Best move he made was on Day One in 1987, when he opened. He named his first restaurant after himself. Very brave. At least you knew when you were dining there, you are getting a singular vision, not something cooked by committee. I also loved walking by his space in Lincoln Park. I moved a little slower when passing his restaurant on my way to the North Community Bank ATM carefully storing my $962.00 in checking. Sometimes I would stop and daydream for a moment “Maybe one day . . . “. Mostly I just liked how the restaurant blended right into the neighborhood. No big signs, (not much parking either), just another dude with a local business trying to make good.
I really wonder if he registered at all with the ninety-nine percent who teach our kids, build our structures, nurse us back to health. The ninety-nine percent who are the pulse of this or any major city. Did he personally connect with the masses like Jordan, Daley I, Ebert or Studs?
Tonight on Chicago Tonight, several reporters and past employees, now running establishments of their own, described working for Trotter, and the overall concept of his restaurant. Just listening to them, it confirmed what I usually free-associated about the place. It was just not me. When I dine out, I want a specialist. I desire an intimate look at one, two cultures maximum, through their wine and cuisine. I am not looking for all-night theatre. I look at dining out as an appetizer on my way to the theatre.
I can applaud the drive, the work ethic, the never satisfied reach for perfection. We could all use a little more of that. Now I’m no psychiatrist, but you have to mix that in with joy, with humor, with grace or really, what is the point? (And, honestly, if you work all the time with such a fearful look in your eyes, your customers will eventually notice).
I read the Tribune 90% Application for Sainthood/10% Hit Job that came out a year ago. Now look, when I die, I expect whoever writes about me to reverse those numbers. But I just don’t get the screaming, the Don Corleone management style, the undercutting of employee overtime pay. I’ve formerly (maybe futurely) worked in the human resources discipline. Sorry, those tactics give you two strikes in my book almost immediately.
I wish he had the courage to expand a little bit. No, I didn’t want to see two dozen Trotter’s across the country. I know a move like that would dilute his brand, and because he was such a hands-on guy, he could never succeed as an absentee owner. But I would have been first in line for a Trotter’s II; Same dedication to Fine Service, a little more predictability in the menus, maybe pitched to the Middle High rollers as opposed to the Ultra High Rollers who could afford the original. Sort of like this place.
I’ll close with a video from one of my favorite performers. We all contribute to or detract from our legacy every day. For a long time this cooking school dropout nurtured his, and inspired and influenced dozens of cooks, hosts and hostesses, and sommeliers. We are fortunate that many of them maintain their Chicago roots and haven’t pulled an Oprah. Let’s all inspire each other to reach for his level of greatness, and if possible, leave some of the Drama Stuff at the coat check.