A Night at Charlie Trotter’s

Our neighbor, friend, and long time Hennacornoeliday fan Jean recently had a “milestone” birthday.  To celebrate, her and husband Glen treated us and another couple to an extraordinary culinary event; an evening at Charlie Trotter’s restaurant.  Per Wikipedia, this restaurant has been ranked as the 16th best in the world (not sure who gets to do that type of ranking) and is one of only three two star Michelin restaurants in the Chicagoland area (I also am not sure why anyone cares what a tire manufacturer thinks about food).  Incidentally, Jean and Glen are one of only a few neighbors to have received the Four Star Good Neighbor award nine years in a row.  If you are a neighbor and wish to receive this award, just take us somewhere like Charlie Trotter’s.  It’s that easy.

Not only did we dine at Charlie Trotter’s for their final Saturday ever, but we did so at the famed kitchen table.  Usually when one eats at a restaurant kitchen table it is due to some dress code violation or other misadventure.  That is not the case here.  The story is that at a young age Charlie Trotter toured Europe’s finest restaurants but was never allowed access to the kitchen.  Chef Charlie vowed to do differently at his restaurant. 

There is only one table in the kitchen and it is seated twice a night.  The table itself did not feel very solid and rocked back and forth each time I put my hand down.  Behind me chefs meticulously grated ingredients before handing the plate to the head chef for final inspection.  If he approved the food was then moved to the diners. 

The Kitchen Table Menu consisted of fifteen tastings; each tasting was about two or three fork fulls.  The other two dining options were the Vegetable Menu and the Grand Menu and consisted of eight tastings.  A lot of people reviews (Google, Yelp, etc) talk about leaving the place hungry.  Not so with the Kitchen Table Menu.  For over three hours we were fed morsel after morsel of delightful food.  What did we eat?  I really have no idea.  After each course was served the waiter explained in detail the ingredients and preparation.  This was forgotten before he was finished speaking.  We left with menus listing what we had but it is like reading IKEA directions; they just leave you more confused.  For example, our second tasting was “Hawaiian Hearts of Palm with Geoduck Clams and Jicama.”  It tasted great, but I only have a foggy notion of what I actually ingested.  I do distinctly remember eating antelope loins.  These antelope are supposedly native to the Himalayan mountains and are raised on a million acre ranch in Texas where they are hunted by helicopter (in order to ensure the meat is not tainted by adrenalin).  But the menu does not mention that at all.  In fact, looking at the menu now I do not see the word “antelope” anywhere.  It is as if the antelope never was.

If you think we were intimidated by the place, we were not.  Everyone working their (except maybe the boss) was friendly and approachable. The lack of choices in what we ate alleviated a lot of head scratching.  They served it, we ate it (Corey, a mostly vegetarian, ate lamb toung , beef cheek, and antelope to name a few interesting tastings).  The wine menu was another matter.  It was the only menu I have ever viewed that had a table of contents.  But the Sommelier was helpful and Glen allowed him to pair our food accordingly. 

Toward the end of the meal Chef Charlie showed up.  This arrival was announced by him berating our nice waiter (he did not raise his voice but our waiter’s body language was one of defeat) and the calm kitchen suddenly appeared a little more stressed.  He then came to our table and asked, “Forgive me, but how many times have you dined with us?”  When told this was our first time he asked where we were from and then, when told Chicago, he called the males at the table “goumbas” for not taking our dates there sooner.  I suggested he put his place on Groupon which resulted in laughs from everyone but him.  As he walked away I asked him about his work with Chicago Public School students.  My mistake was in how I asked (“I understand that once a week you allow high school students to tour your kitchen.”)  His response was an over the top, “No, that is not what I do.  (an exaggerated look down)  Do you want to know why?  (another exaggerated look down- I actually responded with a distinct “no” but he was not actually talking to me, he was speechifying).  [chef’s name] come over here. (the chef dropped what she was doing and came over).  Do I just give high school students a tour of the kitchen once a week?”  (the chef nervously said “no”).  Three times a week, fifty weeks a year, I cook for CPS students…. (he then proceeded to describe in detail his program which includes having students ask questions about the food and general discussions concerning “excellency.”  When I told him how cool his program was he agreed and said, repeatedly, it was “unheard of (this level of generosity on his part).”  He also, after softly giving another command to our waiter, leaned over the table and said “I do not know who I hate more, my employes or the customers.” 

It was close to nine at this point.  Glen was not finished with his coffee.  Chef Charlie led us from our table to take a tour of the kitchen (and in doing so we left our table for good).  Another chef then took over the tour.  I asked her what it was like to work for Charlie.  She said it was a dream come true (no sarcasm).  She switched careers not that long ago and was clearly in awe of the man.  Prior to the tour I asked a different chef how long he has worked at Charlie Trotter’s and he responded with a number and then, without a smile, stated a number twice as large to represent how long it was in “Charlie years.”  Another chef, when asked the same question, indicated that if the restaurant was not closing soon he would have left months ago.  The same person also stated that many chefs last only a few months working for Chef Charlie. Incidentally my mom, a retired special education teacher, knows of a blind chef who, after graduating from culinary school, could not find anyone willing to hire her.  Chef Charlie reportedly did which opened up doors for her. 

The night was truly a once in a lifetime opportunity.  Glen and Jean, thank you very much.  Happy birthday Jean!

Note:  Henancornoelidays loves writing up fancy occasions (bar mitzvahs, weddings, christenings, whatever).  If interested just invite us along and we will do the rest.