Farewell, Chef

Charlie Trotter (1959-2013)


I must have asked the question, “What is your last supper?” over a thousand times.

I am fascinated by the food fantasies of chefs, and motivated by the challenge of getting each one to reveal his last meal. For more than eight years, I have flown across the globe, interviewing and photographing the most talented people in charge of the world’s best kitchens for two volumes worth of last suppers. We discuss final feasts like we discuss the weather. The conversations are theoretical. They’re about making choices—never morbid, always serious and respectful. I know it’s horribly naive, but I never expected any of those chefs to really die. Today, when I heard about Charlie Trotter’s death, I was shocked. We all were. A masterful genius, he was so young—only 54.

It seemed impossible. How could Charlie be gone?

I spent most of the day avoiding that first My Last Supper book. Emails streamed in from people asking me what he had wanted for his last meal. But it felt wrong to look and I didn’t respond. It seemed almost unsavory and inappropriate to read Charlie’s answers, and yet, how could I not? If you think of those recorded future meals as the equivalent of buried, sealed time capsules, then wouldn’t this be the precise moment at which to open his?

Finally, I decided to share my portrait of Charlie, as it appeared in the book, with these words: “In this photograph, I tried to show the genius, hope, and humor of a great culinary pioneer.”

I posted it on Twitter as a tribute to a man who I found creative, funny, difficult, supportive, and magically talented.

I was born and raised eating in Chicago, so I knew when I began the My Last Supper project, Charlie Trotter had to be included. I didn’t realize what a crazy ride he was going to take me on—all in the name of perfection.

To refresh my memory, I re-read our email exchanges.

He had immediately agreed to be part of the project:

Melanie, please count me in on what sounds like a fantastic project.
Very best,
Charlie.

When can I interview you, chef?

Let’s talk soon… this is too complex to handle rather than through a
mere questionnaire…
Thanks,
Charlie

We were off.

Most other chefs were happy to talk on the phone or do the interview via email; not Charlie.

How about Tuesday at 12:30?
Can’t wait to see you…
Charlie

I flew to Chicago to interview him at his Lincoln Park restaurant.

That Tuesday, I sat, pen in hand and watched him pace around the restaurant. I listened as he went on and on about everything except the answers to my questions. I probed and probed, sensing he was getting quite irritated. I didn’t stop until he said, “Okay, you know, I used to be an avid trampolinist.” I almost jumped for joy!

Bingo, I had finally broken through.

“Chef, I must photograph you on the trampoline.”

Instantly, I could see the photo: a photographic homage to the famous Belgian surrealist artist Magritte —the chef, the sky, the clouds. Oh, this was going to be perfect. I knew this was my only chance to explain and convince him. He stared deeply into my eyes while, for what seemed like an hour, I tried desperately not to flinch. Finally, he agreed. We‘d stage this photographic coup the following month, at his mother’s lakefront home on the beach in Wilmette, Ill., a suburb of Chicago.

We must have spoken on the phone over a dozen times about trampolines. I was becoming quite the expert, except, every time I would confirm and pay for one trampoline, he would call with another one he preferred. It was non-negotiable: we must have the perfect trampoline. By the time the appointed day arrived, I had rented six trampolines and I was getting anxious as they do not come cheaply.

I flew into Chicago early on the morning of the shoot. Mrs. Trotter greeted us with great hospitality and lots of trampolines. I was bursting with excitement; I knew this was going to produce such a good picture. I assured Mrs. Trotter that the sprinkling of rain was making the clouds look “just perfect.” Bidding me and my assistants farewell, Mrs. Trotter went off to do some shopping and left us outside to assemble the shoot. Chef wasn’t due for three hours, so we had time to prepare and take some Polaroids.

An hour later, a rather stricken-looking Mrs. Trotter came out of the house holding a portable phone and said, “Charlie wants to speak to you.” I could hear the screaming before I even put the phone to my ear. Charlie was pissed. He had been trying to call me for an hour but my mobile phone was locked inside. In a rage, he asked me what kind of idiot would dream of photographing him trampolining in the rain. Was I trying to kill him?!?! Needless to say, I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. “If you want to shoot me come to the restaurant NOW!” he blared, and hung up.

I was furious.

My assistants and I packed up the trampolines, I mumbled away under my breath, and Mrs. Trotter made herself scarce; she was embarrassed. I admit I had a moment where I wanted to say “no thank you” and walk out. It was my book, after all.

Then I remembered something that I learned very early on in my photographic career: as good as an idea is, you must always be ready to throw it away.

I talked myself down and we hightailed it to the restaurant. When we arrived, someone I would describe as Charlie the Angel greeted us. Demure and on his best behavior, he fawned over us, bringing us coffees. Inside, however, I was still seething.

And then, he offered to give us a tour.

In the middle of that rather lengthy walkthrough, just as he turned around to lead us into the kitchen, I saw the picture. “Stop!” I commanded. “This is where we will shoot. Be back here in ten minutes, and we will be ready, chef.” Charlie looked amused; he seemed to like my taking charge.

When we did the shoot he was still. He was gracious and giving.

That’s when I understood: when Charlie committed, he committed. But he did so on his terms.

After the shoot, he dragged us into the kitchen to a beautifully set table. “You will sit here and eat, now. Here are some disposable cameras; while you eat, you will shoot the meal.” I protested, muttering to my assistants that he was just trying to bribe us. He proceeded to jump up on a chair to show me how to photograph food. “Always from above, just remember that!

For three hours, we joined Charlie in the kitchen. We ate and drank and cooked.

As I sat there, I realized why he invited us into the kitchen. He was showing me who he really was and almost apologizing. I can vaguely remember some of the divine things we ate: Squab, veal, radishes, and some sort of ravioli. It was a feast and deeply, deeply delicious.

He was right. Once I saw him in the kitchen and tasted his food, I forgave him. He was only aiming for perfection.

Before My Last Supper went to press, Charlie wanted to re-read his interview.

He only had one bone to pick and that was with the text:

Thanks Melanie,
It all looks fine… One thing, though… I would really never mention
anything about a “hangover.”
I believe that during our discussion, you brought up that consuming an entire bottle of the 1900 Margaux might lead to a hangover, and I believe I responded that I wasn’t especially concerned, since the end was near.
But I would honestly prefer to delete the whole reference to the
subsequent throbbing headache that might potentially result from consuming all of that fine vino.
Thanks…

When My Last Supper was published in 2007, Charlie was one of my greatest champions and supporters. He threw me an epic luncheon at the restaurant, bought hundreds of books, and even did a great deal of press with me. I was endlessly grateful for his kindness.

This afternoon, I finally revisited Charlie’s last supper. It sounded divine.

In 2006, he imagined it was to take place high above the sea. “I want to take in the sweeping views of this gorgeous planet before I leave it.”
Miles Davis was to play with Bob Dylan. He was to dine with Dostoyevsky, Hemingway, Charles Bukowski, Henry Miller, Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. He was to sip a 1900 Chateaux Margaux, and for food “I would eat many courses of tiny, raw, and delicate seafood. The china plates would have wonderful things like oysters, crustaceans, sardines, and anchovies.”

Since My Last Supper is all about fantasy and imagination, I‘m going to take the liberty of assuming that’s exactly what happened on Tuesday November 5, 2013.

Farewell, chef.

RIP.

-Melanie