Review: Love, Charlie Chronicles the Life, Work and Obsessions of Chicago’s Charlie Trotter

The opening scene of this Charlie Trotter documentary is a bit of a giveaway about the man whose food we loved (if we could afford it). During the sound check for an interview, he says, “My name is Charlie Trotter of Charlie Trotter’s Restaurant in Chicago.” And he asks that he not be recorded when he says, “My philosophy is that if it wasn’t for the customers and the employees, the restaurant business would be the greatest business in the world. And basically, I hate people.”

Writer/director Rebecca Halpern’s debut film, Love, Charlie: The Rise and Fall of Chef Charlie Trotter, is a straightforward documentary of Trotter’s life, without any flashy features. It’s this-happened/then-that-happened storytelling. The film is interesting because Trotter was a fascinating character and a pioneer in culinary practices. It’s difficult for a viewer to develop warm feelings toward the subject of the film, however. Trotter’s personality, as well as the film’s rather predictable style, make it hard to warm up to its subject.

The film moves from his childhood in Wilmette, the son of wealthy parents, to his death from a stroke at age 54 in 2013. Halpern had access to a trove of archival materials, including hundreds of postcards and letters that Trotter wrote to friends and relatives during his travels in the pre-internet era. In his tiny, cramped handwriting, he expressed his travel and dining experiences and his wishes for the future.

Trotter, who was known as Chuck, began cooking professionally in 1982, soon after college, first in Chicago and then in San Francisco, where he studied at the California Culinary Academy and was inspired by Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse and its farm-to-table cuisine. Later he traveled in Europe where he found additional influences in restaurants in France and Switzerland.

Trotter opened his first Charlie Trotter’s restaurant in Chicago in 1987. He became part of a brotherhood of chefs with Emeril Lagasse and Norman Van Aken, all enthusiasts of a new cuisine. Trotter pioneered vegetable-based 10-course tasting menus and the use of micro-greens, took foie gras off his menus in 2002 for ethical reasons and initiated his famous kitchen table service, where one lucky group was served dinner at a table in the restaurant kitchen. Later, Trotter opened restaurants in other cities and Trotter’s to Go on Fullerton Avenue, where you could buy Trotter delicacies without splurging on an exorbitantly priced meal. (That’s where I got my tastes of Trotter’s food.)

The film proceeds chronologically through his life with frequent interview clips and quotes from famous talking heads including Lagasse and Van Aken, plus Wolfgang Puck, Carrie Nahabedian and businessman Ray Harris, known as Trotter’s best customer. Lisa Ehrlich, Trotter’s first wife, provides valuable insights into the man. We also see a number of scenes with Trotter himself as a guest on WTTW’s “The Interview Show With Mark Bazer.” Grant Achatz, chef-owner of Chicago’s Alinea and Trotter’s younger competitor, is a frequent commenter. 

Trotter was a perfectionist and a control freak, a classic, impatient and famously angry chef. He was known for shouting at kitchen staff and for berating staff members in public. That behavior and his employment practices made him the subject of lawsuits based on violation of employment and labor laws.

It’s probably best not to watch Love, Charlie on an empty stomach. The discussions of food and the imagery of cooking and serving beautifully stylized platings will have you calling for a GrubHub delivery. Despite its simple visual style, the film is compelling because it introduces some of the great names in cuisine and their views on food and their colleague, Chef Trotter.

Love, Charlie: The Rise and Fall of Chef Charlie Trotter is a film for foodies as well as for anyone interested in the rise and fall of a celebrity business. In fact, it could be a fine movie pairing with the current narrative film, The Menu, about another egomaniacal chef.

The film is now available to rent/purchase on AppleTV and Amazon Prime.

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Nancy S Bishop
Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.

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