If there is a culinary "Mecca" in the U.S., one of them has to be Charlie Trotter's. Yours truly ventured to the Windy City last week for an experience of a lifetime: guest chef for a day in the kitchen. After several very fine offers from prominent chefs in Dallas to carry my bags, I decided to do this one alone. Charlie Trotter's has been voted best restaurant in the U.S. for three consecutive years, as well as Charlie having won numerous awards world-wide for his artistic talent in the kitchen.
The restaurant is in a brownstone home in a residential area of Chicago. Very understated from the outside; in fact, it would be easy to walk by without noticing the small brass plaque on the wall with the name of the restaurant on it. The moderately sized kitchen is home to 16 chefs. Yes, 16, all at one time. More kitchen chefs than front of the house people. Everything is spotless, since guests are invited to tour the kitchen as well as the wine cellars all evening. There is a constant parade of guests touring the kitchen throughout the evening's dining. This is a five-star experience at its best. Charlie has created an environment where sustained excellence is the norm, every day with every course and with every plate.
My journey began at 2pm with a lot of prep work. I became part of the team and was given the same tasks to do as any of the other chefs. As the evening approached you feel the momentum building, waiting for the first guest to arrive and that first order to come into the kitchen. In the dining room there is an eight course menu served with paired wines or alone. Every evening one table is set up in the kitchen for four to six guests to dine. Yes, the table is fully dressed and in the kitchen, where you have the opportunity to view all of the happenings. My wife and her party of four dined in the kitchen that evening at the early seating to watch yours truly work. And work I did! The kitchen menu is a 15-course tasting menu, which is a miracle to watch being prepared and served. THE most beautiful presentation one could imagine. I was given the honor of helping plate food that actually went to the guests; no, I didn't lose a finger! The chef I worked with told me, "It is perfect every single time!" Wow, what incredible standards. I was asked, along with the server from my wife’s table, to assist in serving the table and helping describe the dish.
The culmination of the evening was Chef Trotter walking into the kitchen and spending a few minutes with me. You can feel his passion and the level of excellence he commands in his presence. He was the most gracious host and made me feel like part of the team and thanked me for my contribution to the evening's success. What an honor to spend a few minutes with him and see for myself how the "best of the best" works.
At the close of the evening, my wife's server, Conrad, escorted our party outside, hailed a cab for us, opened the cab door and ensured that we took off safely. Right till the very last second, everything was an incredible experience.
Do yourself a favor and treat yourself this one time. It is well worth the price of the ticket to experience Charlie Trotter's! If you are a "foodie" then this is a dining experience that may only happen once in a lifetime!
Until we hit the road again...see you at Mercy!