Charlie Trotter, famed Chicago chef, found dead in home

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CHICAGO — Charlie Trotter, whose eponymous Chicago restaurant was considered one of the finest in the world, has died.

The 54-year-old chef was found unconscious and not breathing in his Lincoln Park home Tuesday morning by his son, Dylan, and was taken to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

An autopsy is scheduled for Wednesday, according to the Cook County medical examiner's office.

Trotter burst on the scene in 1987, when the self-taught chef opened Charlie Trotter's restaurant on Armitage Avenue. In short order, the chef's intense creativity and never-repeat-a-dish dictum made Trotter's the most talked-about restaurant in Chicago, and his fame quickly spread throughout the country and beyond.

He was named the country's Outstanding Chef by James Beard Foundation in 1999; in 2000, Wine Spectator magazine called Trotter's the best restaurant in the nation. More awards and accolades followed, including a 2002 Beard Award for Outstanding Service; at the time, Trotter called it the award he was most proud to receive, as it represented "a team award."

The mercurial chef was a stern taskmaster who demanded the absolute best from everyone who worked for him. He was also a man of uncommon generosity, creating the Charlie Trotter Education Foundation to provide scholarships for culinary students. He received the James Beard Foundation's Humanitarian of the Year award in 2012.

"Charlie was an extreme father figure to me when it came to not just cooking, but life, and seeing things in a different way," said chef Graham Elliot Bowles, one of many famous chefs who worked for Trotter. "I just can't put into words how saddened I am by all of this. It's a huge loss, not just personally, but for the culinary world."

The news shocked many in the restaurant world, including Los Angeles chef David LeFevre, owner of the restaurants MB Post and Fishing With Dynamite in Manhattan Beach, Calif., who worked for Trotter for 10 years, dating back to his externship from the Culinary Institute of America.

"He's probably the most important guy in my career," he said, while waiting to board a flight from Chicago to Los Angeles after a brief vacation. "It's funny because I've been talking a lot about Charlie this weekend because I was back in Chicago and seeing friends from that period.

"I think I can attribute the majority of my attention to detail and the majority of my awareness of what it takes to run a fine dining restaurant to him. He had a very acute sense of attention to detail and he saw things that most people didn't see. All of us who worked for him are better chefs because we came out of that kitchen."

Sari Zernich Worsham, who worked closely with Trotter for 13 years in his kitchen and on his books and PBS series, said she and other Trotter alumni were organizing a candlelight vigil in front of the restaurant buildings for Tuesday afternoon.

"I just feel like we should do something immediately," said Worsham, now executive director of chef Art Smith's company.

"Charlie always called me his little sister, and I feel like I just lost my big brother," she said. "I'm just speechless. He's welded and sculpted so many people's lives and sent them on the path to success. I can't thank him enough."

"I don't think you can write a sadder story," said Yusho chef Matthias Merges, a 14-year veteran of Trotter's kitchen as chef de cuisine, executive chef and director of operations. "I don't think it's even possible."

Merges emphasized that Trotter should be remembered for his incredible influence and success. "What he's accomplished has been the game changer for the landscape of American cuisine, and we can never discount that no matter what happens," Merges said.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel released a statement saying Trotter "changed Chicago's restaurant scene forever and played a leading role in elevating the city to the culinary capital it is today. . He will always have a seat at the table among Chicago's legendary figures."