaps the most appropriate. During a culinary event in 2003 in which I was managing some critical details (like ingredients), there was a rather large problem to be solved. So I solved it as best I could.
Later on, as I was walking up to meet him for the first time, I took a deep breath and thought, here comes the tirade; this man is going to go up one side of me and down the other. Based on what I had heard from former colleagues, this was going to be a moment to survive, and hopefully to forget.
Color me misled.
Instead of a tirade, what I got was a sincere thank-you for doing everything in my power to solve the problem. I nearly fell on the floor. I’m fairly certain I was glowing for the rest of the evening, despite the fact that my theories about pedestals and distance had been shattered.
To add to my sense of suspended reality, two days later I received a dinner invitation.The city was Paris. The restaurant was Alain Ducasse. The table was in the kitchen. And the host was Charlie Trotter.
I know the meal was fantastic, but the details are fuzzy, as there was a dreamlike quality surrounding it. Of course, that might have been the wine. (There was a lot of wine.) What I do remember, and always will, is that upon hearing my comment about his tomato appetizer (I am a fiend for tomatoes), he slid the plate over so I could have a bite.
That was only a sampling of the kindness and generosity he has shown me since, and I am profoundly grateful that my theory about heroes has been proven unwarranted.
I’m certain he will retain his other ‘reputation’ for as long as he is on this earth — excellence is often misunderstood. He might even enjoy it in part, because it keeps people on their toes.
But if I ever again hear someone speak ill of this man in my presence, there will be a tirade indeed. And it will take on a whole new definition.