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'Love, Charlie' captures the compelling complexity of Chef Trotter

I’d never seen my head so big.

That wasn’t my main takeaway from the Chicago International Film Festival world premiere of Rebecca Halpern’s excellent, surprisingly emotional documentary, Love, Charlie: The Rise and Fall of Chef Charlie Trotter, but it was an unavoidable one. I’ve seen (and reviewed) many movies at the AMC River East multiplex but never one with me in it, so the multistory view of my face and pandemic hair was a bit of a shocker.

Rebecca (yeah, we’re on a first-name basis, so I’m not gonna call her Halpern) shot my interview at the wonderful Evanston bookstore Bookends & Beginnings early on the morning after Election Night, so kudos to her and her team for keeping me from looking like a member of the Cure. Mine was one of the few interviews that writer-director Rebecca was able to conduct in person given that the movie’s shooting and post-production all took place during the pandemic.

Making films is hard. Making them when you have to interview people via Zoom and iPads while keeping everything looking and sounding professional is ridiculous. It’s a tremendous credit to the filmmakers—including producer Renee Frigo and editors Daniel Algarin and Gabriel Britz—that Love, Charlie has so much visual energy and storytelling panache that at no point are you conscious of the limitations under which they were operating.

Charlie Trotter, who died at age 54 in 2013 from a stroke, was one of the world’s most impactful chefs. Even though most people never dined at his self-named luxurious restaurant housed in a Lincoln Park townhouse, he changed the way we eat. He was doing “farm to table,” elevating so-called exotic ingredients such as quinoa and microgreens, and eschewing heavy cream sauces in favor of a lighter, healthier approach to emphasize intense flavors and contrasting textures in a way that was novel when Charlie Trotter’s opened in 1987 and is routine today.

He also was a very complicated person, someone who pursued “excellence” so relentlessly that he gained a reputation as a kitchen tyrant. He loved to challenge people, whether intellectually, physically or some other way.

I wrote a massive three-part Chicago Tribune series about him as Charlie Trotter’s was about to end its 25-year run in August 2012. (Here are part one, part two and part three.) Although the story was told entirely from the points of view of people who had worked for and with him, he was displeased with the result and kicked me out of his restaurant auction preview a few months later. I was far from the first person whose relationship with him had soured, and although I sent him respectful emails requesting comment for subsequent stories I wrote—such as when he locked public-school students out of the restaurant space when they were about to host an art exhibit there—I never heard from him again.

That was too bad because I enjoyed our back-and-forth, even as I was glad I never was employed by him. It was his ban on foie gras—after serving lots of it over the years—that put me on the path to write The Foie Gras Wars (2009, Simon & Schuster), the first two words of which are “Charlie Trotter.”

"Love, Charlie" writer-director Rebecca Halpern. Photo by Mark Caro

When Rebecca asked to interview me for a Charlie Trotter documentary, I didn’t know how she planned to shape this narrative, but I was happy to share my perspective. Given that I’m usually the one requesting interviews, it’s only fair for me to say yes when other storytellers and journalists ask.

I was one of the later interviews, and I understood my role. Rebecca knew what holes she needed to fill, which threads she needed to connect, and that’s how I could help.

So I’m in there, but the heart of the film lies with Lisa Ehrlich, Charlie’s first wife who helped launch the restaurant and remained his confidant for years after their divorce; Grant Achatz, who had a short, tumultuous tenure in his kitchen before eventually eclipsing Charlie Trotter’s with his restaurant Alinea; members of Charlie’s family, such as mother Dona-Lee Trotter and sister Anne Trotter Hinkamp; and intimate colleagues such as Norman Van Aken and Carrie Nahabedian.

Some other key figures are not in here, in some cases due to pandemic logistics, in others because it would be near impossible to unite everyone in Charlie’s splintered world behind one version of his story.

Then there’s Charlie himself, who wrote hundreds of detailed postcards to those close to him (hence the film’s title) and is seen here in early footage performing gymnastic backflips and working in the kitchen. This is something film can do that newspaper articles can’t: showing the subject in action, in this case a wiry young man whose intense blue eyes always appear to pose a challenge.

I admire Rebecca’s approach here. Charlie is such a compelling, complex character that he defies explanation, so the writer- director lays out his story and gets out of the way. We see what a huge impact he had on the culinary world, and we get so close to his food that we want to gobble it off the screen. We also feel in our gut how his obsessive drive leads to his own downfall, first figuratively, then literally.

So as Love, Charlie celebrates Charlie Trotter’s life and achievements and gives credit where it’s overdue, the movie also is inescapably sad. This man drove himself and others into the ground and left the world at way too young an age. He seemed incapable of allowing himself a respite, a moment of grace amid all that pushing.

I tried to get at this point with the ending of my Tribune series:

Did the restaurant and its perpetual ascent up the mountain of excellence make Trotter happy?

“I don't know if Charlie's happy,” his mother says. “I don't know if he's happy. It's hard to tell. He's a complex person.”

OK, Charlie Trotter, did the restaurant make you happy?

“Well, yeah, I guess,” Trotter says with almost a roll of his eyes. “But I'm not interested in happiness. Any fool can be happy. What I'm interested in is satisfaction. There's got to be more to life than just being happy. You've got to be fulfilled. You've got to be satisfied; philosophically satisfied is what I mean. You've got to say, ‘Life is a puzzle, and what I do as a pursuit is going to be a puzzle, and so am I fulfilled?'”

So was there ever a point when you said, “I'm fulfilled now”?

“No,” he says. “Well, yeah.”

Or is it like “I'm almost fulfilled, and I'll never quite be fulfilled”?

“Well, maybe that's where I am right now.”

The Friday 5 p.m. Chicago International Film Festival screening of Love, Charlie is sold out (though if you’re there, you might want to try), but as of today at noon CDT through Oct. 24 at 11:59 p.m., you can stream the movie if you live in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, and Wisconsin. Details here.

Given that the film’s distribution rights are still being ironed out, this may be your only chance to see Love, Charlie for a while. Take advantage.


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