The Final Dinner at Charlie Trotters

Friday, August 31, 2012 is the final dinner at Charlie Trotters.  I’ve been following the countdown all week…the Web site has a convenient countdown clock and the Chicago Tribune has been running a long series by Mark Caro leading up to tonight’s final dinner, $250 per person

I remember the first time I walked into this culinary pantheon.  It was April 23, 1999.  My then fiancé, now wife Renee and I had gotten engaged only hours earlier, at a nearby neighborhood craft boutique.  She thought we were going to the movies but instead, she had to race home to change clothes and prepare for what be one of the most memorable meals of our lives.  We walked out happy and a signed menu reminding us that, “After love, there is only cuisine.”

The second time I walked in almost four years later, it was a totally different experience.  My then wife was pregnant with our daughter.  I’d been fortunate enough to “win” the opportunity to spend a week (a whole week!) trading my day job in front of a computer for chef whites in one of the most acclaimed restaurants in the world.  When I arrived, I was instructed to come in the back door, off the alley, not the front door of the restaurant.  That’s where the staff entered.  Truly, it felt as if I was going backstage for a theatrical production.  No spotlights.  No programs.  Right into the kitchen where all the action was.

I fondly recall so many experiences from that week, but also remember it being the hardest five consecutive days of work of my life.  It’s grueling to stand on your feet from 10 a.m. until 2 a.m. almost non-stop.  I don’t think I saw or talked to my wife the entire week as our ships passed in the night (I’d get home in the middle of the night and she’d leave for work a few hours later while I was still sleeping).

In that week (according to the notebook I kept), I watched a lot and did more hands-on than I ever thought I would.  I:

  • cleaned manilla and littleneck clams
  • made sous vide vegetables
  • peeled carrots
  • quartered baby artichokes
  • cleaned fiddlehead ferns
  • cooked razor clams
  • made squid ink pasta (under the watchful eye of Giuseppe Tentori, now of GT Fish & Oyster and Boka, who I’m lucky to still know well today) using 46 egg yolks
  • boned quail and pheasant
  • tasted my first sea urchin
  • washed fresh water chestnuts
  • peeled and blanched grapefruit peels (12 times)
  • butchered ducks and rendered the fat with Matthias Merges, now of Yusho
  • plated seafood salads
  • turned meat on the grill
  • shucked oysters
  • made persimmon bread pudding
  • seeded passion fruits
  • buttered ring molds
  • mixed the batter for coconut macaroons
  • made chocolate-coconut ice cream (1/2 milk, 1/2 coconut milk)
  • separated 120 eggs
  • plated crème caramels
  • sauced plates
  • cut quinces
  • learned to add citrus rinds when steaming seafood
  • tasted bison
  • was asked to remove my apron at 8:30 one night and then seated in the restaurant at a table for one, where I tasted 14 courses…literally everything on the potential menu for anyone that night, including four desserts and wine with each course…and then staggered home

It was…an amazing week.  An experience I will always remember.  And one that I’m sorry my 9-year-old daughter, a lover of fancy food, won’t have the chance to experience.

  • http://www.facebook.com/brianpatricksnyder Brian Snyder

    This is my new favorite post of yours. Well done, Adam! Thanks for sharing your story. You’ve told me bits and pieces before, but I never heard the GT angle, for example. Love it. Truly the end of an era in Chicago.

  • http://twitter.com/akeats Adam Keats

    Thanks Brian!

  • Iriskeats

    beautifully written – it was a wonderfulexperience for you and you learned a lot from it

  • http://twitter.com/sftc SFTC

    Great post. How’d you win that experience? An auction?

  • http://twitter.com/akeats Adam Keats

    Sort of … used an extra week of vacation and a $1,000 stipend from work to negotiate the week in the kitchen — donated the $1,000 to charity in exchange.

  • http://twitter.com/maureensanchez maureen sanchez

    It reminds me of the song Johnny Saucep’n — the Trotters Version — what an experience.  thanks for sharing it!! (the referenced song lyrics are below, courtesy of the liner from the CD)
    Moxy Früvous(All)Well he was just some Johnny Saucep’n when he walked into that kitchenAnd the chef picked up the order and put down his SolzhenitysenHe said “make yourself at home, boy, I just prewarmed all the griddlesYa got 20 minutes, starting now, to make some gourmet vittles”Basil endive parmesan shrimp liveLobster hamster worchester muensterCaviar radicchio snow pea scampiRoquefort meat squirt blue beef red alertPork hocs side flank cantaloupe sheep shanksProvolone flatbread goat’s head soupGruyere cheese angelhair pleaseAnd a vichyssoise and a cabbage and a crawfish claws.Sure he was just some Johnny Saucep’n when he walked into that kitchenBut his genius with the foodstuffs got the old chef’s tastebuds itchin’Johnny Saucep’n bought the restaurant and the chef came all ungluedThere will always be a lineup for that strange and wonderful food.Basil endive parmesan shrimp liveLobster hamster worchester muensterCaviar radiccio snow pea scampiRoquefort meat squirt blue beef red alertPork hocs side flank cantaloupe sheep shanksProvolone flatbread goat’s head soupGruyere cheese angelhair pleaseAnd a vichyssoise and a cabbage and a crawfish claws. 

  • George B

    I was a “food professional” (aka waiter) there during that time, I wonder if I was your server?