Memories and Musings

Charlie Trotter Walks His Own Road

Charlie's postcard
Charlie’s postcard

In 1985 my wife, Janet and our son, Justin were living in a rented home in Key West. I had recently taken over as Chef of Louie’s Backyard. The setting of that restaurant was heavenly to me. The hours inside that kitchen were some of the most physically punishing of my life.

Charlie came to work with me not long after he wrote the postcard above. After 12 hours of work along side us I’d head out to the Afterdeck Bar and have a cold one, sometimes taking a detour to the ocean easily reached from the basement kitchen door via “Dog Beach”, strip off my sodden white coat and soaked Nike’s and wade into the surf with my chef pants still on. I was desperate to cool down. Charlie Trotter would wind down by going for a six mile run.

He still had too much energy to burn.

We worked together there about 5 months or so. Then he went up to Chicago to realize a dream he’d had since the day I met him. The dream to open his own place.

If you can make out his handwriting you will see that his incandescent intelligence, his appreciative nature, his very “aliveness” jump past the tight scrawl and miniature canvas of a post card.

Nearly 25 years have passed since I have met Charlie. In the interim he has done more for our business than any man or woman I’ve ever had the pleasure of cooking along side of. Is he a tough man to work for? I’ve seen it to be true but I’ve also seen a measure of loyalty to those that do, (not to mention excellent pay) that is unquestionable.

But the main reason I write today is not to memorialize our friendship.

Yesterday a writer for The New York Times got it wrong in one critically important measure. David Kamp, who wrote the piece interviewed me either missed the point or he was edited down. What I was telling him from our Key West home via telephone is that Charlie is not being cast aside or, as Kamp put it, “left behind”. Charlie is consciously moving in a new artistic direction.

Of the 50 or so post cards like the one above I have received and treasured over those years from 1983-1988 most of the front images were of artists Charlie admired; Henry Miller, John Coltrane, Fydor Dostoevsky, Anais Nin… or they were of artists he exalted; Bob Dylan, Charlie Parker and probably as much as Dylan, Miles Davis. The artists Charlie loved were not cupcakes. They were fierce visionaries who were compelled to follow a muse. One of Charlie’s favorite quotes of all time was from Miles Davis. “I have to change. It is like a curse”.

Charlie is going to speak for himself as to what he is going to do next but I submit as fact that he is not some man being pushed aside by more creative minds. He loves the new chefs and invites their spirits. But Charlie will walk (or run) his own road.

© 2023 Norman Van Aken. All rights Reserved.