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Charlie Trotter, 54; helped redefine American fine dining

Charlie Trotter’s restaurant in Chicago was considered among the nation’s finest.

2011 file/Associated Press

Charlie Trotter’s restaurant in Chicago was considered among the nation’s finest.

CHICAGO — With a culinary style he likened to improvisational jazz, Charlie Trotter changed the way Americans view fine dining, pushing himself, his staff, his food, and even his diners to limits rarely seen in an American restaurant. Yet it was his reluctance to move beyond those limits that may have defined the last years of his life.

Mr. Trotter, 54, died Tuesday, a year after closing his namesake restaurant that was credited with putting Chicago at the vanguard of the food world and training dozens of top chefs, including Grant Achatz and Graham Elliot.

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Paramedics were called around 10 a.m. to Mr. Trotter’s Lincoln Park home and took him to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where he died after attempts to revive him, Chicago Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford said. An autopsy was planned for Wednesday.

Mr. Trotter’s wife, Rochelle, expressed the family’s shock at his death and appreciation for the tributes pouring in from all quarters. ‘‘He was much loved and words cannot describe how much he will be missed,’’ she said in a statement.

For decades, Mr. Trotter’s name was synonymous with cutting-edge cuisine. He earned 10 James Beard Awards, wrote 10 cookbooks, and in 1999 hosted his own public television series, ‘‘The Kitchen Sessions with Charlie Trotter.’’

‘‘It was the beginning of the notion that America could have a real haute cuisine on par with Europe,’’ said Anthony Bourdain. ‘‘That was what Charlie did.’’

Mr. Trotter never went to culinary school. He grew up in the Chicago suburb of Wilmette and majored in political science at the University of Wisconsin Madison. But an inspiring meal several years earlier had planted the desire to cook.

After graduation, he created a de facto apprenticeship, landing his first job at a restaurant in Chicago’s North Shore area called Sinclair's, where he worked under now well-known chefs such as Norman Van Aken and Carrie Nahabedian.

From there he moved to restaurants in Florida, San Francisco, and France, all the while eating widely and reading cookbooks voraciously. When he returned to the United States — and with financial backing from his family — he purchased a Victorian house in Chicago and opened Charlie Trotters there in 1987.

‘‘His restaurant shaped the world of food,’’ said Dana Cowin, editor in chief of Food & Wine magazine. ‘‘He was so innovative and focused and intense and really brilliant. When he opened Charlie Trotter, he was so original.’’

Mr. Trotter’s food was grounded in classical French technique, but blended seamlessly with Asian influences. He believed fervently in the power of simplicity and clean cooking, turning to simple vegetable purees and stocks, rather than heavy sauces, to deliver standup flavor in menus that changed daily.

‘‘He was a part of bringing in unusual ingredients and really scouring the world for ingredients that you never tasted before,’’ said fellow Chicago restaurateur Rick Bayless. ‘‘He was really on that forefront of creating the modern tasting menu.’’

He also was an early advocate of using seasonal and organic ingredients, as well as sustainably raised or caught meat and seafood.

‘‘Charlie was a visionary, an unbelievable chef that brought American cuisine to new heights,’’ Emeril Lagasse, a close friend of Mr. Trotter's, said in an e-mail.

Mr. Trotter was also gruff and exacting. And for years, the restaurant was considered one of the best in the nation.

Mr. Trotter created a charitable group that not only awarded culinary scholarships but brought disadvantaged children to his restaurant every week to teach them about fine dining.

But in time, the food world caught up with him. And food culture changed, with celebrity often trumping skill. It was a world to which he adapted poorly.

‘‘The last few times I saw him were at food and wine festivals where people didn’t recognize him,’’ said Bourdain. “Back in Charlie’s day, it was really the merit system. Being a great chef was enough. You didn’t have to be lovable.’’

Meanwhile, chefs such as Achatz, of award-winning Chicago restaurants Alinea and Next, became so avant-garde that Mr. Trotter’s menus seem almost dated.

And the very organic and seasonal philosophies he had spearheaded had become commonplace.

In 2012 and in keeping with his reputation for bold, unexpected moves, Mr. Trotter closed his namesake 120-seat restaurant. His plan? Return to college to study philosophy.

‘‘The one thing it will do for me is let me wipe a certain slate clean,’’ he said in an interview last year. “And while I'm studying and reading and applying myself to something else . . . if I decide to come back to the restaurant world, I think I'm going to bring a different perspective.

Some might have thought the move from the restaurant world was too risky. Not Mr. Trotter.

‘‘What’s the worst that could happen?’’ he said. “Life’s too short. You may be on this planet for 80 years at best, or who knows, but you can’t just pedal around and do the same thing forever.”

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