I don’t usually write obituaries and this isn’t one, but it starts off that way. Charlie Trotter died yesterday. For those that never heard of him, he was one of the most inventive chefs I ever met. Here is the obit in the Times:
I met Charlie when I moved to Northwestern. He had opened his restaurant a year or two earlier. I loved his originality. Everything he prepared was unusual and unique for you. By that I mean he never served a customer something he had served him before. He once forced me to eat Halibut. I said I didn’t like Halibut and he said it was coming anyway and if I didn’t like it I wouldn’t have to pay. It was great and I happily paid.
I held my 50th birthday party at Charlie’s. I handed him the menu for my 40th (which was in Paris at Robuchon, the best in Paris at that time). I said he needed to beat what Robuchon had done because most of my current guests had been to my 40th as well. And beat it he did. He was a great chef. I really liked him.
But that is not why I am writing this. I am writing this for all the young people out there who don’t know what to do with their lives and who think the answer is more school.
While his food was great, for me he serves as a lesson to people who want to entrepreneurs, who want to be creative, or who simply have a passion for something. Here is a brief bit about him from the Chicago Tribune:
“I thought cooking out of a cookbook and following a recipe was not unlike doing a math problem: You had to measure everything out; you had to follow the directions meticulously; you couldn't deviate; otherwise the recipe wouldn't work,” he says. “So I cooked that way for about six months, and then I began to realize: Hey, tomatoes are out of season, so I'm not going to use tomatoes — I'm going to find something else to use. Or, I don't want so many mushrooms in the dish, so I'm going to cut back on the mushrooms.”
Trotter worked as a waiter, a bartender and a host at some Madison restaurants before ending up back on the North Shore. At that time restaurant work was considered more of a blue-collar pursuit — it certainly wasn't among the preferred professions for the New Trier set — but Trotter found his experiences “really cool” and considered having a go at it.
“What's the worst that could happen?” he says he thought. “I can always go back to graduate school or business school or law school or something.”
Full article to be found here:
School isn’t going to get you where you need to go. You yourself will have to do that. You have to decide what you care about, who you are, and jump into it with both feet. When you are ready, find a great teacher. And when you are find you are good at it, do it your way and don’t be dissuaded.
Charlie Trotter was the best at what he did and he loved doing it. He had to learn how to cook, how to manage people, how to deal with customers, and how to run a business. He had his own unique style that he kept improving. I ate there four or five times a year while I was at Northwestern. During those 11 years the restaurant was constantly changing. A 1989 meal was not very much like a 2000 meal. He was clearly satisfying his toughest critic (himself) all the time.
Eventually he spawned so many imitators (including many people he had trained,) that he created a lot of competition for himself. This happens to people with a strong vision who have great drive. It doesn’t always end prettily but the ride is great fun.
To be a creative, successful, entrepreneur never stop learning. School has very little to do it with it.
As I said to Milo the other day “do you know who your most important teacher is?” He looked at me and said “you?”
“No,” I said, “it is you.” Be your own best teacher. Charlie was.