Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Nov 17, 2022 5:48 pm 
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Portrait of a great American chef

The way this new documentary about the man who was once the most prominent Chicago chef-restauranteur promotes itself ("the rise and fall") and even its trajectory is misleading, and that's not all that's wrong with it, although if you collect celebrity chef movies, this is stilil one you need to include. Charlie, aka Chuck, Trotter was a great one. In the worlds of cuisine and restaurants he became legendary, sought out by great eaters and great celebrities and admired by the best of the best in the world of food. Chef Wolfgang Puck, a frequent talking head here, declares on screen that Trotter's restaurant was equal to any three-star eatery in Europe, and other major chefs pay homage to him. Like all great chefs, he is a man of outsize talent and drive. One wishes one learned more about him and about his cuisine in this film. But what one does learn about this elusive personality is certainly interesting.

That is why they made this film. But the filmmakers make it sound as if Love, Charlie is going to be a nonfiction version of the kind of meltdown story we got in Jesse Zigelstein's Nose to Tail (2018), a feature film about a high-powered chef whose excesses lead to self-destruction. One noticed that Nose to Tail's kitchen environment, however tense, came off as sanitized compared to the real world Anthony Bourdain describes in his calling card to fame,Kitchen Confidential. Bourdain ultimately became more of a celerity than a chef, but we know how the pressures of his life, not to mention his tendency to addiction and excess, finally became too much, and there is a film about him, likewise somewhat unsatisfying but essential, by Morgan Neville. Love, Charlie also draws us in with promises of disaster. But the neatness of "rise and fall" doesn't apply.

Chef-owners of famous restaurants, who now often preside over multiple venues and media empires, are hotshots, stars, and can be self-destructive prima donnas. They are high visibility artists, constantly tested, working under great pressure of time, and their achievements depend very much on the execution of others. They can become verbally and otherwise abusive of their staff and sometimes it leads to disaster, boomeranging back to the person on top.

Well, there are hints that Charlie Trotter was, like others, a demon, unforgiving to himself and overly demanding of others. His staff as we see here does at one point sue him for unpaid overtime pay (though some chose not to take the damages they were granted. He is seen yelling at staff, though when he says "I'll kill all your family if you don't get this right" - a moment so choice it's shown twice - he is acting in a movie; it isn't real. At another point when he is being filmed, he says a restaurant would be great if there were no customers, and that in fact he hates people. He is playing for effect. And yet chefs are like this. They're not nice guys, not in the kitchen anyway. They are high strung. Charlie didn't kill anybody though. Even his enemy and arch rival, "molecular" cooking star Grant Achatz of Chicago's Alinea Restaurant, much heard from here, Charlie thinks of as a good friend. He does not come off as a mean guy, or self-destructive like Bourdain.

The 2016 Jeremiah Tower documentary The Last Magnificent strikes a very special mood with a staged opening sequence of young Jeremiah's lonely but glamorous early life traveling on luxury liners ignored by his wealthy, spoiled parents and finding solace in fine cuisine. Young Chuck Trotter ("Charlie" came because "Chuck's" sounded like too much like a steak house) instead was a gymnast and boy bursting with energy. Souvenir footage shows him diving and running and turning cartwheels: we see that went into the kitchen. He is close to his parents and his highly successful father eventually goes against his own early advice and helps out, as does his mother, when he opens his Chicago restaurant after much traveling and training.

It's only the first of Trotter's three wives, the warm and articulate Lisa Erlich, whom we hear from. She tells of what was almost an epistolary romance. They began as friends and he showered her with letters for a long time, traveling a lot and sending daily messages packed with words in a small, pretty, cursive hand and showering friends with postcards covered with writing. We see a lot of these because Lisa saved them. He worked briefly at many restaurants, dropping out of the San Francisco Culinary Institute because the kitchen work taught him more.

Then there is the restaurant, which eventually was to end that first marriage, after Trotter made a huge fuss about one light out in a restaurant hallway but let all the lights go out in their house and was found reading by the light of the open fridge. Descriptions of Trotter's cuisine are tantalizing. We learn of the emphasis on vegetables and fresh, clean tastes, and of inventing new dishes so often the staff could hardly keep up. A special table was set up for fan diners right in the kitchen, against health rules. Of dishes we are left hungry. Compare for instance Paul Lacoste's severe and very French 2012 documentary Step Up to the Plate/Entre les Bras, about the transfer of the management of a famous French country restaurant from père Michel to fils Sebastien Bras, which shows the fabulous salad dishes so precisely you can feel them and taste them. This does not occur here. Not does one get all the detail, and all the positivity, about growing up into the kitchen life as in the charming, cheerful, 2018 Cameron Yates film about the boy wonder kitchen prodigy Chef Flynn. Hopefully any one of these films will make you want to have a good restaurant meal. (Unless you go see the new pitch-black satire of class and high-end dining The Menu and are turned off by the idea.)

Then there is the event that led to the dire hints. One cannot but admire the defense of the ample and great Carrie Nahabedian, another Michelin star Chicago chef, and the way she sums things up with all the things that did not cause what happened.

Love, Charlie: The Rise and Fall of Chef Charlie Trotter, 96 mins., debuted at Chicago Oct. 2021 and showed at festivals in Florida, Seattle, San Diego, St. Louis. In select theaters (Quad Cinema, NYC, Laemmle Monica Film Center, LA) and on all major VOD platforms November 18; on DVD Nov. 22.


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