Charlie Trotter’s, 816 West Armitage, Chicago
We had been to the iconic Charlie Trotters at least three times, not surprisingly mostly during past booming economic times. The first time was with friends to celebrate a birthday. Then Mr. FB and I went as a couple and got a private tour of the wine cellar and the small, but efficient and immaculate, high-tech kitchen. And once I was there, working in the kitchen. Seriously. And then we went back for my last birthday.
The menu at CT contains no a la carte selections. It is made up exclusively of two eight-course tasting menus: The Grand Tasting and the Vegetarian Tasting. I’ve been told (and I don’t know if this is true), that the menu is never exactly the same, night to night. The wait staff asks if there are any food allergies or requests for changes, which they will make with no question and no hesitation. Friends have told me that they will do a vegan tasting, but that the staff is always amused that vegan patrons usually have no problem with cream, eggs and butter hiding in the extravagant desserts.
We both chose the Grand Tasting menu, which was created and presented with the kind of ordinary brilliance we have come to expect from Charlie. The meal, including the wine tasting, was simpler than I had remembered, with the seasonal, perfectly prepared ingredients both standing on their own and in harmonious concert with each other and with the wine.
If it were a musical performance rather than a culinary one, every instrument was tuned flawlessly and in utter synchrony with each other with no movement standing out, but leaving the listener with a sense of peace and completeness. Still, nothing stood out as blow-your-socks-off, put-this-in a-silver-box-to-remember-forever-extraordinary.
The service staff is young, hip, but not bleeding edge; friendly, but never unctuous; and efficient, but never robotic. I was disappointed that I wasn’t served an amuse bouche – that tiny bite designed to start the saliva rolling at the front end of the meal — especially since I figured out that amuse bouche translates to “happy mouth,” which is what I often say aloud when I find a dish particularly pleasing.
Trotters is located a little off the usual tourist path in Chicago. Virtually anonymous on a retail street in a quiet upscale city neighborhood, if you don’t know it, you could easily miss it. The front steps are covered with vegetation, most of which, on close examination are herbs and edible flowers. As one of just three Chicago restaurants recently granted a precious two (out of a celestial three) Michelin stars, it is may not be visibly named, but it is notable, indeed. Those stars were hard-earned and are not taken for granted.
A while back, Mr. FB bought me a “guest chef” slot in Charlie’s kitchen at a charity auction. I called, scheduled a date on a Saturday afternoon and arrived in jeans, a t-shirt and comfortable shoes. At their suggestion, we also made a late dinner reservation for that evening.
When I came to the door, I was welcomed into the inner sanctum, given a chef’s jacket and a toque and was escorted into the kitchen. It was notably quiet. There were four or five “guest chefs” that day, all working in different stations of the very small kitchen. Two worked in desserts. I know one man spent his whole afternoon peeling tamarind pods that left him with long-lasting red stains all over his fingers that clearly identified him as a “doer.” All of us were addressed as “Chef.”
Charlie stopped in briefly that day, but didn’t stay for the evening service. We were told that he was catering a private dinner that night.
I placed myself at the appetizer station. I don’t know why, but I thought I might not make too big of fool of myself there, as opposed to the precision of baking or in front of the stove. My first task was to help prepare the mis en place (the scariest thing I did all day because I didn’t have confidence in my knife skills), especially the mirepoix, cut into a brunoise (quarter-inch dice). I’m busily trying to recreate the knife techniques I’ve seen on TV.
“Is this what you want, Chef?” I ask tentatively, my right arm aching from the repetitive motion I am unused to performing. “Perfect,” my supervising chef said, looking over at the chopped vegetables, “I couldn’t have done it better myself.” Best moment of the day. Bar none.
I heard an uncharacteristic clatter and looked over. One of the (real) chefs had dropped an enormous tray of just-prepared, still-hot King crab legs all over the floor. This was not an inexpensive mistake. The Sous Chef was at his side immediately and quietly. They had a few [inaudible] words. The Sous Chef glanced over to see me watching intensely. He moved the conversation out of sight as well as earshot, they cleaned up the mess and the offending chef was out of there, at least for the day.
At around 4 pm, a simple catered dinner was brought in for the staff from Trotters-To-Go, Charlie Trotter’s gourmet pick up retail storefront. Roast chicken. Vegetables. Mashed potatoes. Salad. Cookies and brownies. The staff took about 20 minutes to eat something and get fueled up for the next few hours when things get really hot in the kitchen.
We “guest chefs” were brought into the front of the house for the nightly briefing. The FOH staff was informed of everything they could possibly need to know about what is on the food and wine tasting menus, who will be there that night, any special celebrations, the names of any notable diners and any special requests that any diners may have. These guys really know what they’re doing.
Then I am back to the kitchen, which is now in high gear, with the rest of the kitchen staff. The stovetop is blazing; pots, pans, ladles, spoons and spatulas are in motion; the staff is focused and moving with speed and concentration. It is still very quiet. All you hear is the muted sound of those ladles and spatulas clinking against cooking vessels, meat searing, ovens being opened and closed, liquids simmering and the squeak of plates being wiped down – and then wiped again before being taken out. There is almost no conversation.
For me, the precision of re-creating the exact design of the plated appetizer was a challenge and an art. It’s a dance. I am now in perfect and virtually silent sync with the actual, full-time, professional chef to whom I have assigned myself. We don’t talk to each other. It’s unnecessary. I have become very personally invested in the precision and visual appeal of how each appetizer that passed through my hands got sent out.
Then, at 8:30, I am excused. I am almost sorry to leave the kitchen. The chef with whom I am working thanks me. We smile. Shake hands. I change clothes in the staff locker room, tossing my jacket into the laundry basket, but my toque is mine to keep. I meet Mr. FB at our reserved table. He orders the appetizer I most enjoyed preparing at my suggestion. “Did you make this one?” he asks. “Probably not. We do them to order.” We. I said “We.”
Dinner is good – well, dinner is extraordinary – but the game in the kitchen was a much more interesting one to play. Just an example that it’s way more fun to be on the court than in the stands. It’s a two-star game for sure.