Groundbreaking Chicago chef Charlie Trotter didn’t invent abusive behavior, but his star cameo at the height of his culinary fame, in the 1997 Julia Roberts comedy “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” certainly helped normalize it. In the scene — referenced twice in Rebecca Halpern’s documentary about him, “Love, Charlie” — the bespectacled Trotter, overseeing a frantic kitchen and hoping to please Roberts’ star restaurant critic, barks at a cook, “I will kill your whole family if you don’t get this right! I need this perfect!”
We don’t learn if he ad-libbed this line (that would have been a telling detail), but judging from the life story Halpern has to tell, it encapsulates what he was ultimately known for: drive, dedication to high standards and not always the best behavioral instincts. Trotter — who died in 2013, one year after he’d closed his legendary eponymous restaurant at the 25-year mark — proves more than enough subject for a documentary, considering his ambition, cuisine, innovations (the chef’s table inside the kitchen), trend-setting (tasting menus, spotlighting vegetables), charitable ventures, James Beard awards and general stature at a turning point for fine dining and food stardom in America.
Then there’s the thornier stuff: the three marriages, the fear he instilled in staff, professional jealousies, a class-action lawsuit against him and health issues he refused to address. Many loved him, and even those he treated terribly didn’t stay mad for very long. Superstar Alinea chef Grant Achatz, the most incisive and interesting of Halpern’s interviewees, describes his up-and-down relationship with his former boss, then rival, before he concludes: “I didn’t know him at all.”
An active, inquisitive Illinois kid from the upper middle class with a gift for cooking and a love for high-end cuisine, Trotter bypassed the usual route of running someone else’s place first by opening Charlie Trotter’s in 1987 with his businessman dad’s money. An instant success, with an ever-changing menu — Trotter liked comparing his craft to jazz improvisation — it put Chicago on the fine-dining map worldwide.
It also became Trotter’s entire identity. First wife Lisa Ehrlich speaks glowingly of how their young friendship became a romance, and with sadness about how the Chuck she knew in youth, a fun-loving adventurer, was lost as he became the demanding, excellence-driven, empire-building “Charlie.”
But in trying to unpack a complicated figure through interviews (including Wolfgang Puck and Emeril Lagasse), archival footage and a restlessly edited style barreling through the biographical details, Halpern has made what feels like a jumbled, incomplete portrait, more like watching the ingredients to a complex meal being tossed around instead of savoring a layered, completed dish. It’s fast-paced to a fault, and balanced well enough between what’s laudatory and lamentable, but the storytelling leaves mysteries behind.
Ehrlich is all over “Love, Charlie” for instance — the title comes from how he signed his gazillion postcards and letters to her (and presumably, all friends he wrote to) — but there are no interviews with second wife Lynn, his son with her, Dylan, or his widow, Rochelle, all of whom are cursorily referenced. Nor is there any explanation about why they didn’t participate.
And while we get a blow-by-blow of his difficult final years of declining significance, off-putting behavior and bad health — the “warts and all” stuff — there’s little about the philanthropic efforts that won him a James Beard Humanitarian award in the year before his death. There’s text at the end about his foundations, but the lack of information about their creation, what they do and what they meant to Trotter feels like a missing chapter.
“Love, Charlie” plays like a whirlwind story, and an often entertaining one, but there’s no breathing room to process anything beyond the highs and lows. We’re left in some unresolved limbo between celebrating what makes a high-end restaurant sing and considering this culinary legend’s life a cautionary tale.
“Love, Charlie” opens in US theaters and on demand Nov. 18 via Greenwich Entertainment.