Remembering Charlie Trotter: Oui Chef

Charlie would say, "More caviar! No we can't charge them for more, we just do it! That's what we do, the right thing. Anything less would not be enough, anything more and it would be too much."
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"More truffles, MORE TRUFFLES! What are you thinking? This is absurd Omar! We have to be generous with this!"

Did he just say that? Those white truffles go for two thousand dollars a pound! Damn! OK, "YES, CHEF!" That's how you make it in a restaurant like Charlie Trotters, now repeat after me, "OUI CHEF!"

The plate alone had at least one hundred dollars in white AND black truffles on it when the entire menu costs one hundred fifty dollars. It didn't matter, the table bought a 1959 Lafite Rothschild and were looking at another three thousand in top end juice. They were here to eat and drink history.

Charlie was a god.

I read his first book with my buddy Andrew Stern back in culinary school. All of the students thought we were insane because we talked about Charlie like he was our chef. We marveled at the photograph, the Study in Apricot dish towards the end was a masterpiece. It was a new world of food. Nothing like the stuff we had prepared with Chef Mark Gould at Atwaters Restaurant in Portland, Oregon five years earlier. I mean -- Chef Gould was a genius, no doubt about it. But Charlie Trotter was Yoda, playing jazz with food.

He had no limits, no rules, it was a free for all of the best shit money could buy. The team was like a bunch of wise guys who scored a bank heist every day at work. One minute Chef Merges was checking in 2 kilos of prime caviar at the back door, the next minute Chef Lefevre was breaking down 30 lobes of Foie Gras, just for that nights dinner service. Then Chef Giuseppe would be filleting some fish from Japan nobody had ever heard of. Between the three of them, they taught me how to manage myself. Not just cook.

At 10, the morning sous chef, 46-year-old Reginald Watkins would be wrestling with live king crabs in the stock pot all morning long. "I gotta get on and off the boards Boss Dogg," said Watkins.

That was Reggie's name for me, Boss Dogg. Two g's for a double dose of this low dirty boss dogg (don't ask). He and I got along perfectly. We practically had telepathic communication when he wasn't telling me to sweep and mop all day long.

"Hey Carl, do you know where I can get some heer schmeer schmeer schmeer?" David LeFevre called me Carl, it was like a pet name. Why Carl? Did you ever see Caddyshack? Watch this video and you will understand -- I was Carl. To a T. Very funny, to this day it brings a smile to my face.

We would run out of caviar because so many tables were hitting up the sommeliers for two thousand dollar wine progressions. So, when we would run out of it, Chef Dave would joke "Can we sub out some caviar for vintage Cristal, Mitchell?"

Mitchell was the GM and one of the biggest characters, ONLY Mitchell dared to challenge the man. And when Mitchell caught you making a mistake, it was time to pay the piper. As the GM he had the hardest job of all. But was always on top of it.

Here is how a typical day would go: First, Chef Reggie would open the kitchen at 7 a.m. Then, the food starts coming in from over 80 purveyors from all around the world. The the managers start breaking down proteins. It could be wagyu beef at 150.00 a pound or live Australian yabbies (crayfish). If it was live, fresh and expensive, it was at Charlie Trotter's. Then Chefs Merges, Lefevre and Tentori would figure out the menu by 3 p.m. I mean, we had a rough idea what was going on, but it wasn't totally nailed down until it was prepared. I know a lot of restaurants say they change the menu daily... not like this place. It was like a fucking rubik's cube of creativity. Charlie would never serve the same dish twice. That was the epitome of boring to him and the entire management team. Go big or go home with this team. Mitchell had the job of keeping up with those changes and he did it all with a world-class service team. He did it with class and an iron fist. Don't ask about the fist, he did what he had to do.

I worked there from February 1, 1999 to February 2003. It was a magical time. Every time Charlie would enter the kitchen I always paid close attention to his every move. I was here in Chicago because he made a book and I saw it. He was the best in the world. That was my story. Nothing else mattered. I was on top of the world. Charlie would say, "More caviar! No we can't charge them for more, we just do it! That's what we do, the right thing. Anything less would not be enough, anything more and it would be too much." It made complete sense. Don't ever skimp on the good stuff. A complete departure from my life growing up. I was in the right place. I was encouraged to taste every tin of caviar. Crazy.

He always quoted famous writers. He would always give away classic novels to the chefs. If you got a book, you were blessed. Count your blessings, because you were going places.

The heavy artillery that would regularly come to the restaurant was awe inspiring. One minute we were at the restaurant blowing through pounds of truffles every night. The next minute we were doing events with the world's best chefs. For example: Ferran Adria, Norman Van Akken, Daniel Boulud, Mark Baker and Gordon Ramsey were throwing down at the Four Seasons Hotel on an event for Charlie. And the whole time, Charlie was on top. He was unstoppable. They came for him.

This was what I needed to get to the next level and get rid of the remaining issues from my past.

I needed to go through this merciless boot camp that rivaled the special forces. My best friend from Portland, Andrew Stern, stayed with me for a week and worked at Charlie Trotters during that time. He was in the Airborne Rangers during the Panama Canal Crisis. After he worked at Charlie Trotters for a week, he told me it was harder than going through Ranger School. No shit. It was that tough. I was in the right company.

I needed a guy to show me how to kick ass in a no holds barred kitchen with nothing but hall of famers on every station. That's what it was. A hall of fame crew. We all learned from each other and this team had some serious skills. Let's see, in the 4 years I was fortunate to work there, there was Matthias Merges as Chef De Cuisine, David Lefevre as Executive Sous Chef, Giuseppe Tentori as Sous Chef, Leslie Tellez as Sous Chef, Jeff Yankellow as Sous Chef, Sven Mede on meat, James Diprospero on meat, Curtis Duffy on fish, Jeff Mauro on fish, Michelle Gayer as pastry chef, Darren McGraw as Pastry Chef, Della Gosset as Pastry Chef, Elliot Bowels on Garde Manger, Brian Ogden in Pastries, Adam Sobel on Garde Manger, Megan Malony on Pastries, Christine McCabe on the hot line and Volundur Volundarson on Garde Manger. The list was massive and I am sure I forgot at least 50 other chefs running their own restaurants today.

Then, on top of all that, there were the stages. At least one a week from a different country around the world. I was renting a two bedroom apartment with plenty of rooms to spare. From being a homeless nomad years before, I understood the value of providing a roof for someone else. So, I encouraged all of the stages to stay with me rent free. I just wanted to learn what it was like in their worlds. How different was it to be a cook at Gordon Ramsey, or El Bulli, The Fat Duck, Arzak, Marc Veyrat? What was that world like? I had to know. I wanted to scratch the surface of creativity in food. But I was so green compared to these guys. I was a sponge for anything food related.

I never went to a university but this was better than the college parties I watched on TV. Every day was a party and we all came to watch the jazz musician play music with his food.

When I got tired, I put on my headphones late at night and kept listening to anything that would give me another boost. NWA, The Rocky Soundtrack, didn't matter, I couldn't stop. I had to focus.

When that didn't work, I listened to Reggie because he came from the streets like me. If Reggie can make it here fourteen plus years, then I needed to watch and learn from him as much as I learned from anyone else. He dug his ass out of poverty, maybe I could do it too. "You gotta run to keep up with me Boss Dogg! I ain't got time to play games, YOU GOTTA MOVE! The rent man don't care if you don't got his money. I GOT PURVEYORS! MOVE YOUR ASS SON!" And my personal favorite. "Don't let them haters fuck with you Boss Dogg, they com in' COMIN TO GET YA! HA HA HA!" Then he would walk up and get up close and personal. He would say "You and me boss dogg, we in this together. Those fucking haters out there, they're com in', But I got your back. NOW MOVE!" OUI CHEF!" "And stay hungry boss dogg, you gotta stay hungry." I loved Reggie. If you didn't love Reggie, then he would eat you alive. It's the street mentality for survival. Show love for the other side and everything is cool.

Every day when I would wake up at 8 a.m., I would immediately listen to the Rocky Soundtrack on full blast. Some of my roommates thought I was nuts. But if I was going to keep up with this crew, I needed every ounce of drive. I tried to move a little quicker every day. If I could shave off a couple minutes on peeling pearl onions, I did it. If Chef Dave joked about shelling peas after work before I went to sleep while I watched the Discovery Channel after work till 4 a.m., I did it. No matter what they piled on, I did it. Pile more on, this feels good. When someone would mention a chef in France I never heard of, I stayed up all night on the Internet looking up that chef. Whatever it took, no matter how insane it looked or sounded, I did it.

I was in my element and my element was called OUI FUCKING CHEF!

Bill and Jan Miller always taught me that whatever one man can do, another can do. I was on a fucking mission to be everything I wasn't as a child. It was go time and I had to be a solid student. I could not fail my chefs. There was no stopping now. I had to go as fast as I could and I could never look back.

When I was done at Charlie's I would have to stay the course. I could never stop. Bill and Jan always told me to form a plan all the time. Keep thinking ahead to ward off the past. But what the hell would I do if I ever left? There is no way I was ever going back to my shitty nightmare life I barely got through as a kid.

I had to move my ass because I had seen so many people over the years try to get out of that life and fail. They would go back to smoking crack, shooting up, being a prostitute, disowning their own family for chemicals in their veins and would wind up in jail or dead. I was lucky, I never got a taste of the rock or any addictive substances, but I can't focus on that.

Fuck that.

I have to keep on running because I want to have a restaurant like this some day.