Many culinary carpetbaggers blew through town
during the recent IACP convention, but the most eagerly anticipated
event by far was the benefit dinner by ruling culinary godlet, Chef
Trotter's oversize, glossy books are packed with
larger-than-life images of remorseless perfection-kind of like Playboy,
but with food. His formula of brutally complicated recipes, impossible-to-find
ingredients and nuggets of Charlie philosophy is just the thing
to send a novice cook into a fit of tears as she struggles through
her first quenelle. It looks so simple
Professional cooks, on the other hand, love Trotter's
food. He is our mad scientist, fearlessly creating food that is
ultra-sophisticated, intelligent, ruthlessly minimalist and so well-conceived
that it seems almost obvious. Reading Trotter's concepts, you often
have those kind of forehead-smacking epiphanies where you say aloud
things like, "Huckleberry tuiles! Of course!"
When word came in late March that Mixx Restaurant
in Hillcrest would be the host site for an actual Charlie Trotter
dinner, owner Deborah Helm's phone began to ring off the hook as
local chefs vied for a spot in her kitchen, and the once in a lifetime
chance to work beside the greatest chef of our generation.
San Diego chefs would finally bask in the long-overdue limelight
alongside Mr. Chops himself. We were ready for the big time, ready
for all that opulent, air-kissing media attention. We were ready
to learn from the master.
Then both Klein and Trotter announced that they
were bringing some of their own chefs to work, and the six slots
available for so-called "hands" filled up fast. "Call
me if you need dishwashers," said one disappointed chef.
Later that week the Trotter menu was announced: eight courses of
raw, vegan, organic food, in collaboration with Marin County chef
Roxanne Klein. Charlie, as usual, was going to push the envelope-and
we would be there.
THE BIG DAY
Eight San Diego executive chefs arrive at the kitchen, jackets
freshly pressed and knives honed to perfection.
The eight cooks from Trotter's and Roxanne's arrive, without
the star chefs but laden with huge Styrofoam coolers containing
all the food they will need for the dinner for 90.They take a look
around and leave.
Trotter Chef de Cuisine Matt Merges arrives, puts on a starched
white chef jacket with the Trotter logo and begins assigning tasks
to his two cooks and the volunteer chefs. From the coolers he pulls
out bags of prepared ingredients for the four items that Trotter
is doing: Mustard Green Wrap with Mung Bean Salad and Thai Vinaigrette;
a Duet of Soups: Shiitake Mushroom and Celery Root; Green Cauliflower
"Couscous;" and an Apple Quince Pave. His dinner "kit"
includes heat-sealed bags of all of the sauces, spices, garnishes
and seasonings needed for the dinner, a sort of gourmet Lunchables.
He pulls out an expensive Japanese knife and starts opening bags.
Six chefs stand assembling Roxanne Klein's Vegetable Lasagne, a
terrine lined with paper-thin sheets of zucchini, and filled with
repeating layers of corn , mushrooms, baby spinach and herbed cashew
"cheese", which tastes much better than it sounds. Casey
Moriarty, executive sous chef of the Hilton Torrey Pines, is layering
baby spinach in perfectly even, overlapping scales. He catches my
eye and whispers, "Where's the beef?"
Two of Roxanne's chefs, wearing monkish white
hats with an embroidered monogram and immaculate long white aprons
are assisting with the painstaking process of layering. "Too
much marinera," Mark Raymond gently chides Moriarty at one
It is silent and solemn, as if a sacred ritual
is taking place. It will take six cooks three hours to make the
"Lasagne" for 100 people. "Dude, it took forever,"
Mixx chef ZheeZhee Aquirre confides later.
Trotter chefs Della Gosset and Christine Lee are assembling Trotter's
dessert, an Apple and Quince Pave. Green and red apples and rock-hard,
bitter quince are sliced paper-thin on a Japanese mandolin, dipped
individually into a honey-maple syrup mixture and laid with lapidary
precision into shingled layers sprinkled with the crushed outsides
of pink peppercorns. It will take Della and Christine over four
hours to make the dessert for 100 people. I ask Christine how many
cooks work in the Trotter kitchen. "We have eighteen chefs,"
she says, "plus six guest chefs at any given time."
The detail on all the food is incredible, painstaking,
wearying. Everyone is very, very serious. No one is talking.
"You can make the Green Couscous", says Chef Matt to Prego
Chef Joshua McGinnis, who is assisting him. The Trotter chef cuts
open several bags of what looks like fertilizer pellets (but is
really grated 'broccoliflora') and dumps them into a bowl, along
with bags of finely grated carrot, a puree of golden sultana raisins
and some halved grapes. Heat- sealed bags of fresh and dried herbs
await. Josh mixes the ingredients as Matt watches.
Chef Roxanne Klein arrives at the restaurant. She looks at her
food and checks in with her Chef de Cuisine, Stephanie Valentine.
Her restaurant, Roxanne's in Marin County, serves only raw, vegan,
organic foods. Her work in this niche specialty is the basis of
her cookbook collaboration with Trotter.
Within her strict limitations -organic, vegan,
raw - Klein and her staff have created full-flavored, vibrantly
colored, fairly substantial food. Even the doubters among us are
impressed by her to-the-bone commitment. We are most interested
in her of out-of-the-box (as opposed to out-of-the-bag) techniques.
This is something new, and we're working with it - or at least looking
The wait staff have arrived, and set to work polishing glasses
and silver, cutting flowers for the tables, smoothing the wrinkles
out of tablecloths. The normally ebullient waiters are tense and
subdued, ready for an important night. I ask Helm what she hoped
she'd get out of this dinner. "Recognition," she says
Chef Matt starts to assign chefs to teams. We will be plating the
eight-course meal in two separate areas. There is still no sign
of Trotter himself. The dinner guests are due to arrive on a bus
from the convention in less than an hour
Charlie Trotter has arrived! Excitement ripples through the kitchen.
He's here! Everyone moves into position to catch a glimpse of the
chef. Dressed in a sport jacket, he steps in the door and looks
around at the assembled white-coated throng. "Hello,"
he says, and immediately leaves the kitchen with the two chefs de
cuisine on his heels.
Chef Matt and Chef Stephanie demonstrate a plate of each course
for their teams. The demo plates are whisked away to be tasted by
Trotter and Klein in the dining room.
I'm tapped to drive Trotter's assistant, Sari Zernich, to print
up the menus. The IACP bus is unloading as we leave the restaurant
and the sidewalk outside Mixx is packed with people.
"Trotter style," says Sari. "Everything
at the last minute." I leave the truck engine running at Kinko's.
We arrive back with menus ten minutes before dinner is to begin.
Showtime! The first course is Trotter's Mustard Wrap, leaves
of dark green mustard wrapped around dressed sprouts, set on a plate
with more paper-thin vegetables soaked in puckery yuzu vinegar.
The mustard greens are peppery, tongue-numbing.
The dining room door flies open and Charlie Trotter leaps in, now
sporting a crisp chef jacket and long white apron. "We should
go with the soup," he says to the chefs. "I think we should
go." He runs out again. Total kitchen time so far: less than
Seconds later, Chef Matt is speaking very severely
to us. " We go when I say so," he commands.
We race into the Duet of Soups. Mission Restaurant owner Faye Nakanishi
starts carefully spooning a little celery root pulp into each cup,
followed by Laurel chef Mary Jo Testa with a julienne. "Nothing
on the sides of the cup," commands Chef Matt. "And make
sure that the soups are poured to exactly the same level."
Behind us, another four chefs are setting up the shiitake soups
on the pickup line, and we are bumping backsides, elbows and heads,
going as fast as we can.
Then, disaster! We are out of celery root soup.
Chef Matt hisses, "This is totally unacceptable!" Someone
snickers, but very quietly.
We are setting up Trotters Green Cauliflower Couscous, a complicated
process. "Don't pack it in the mold," barks Chef Matt,
"It gets pasty! And don't give too much!" A few drops
of curry oil and fifty-year-old balsamic vinegar are dripped around
the salad, and chives artfully dropped for garnish. Chef Matt scowls.
Roxanne's team is plating Young Coconut Pad Thai with Almond Chili
Sauce. Chef de Cuisine Stephanie says "Shhhh!" Another
of Roxanne's chefs says, "Focus, please." Roxanne strolls
in to watch the waiters take the plates two by two, and returns
to her table.
In the dining room, guests are beginning to realize
that this progression of tiny salad courses is going to constitute
dinner. Stomachs unaccustomed to raw food are beginning to give
warning snarls of distress. Deborah Helm begins to field queries
about after dinner pizza destinations.
Five of us locals draw Banana Tart duty in the back, as Trotter's
cooks and more volunteers cut and plate the Apple Quince Pave with
Cinnamon Oil and Pink Peppercorns on the front line. A few minutes
later, the Banana Tart goes out, and dinner is finally over.
Trotter comes into the kitchen and says "Thank you" to
the cooks. He is strong-armed into posing for a group photo, then
vanishes into the night. Total kitchen time: less than 15 minutes.
The chefs have been here for ten hours.
Many imitations of Chef Matt's "Totally unacceptable!"
help reduce the tension in the ranks. We're not surprised by the
experience- cooks are used to abuse and exploitation - but we are
disappointed, to varying degrees, that Trotter spent so little time
with us in the kitchen; we all had hoped to watch the Great One
Would we do it again? Of course! There is no question
that Charlie Trotter is still The Mad Scientist, the mascot, the
man on the frontier. Just to breathe the same rarefied air for a
"I would do it again just to see it,"
said Josh McGinnis, with masterful understatement. "But it
was so intense. Very ,very intense. It wouldn't be fun to do every