Tracking the Careers of 10 Charlie Trotter Alums

By Kelly Dobkin  |  November 7, 2013
Credit: Facebook

The tragic passing of legendary Chicago chef Charlie Trotter this week devastated the restaurant industry. But Trotter's legacy lives on in a number of ways, and among the most tangible are the incredible restaurants now run or owned by his many disciples. Check out some of the amazing eateries that have sprung from Trotter-trained chefs below.

  • Credit: Facebook

    Homaro Cantu, Moto, ING Restaurant, Chicago

    Homaro Cantu moved to Chicago in 1999 just to work for Trotter. He worked under the famed chef until 2004, when he quit to start his own cutting-edge restaurant, Moto. Since then, he's been serving up one-of-a-kind dishes with a molecular bent and experiences to go with them. Cantu then opened his "flavor-tripping" ING Restaurant in 2011, continuing his creative dive into molecular gastronomy. Cantu looks back on Trotter's influence on him: "He was the first chef to make the world of food flat, it was round before he got there. Before UPS and Fedex and clicking Google to get whatever products you want, he brought them in, sometimes by hand. Basically he was one of the first to do food without borders."

    Cantu's next move? He's planning a "flavor-tripping" coffee and pastry chain in the Chicago area.

    Photo: Cantu dining at Charlie Trotter's

  • Michael Rotondo, Parallel 37, San Francisco

    Chef Michael Rotondo worked at Charlie Trotter's from 2005 until it closed last year, eventually working his way up the ranks to executive chef. He now helms the kitchen at Parallel 37 in SF's Ritz-Carlton Hotel. He shares with us a small snippet that recalls Trotter's quirkiness: "Charlie Trotter always quoted Bruce Lee when asked about his style of cooking. He would reply, 'Style, I have no style.' He would then ask everybody in the kitchen if they had seen the movie Enter the Dragon, which only a few would acknowledge. This philosophy was one of the reasons his food was always so progressive through the 25 years at the restaurant, teaching myself and so many other young cooks and chefs the importance of quality, passion and forward thinking. Cooking in the moment with finesse, precision and fluidity were key elements to be successful at 816 W. Armitage.”

  • Graham Elliot: Graham Elliot, Graham Elliot Bistro, Chicago

    Graham Elliot also moved to Chicago just to work for Trotter, after being inspired by his cookbook. At the ripe age of 21, Elliot trained under Trotter for three years, eventually moving on to Rick Tramonto's Tru. It's been widely documented that Trotter's mercurial personality demanded extremes of excellence. In the Chicago Tribune, a retrospective even has Trotter sharing an incident where he choked Elliot after he cracked a joke during dinner service. But despite Trotter's demanding air in the kitchen, Elliot remembers him fondly as the legend he was: "Charlie Trotter was a mentor in both my professional and personal life since I first met him over 15 years ago. His dedication to excellence, the city of Chicago and the culinary world at large inspired countless cooks to find their own voice and follow their dreams. He now belongs to the ages."

    In 2008, Elliot opened his first restaurant, the eponymous Graham Elliot and Graham Elliot Bistro in 2012, both of which are highly rated. Elliot is also now a judge on Fox's MasterChef and has plans to open a restaurant in Greenwich, CT.

  • David LeFevre, MB Post, Fishing With Dynamite, Manhattan Beach, CA

    Midwestern-born chef David LeFevre is known most recently for his Manhattan Beach eatery MB Post, which opened in 2010, and Fishing With Dynamite, opening just this year. But his career got a jump-start back in the early '90s by interning at Charlie Trotter's post-culinary school. LeFevre then took a job at the short-lived Trotter's Las Vegas in 1995, going on to work for the chef for a total of 10 years. After globe-trotting between France, Asia and Australia for several years after Trotter's Vegas closed, he moved to Los Angeles and took a job at Water Grill in 2004, where he delighted critics and made his mark on LA's dining scene, eventually opening his own eatery in 2010. LeFevre remembers Trotter's influence on his career on the day of his passing: "He opened my eyes to an attention to detail, he opened my ears to unreasonable pursuits of excellence, and he opened my heart to loving the world of 'the grand cuisine!' Rest in peace."

  • David Myers: Comme Ça, Hinoki & The Bird, Los Angeles

    LA-based chef David Myers' first big kitchen job was at Charlie Trotter's, which made a distinct impression on the chef's philosophy and career trajectory. Trotter sent Myers to go work for chef Gerard Boyer in France at his restaurant, Les Crayeres. Later, a job at Joachim Splichal's Patina brought him out to LA, where he eventually opened his first solo venture Sona in 2002. In 2007, he opened Comme Ça, which brought authentic bistro cuisine to LA, and which now also has a location in Vegas. Myers most recently opened Hinoki & the Bird, one of the hottest tables in LA at the moment. Myers recalls: "Boot camp lasts six weeks. The boot camp training at Trotter's lasted six months... The power he had wasn't so much in the things he would say [he quoted authors and poets regularly in the kitchen], but the way he would look at you. He had a look about him and a focus that if you weren't doing something right, he called you on it through a look. It was a powerful look, I have to say. You felt it for hours after it was given."

  • Grant Achatz: Alinea, Next, The Aviary, Chicago

    World-renowned chef Grant Achatz interned at Charlie Trotter's at age 21, leaving on bitter terms after only a few months. Achatz went on to work at Thomas Keller's famed French Laundry and Chicago's Trio before opening the ground-breaking Alinea in 2005, Next in 2010 and The Aviary. In the documentary Spinning Plates, Achatz talks about how his experience at Trotter's gave him an added drive to succeed: “When I walk by this place it gives me chills. Every time I drive by. Every time I walk by. It’s basically a temple of gastronomy. I didn’t leave on great terms. So he basically told me if I were to leave without fulfilling a year at his restaurant, that I was nobody and I would never amount to anything. And as a young cook, that’s crushing. This guy was amazingly influential, probably the most influential person in American gastronomy ever to this point. And knowing me, I wanna crush that. Ten to 15 years from now, somebody that worked in my kitchen is gonna crush me.”

  • Credit: Danya Henninger

    Christopher Kearse, Will, Philadelphia

    One of the most inspiring stories in the industry is that of Philly chef Christopher Kearse, who recovered from a drunk-driving accident that had him bedridden for a year at age 16. Upon healing, Kearse went on to work for many culinary greats, including Trotter, before eventually opening his own restaurant in Philly, Will. He remembers Trotter: "Charlie was a great chef, and a great inspiration to me. He was one of the best in the industry, and every chef worth his salt looked up to him. He will continue to be an inspiration to all of us."

  • Bill Kim, UrbanBelly/Belly Q, Belly Shack, Chicago

    Chef Bill Kim brought hip ramen to Chi-town with his restaurant UrbanBelly, which just reopened and relocated adjacent to his Asian barbecue spot, Belly Q. A year later, Kim opened Belly Shack, which fused Asian with Latin American cuisine. Kim worked under Trotter as his chef de cuisine for years. In an interview with Food & Wine he recalled the chef's influence on him: "Charlie was the first person to believe in me. He took me around the world, and we’d go eat at three-star Michelin places. That was a big deal to a 26-year-old kid who had never been out of the country. I quickly realized I’d need to have more than one suit."

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    Matthias Merges, Yusho, Billy Sunday, A10, Chicago

    Chicago-based chef Matthias Merges worked for Charlie Trotter for 14 years, before opening his own eatery, Yusho, inspired by Japanese street food/yakitori in 2010; cocktail spot Billy Sunday earlier this year; and just this week, A10. He says of Trotter: "No one can discount the enormity Charlie Trotter has had on the landscape of American cuisine, if not world cuisine. He will be missed by many; his mentoring and leadership to those who have been touched by Charlie Trotter’s Restaurant will be his long-lasting legacy.”

  • Giuseppe Tentori, BOKA, GT Fish & Oyster, Chicago

    This Italian-born chef worked for Trotter for nine years, including two as chef de cuisine, before moving on to open his own eatery, Boka, in Chicago's Lincoln Park. His goal was to serve his upscale cuisine in a relaxed atmosphere. After garnering accolades upon the restaurant's opening in 2010, he opened GT Fish & Oyster in 2011 as part of the Boka Restaurant Group, anchored by fellow chefs Stephanie Izard, Paul Virant and Chris Pandel. Tentori tells us of Trotter: "Charlie always compared himself to Michael Jordan. MJ would go and play the game, and he was the best at the game, but the public would never know how hard he was working; that's what he did at the restaurant. He motivated me to push myself. He was like, 'Giuseppe, don't add too much butter and cream to your food,' anyone can do that and everything will taste great. Keep it simple, he said. Less is more."