All the food world is grieving the loss of one of the most creative and visionary American chefs of the last 100 years, the great Charlie Trotter, who died today at the young age of 54. How do you calculate the impact and the hole in the world left by such a momentous passing? Of course we cannot yet, but his work lives on in the work of his protégés, including Minneapolis’ own Michelle Gayer, the James Beard Award-nominated pastry chef at the Salty Tart, who co-authored Trotter’s dessert cookbook and worked for him for 10 years (at both Trotter’s and at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas). I called Chef Gayer to share some of her memories.
Michelle Gayer (back row, far left) in the Charlie Trotter kitchen.
“He taught me everything,” Gayer says. “Where could I even start? We would talk about excellence in business, and in life. But he was funny, all the time. We’d be in the restaurant and he’d say, ‘Do you hear that Michelle?’ What? ‘It’s a shit-storm coming your way, because I just sent out 30 [entrées].’ He was always with the funnies. But he was also relentless, always pushing. And he made it look really, really easy. He’d see crazy details; he was there every day, all the time. I’d give him a dessert, he’d say, ‘No I was thinking this this this this this.’ He had so many ideas, such creative ideas, while he was also managing all of these people.”
In addition to being relentlessly creative, Trotter was also generous and kind, Gayer says. “After the cookbook, after a bunch of years, I was burnt out. I was at my wit's end. I went to him, and I said, ‘I don’t know if I can make one more crispy tiny creamy tall hanging-off-the-plate dessert. I think it’s time for me to go, because I can’t give you my best anymore,’” Gayer remembers. “He said to me, ‘What do you want to do?’”
Gayer wanted to go to France, or to California to bake with Nancy Silverton.
Instead of being angry with her resignation, Trotter dug deep. “I came in the next day and he had a plane ticket to California for me, and an interview with Nancy Silverton. I can’t even name the amazing crazy opportunities and gifts he’s given me. He’s such a generous, generous man.”
And he gave opportunities and new horizons to all of us who care about food. With that, Gayer packed her young children into her car, preparing to drive to Chicago for the candlelight vigil in front of Trotter’s home.