For Charlie Trotter, 2011 wasn't a great year for press coverage (it's hard to brush off The New York Times declaring you "a leader left behind"), but now that he's announced his eponymous Chicago restaurant will close, it's time for the plaudits to roll in. Much of the praise with which Trotter is being remembered has to do with his role, outgrown as it may be, as a leader in his field. A lot of the trends that have come to define modern American cooking can be traced back, at least in part, to Charlie Trotter. But unless you've been reading the Chicago food sections for the last 25 years, exactly what advances the chef helped spur may be a little blurry. So to put Trotter's legacy in perspective, here's our guide to the food trends he inspired and the dishes he created to do so.
Degustation menu: Trotter was among the first U.S. chefs to popularize degustation menus, better known as tasting menus, just two years after his restaurant opened. The menus would go on to become one of his signatures and a major trend in the world of haute cuisine. The Chicago Tribune announced his entry into the European-dominated world of degustation menus in 1989: " Chef Trotter's eight-course menu will change every six to eight weeks. One of the current courses is ravioli of Norwegian salmon and smoked salmon with julienned leeks and lobster sauce."
Seasonal Dining: Long before locavore was a word or seasonal menus were driven by anything but necessity, The Times described Trotter's cuisine in a 1997 article: "Mr. Trotter is known for his degustation menu, a parade of six courses cooked in the French tradition influenced by Asian minimalism that riff on seasonal ingredients." In his September four-star review, Tribune critic Phil Vetel wrote that "Trotter's kitchen crew never works off a set menu, but begins each day with the market's bounty and a blank sheet of paper." He went on to describe "a gorgeous study of hearts of palm, presented in thick, raw slices, a gentle puree and pastalike ribbons curled around chopped olive; porcini tart with fig and goat cheese over eggplant puree (a composition so rich and smoky I searched the plate, vainly, for pieces of stealth bacon); and squash blossom beignet next to strips of grilled zucchini, pea puree and Australian black truffle."
Raw Food: When the first raw restaurant opened in New York in 1999, raw food seemed like a really weird and experimental thing. But Trotter was already on board, and he published a cookbook, Raw, in 2003. By the time The Times was writing trend pieces about raw food finding its way into high-end resorts in 2006, Trotter and his restaurant's optional raw menu were considered among the movement's stalwarts. "For us, raw food is here to stay. It's part of our repertoire at this point. It's not that we just dabbled in it," he told The Times. A 2003 CBS preview of the book included recipes for "Bleeding Heart Radish Ravioli With Yellow Tomato Sauce" and "Portabello Mushroom Pave' With White Asparagus Vinaigrette," which it described: "The meatiness of the marinated portabellos is enormously satisfying, but the aromatic flavor of jalapeno, garlic, ginger, cilantro and soy are what pushes this creation over the top. The creamy white asparagus contributes richness and acts as the perfect cohesive element."
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