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Design – Charlie Trotter

“To me, searching for perfection isn’t anywhere near as interesting as trying to find your own voice.”

More: Design – Freeman Thomas

Charlie Trotter is a chef. But when he searches for the perfect words to describe his style, he doesn’t cite pearls of wisdom from Julia Child or Wolfgang Puck. Instead, he invokes Jerry Garcia — guitarist (and management thinker) extraordinaire. “Jerry said that the secret to the Grateful Dead’s success was not that they were trying to make music that was better than other bands’, or music that was different from other bands’,” Trotter explains. “They were trying to make music that only they could make. To me, searching for perfection isn’t anywhere near as interesting as trying to find your own voice.”

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This celebrated chef’s one-of-a-kind voice has won zealous fans from around the world of fine dining. Charlie Trotter’s restaurant, set in a renovated 1908 brownstone in the Lincoln Park West section of Chicago, opened in 1987. Ever since, it has won rave reviews, prestigious awards, and a stream of powerful patrons. The James Beard Foundation, which administers the most prestigious awards in the American food world, named Trotter “Outstanding Chef” of 1999. The restaurant is one of a handful of establishments in the United States to have earned five Mobil Stars and five AAA Diamonds, and to have been inducted into the internationally renowned Relais & Chateaux, an association of more than 400 restaurants and châteaus all over the world. Now he’s gunning for the U.S. government’s Malcolm Baldrige quality award, which no independent restaurant has ever won. He has also published a collection of cookbooks and hosts a cooking show on PBS.

How has Trotter cooked up such acclaim? By creating a style of food — and designing a style of service — that sets him apart from even his most talented peers. His recipe for success holds lessons for everyone who’s wrestling with how to stand out in an environment in which competition is tougher than ever, expectations are higher than ever, and the sacrifices required for success are bigger than ever.

To Win Big, Think Different

Some years ago, American cooking schools, in an effort to professionalize an occupation that paid little and was lacking in prestige, began awarding degrees in “culinary arts.” The problem was that very little of what these budding chefs turned out even remotely resembled art. It doesn’t take “artists” to mimic their instructors, who are themselves mimicking crusty old cookbooks written by ancient French chefs.

Doing things differently is hard in the restaurant business, where new raw materials are tough to come by. Chefs achieve artistry through relentless creativity, tastefully and consistently executed. It’s no accident that many restaurants fail. Even good restaurants eventually bore their customers if they don’t continue to innovate.

Trotter, who earned a political-science degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1982 but never graduated from cooking school, declared from the outset that no matter what happened, eating in his restaurant was never going to be boring. From day one, he spared no expense in getting his hands on the best ingredients: He grows some of his own herbs, pays people to raise venison for him, and gets fish air-freighted to his back door within a couple of hours of when it comes off of the boat each day.

And the food he creates with these things? Try his “Organic Amish Chicken Breast Stuffed with Braised Oxtail & Watercress with Onion ‘Surprise’ Tortellini & Thyme-Infused Consommé.” Then, just when you think you’ve landed firmly in Pennsylvania farm country, Trotter hits you with “Japanese Hamachi with Fennel Sauce, Celery Root & Pommery Mustard Vinaigrette.” Despite the various ethnic origins of his dishes, Trotter’s style of preparation tends to be evocative of France, though he resists the temptation to lard everything up with butter and cream. Instead, he flavors his dishes mostly with vegetable purees, stocks like consommé, or oils infused with herbs and other flavoring agents.

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It’s not just the items on the menu that are different. Early on, during the restaurant’s second year, Trotter decided to serve his dishes differently as well, in the form of a set menu each night. More recently, he’s been offering two menus in his restaurant’s three small dining rooms — one that’s made up entirely of vegetables, and another that includes meat and fish. There’s also a table in the kitchen, which features an expanded version of the fixed menu. Meals cost between $90 and $100 each, which includes everything except wine, tip, and tax. Trotter serves his meals in several tiny courses, often as many as six or eight as intricately designed as the ones described above, so that customers can experience a broad range of flavors in one sitting. Every night, without fail, something changes. From one evening to the next, the menu might be 10% to 20% different. From week to week, at least half of it changes. Trotter never serves the same menu twice, so you can’t count on returning six months later and ordering your favorite dish from last time — which you can do at most other fine restaurants.

Why does Trotter do things this way? Here’s a hint: Despite his insistence that perfection itself isn’t interesting, he has a Winston Churchill quote framed in the room where members of his staff eat their meals each night before customers arrive. It reads, “To improve is to change. To be perfect is to change often.” “We’ve received some extraordinary reviews,” Trotter says. “But you have to make sure that what you’re doing remains lively and vital, and doing the same thing over and over again rarely accomplishes that.”

To Be Great, Be Relentless

Reinventing yourself and your product every night is completely consuming, and Trotter is well aware that it’s not for everyone. “I love what I do. I’m obsessed by it,” he says. “But to strive for the levels that I’m trying to hit each night requires walking on a tightrope. If I were any less obsessed, then it wouldn’t be worth doing because I wouldn’t be doing a good enough job. If I were any more obsessed, then it might be perverse.”

Every job applicant who walks through the door of Charlie Trotter’s already has an interpretation of the restaurant’s owner. Most of them have heard stories about how in his early days, when he was hopping from restaurant to restaurant trying to milk as much knowledge as he could, Trotter owned only a bed to sleep on, a chair to sit in when he read cookbooks, and a light to read by. “If I had to be at work by 4 PM, I’d get there at 11 AM,” he says. “It didn’t matter that most kitchens I worked in weren’t paying any overtime. Who cares? My friends were all in graduate school paying tuition, and I was getting paid to learn.”

This is the attitude that Trotter likes to see in his own colleagues. Given his reputation, his employees are probably going to be pretty ambitious to start with, and that’s before he gets his hands on them. “I don’t understand people who spend their twenties hanging out in bars and going to football games,” he says. “That stuff is so boring compared to really applying yourself to what you do. All of a sudden, I turned around one day, and I was 30. And I had a level of understanding of my craft that I never would have had if I hadn’t worked so hard. Plus, if you love what you do, then it’s not even work.”

Watching the staff interact with Trotter calls to mind the devotion that must have gone on in the studios of artists like Peter Paul Rubens. Trotter returns from a trip, and someone appears with a gorgeous plate of fruit and fresh-squeezed juice served in a lager glass. Later, someone else arrives with dinner. Three different people check to see if all is right.

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Do they act this way out of fear or out of love? It’s hard to say, though Trotter is slightly embarrassed by all of the attention and can be extremely gracious when cued. Take, for example, his approach to handling employees who are leaving. “If people give me a year or two of their best effort, then I am their friend for life,” he says.

Be All Things to Just a Few People

Just as it requires a certain mettle to work for Trotter, customers also need to adopt a particular mind-set to appreciate what he does each night. Some people — especially people in Chicago — show up at dinner wanting a two-pound steak and a heaping pile of mashed potatoes. Other unsuspecting patrons don’t want a dozen tiny dishes, nor do they want to spend the three hours that it generally takes to dine at Trotter’s. “Only one-half of 1% of all regular restaurant patrons will appreciate what Charlie does,” says Ray Harris, a longtime customer. “Everyone else thinks that the portions are too small, or isn’t interested in complex flavors and cutting-edge ingredients, or thinks that what Charlie is doing is too pretentious.”

This is not elitism, for Trotter has great respect for the fine art of street food and the brains behind more casual cuisine — the barbecue-pit masters of the South, or the fishmongers of Chinatown. What he has done is market segmentation, taken to extremes. If Trotter can find 150 people five nights a week who want to pay a high price to eat the kind of food that he loves to cook, then he’s got himself a business. “You have to know what you want to be and what you don’t want to be,” he says. “That may mean sacrificing a substantial part of a large customer base, but you shouldn’t be discouraged if you’re certain that you know exactly how to serve those remaining people.”

Nor does it mean that the restaurant is entirely inflexible. “We always have at least a dozen things in the kitchen that aren’t on the menu on any given night,” Trotter says. “And we are prepared to make anything. There is no such thing as the word ‘no’ in our kitchen. If someone insists on having chicken and we don’t have any at the time, then we’ll duck out into the back alley, borrow one from another restaurant, and prepare it in the best way that we know how.”

But the smartest customers at Charlie Trotter’s know that they’d be nuts to order him around that way. “We hope that we can entice everyone into trusting us to do our thing,” he says. Harris realized this after his fourth or fifth visit to the restaurant. “After that, I never even asked to see a menu,” he says. “I just told the waiter to let the chef decide what to serve me.” In fact, one-third of his customers let Trotter decide what to prepare for them. Trotter hopes that one day everyone will order this way. At that point, a menu would become pointless, since he and his staff would create every meal on the spot. “I want our menus to become souvenir documents — something presented to you after you finish your meal as a record of your experience,” he says.

Great Expectations Are the Best Expectations

There’s a big problem with creating a world-renowned restaurant whose success is built around a truly distinctive approach to food and the overall dining experience: great expectations. Most customers walk through the front door of Charlie Trotter’s fully expecting to have one of the best meals of their lives. And some of those customers are truly tough customers. CEOs show up all the time, from companies like Sara Lee and US Airways. Michael Jordan has been by for a meal. So has Trey Anastasio, guitarist and singer for the rock band Phish. When Anastasio came to dine, he even ordered thematically, selecting a $10,000 bottle of wine that had been recovered from the wreck of a ship that had settled on the ocean floor decades ago.

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To Trotter, customers who come in with great expectations are part of the thrill. “There is no shortage of people who come in and sit down with their arms folded and glare at the waiter,” he says, noting that it’s almost as if they expect to be disappointed. “I especially love New Yorkers. They’re so full of themselves, walking in and dropping the names of the places at which they eat three times a week. They’re so easy to crush.”

Ray Harris, who holds the record for most visits to the restaurant, is himself a food freak from New York who spent five years commuting to Chicago each week for his financial-services job. “I’m your classic New York wacko,” he admits. “I spent my first couple of months in Chicago methodically going from restaurant to restaurant, searching for a good bistro where I could sit quietly by myself at the end of the day and read the newspaper.”

Charlie Trotter’s restaurant is not a casual bistro, but Harris stopped by anyway, and soon he was hooked. “Initially, I came once a month,” he says. “Then I came every two weeks. Eventually, I started coming every Thursday night. It was a standing appointment, the treat I gave myself at the end of each week in Chicago.”

As staff members got to know Harris and his tastes, each Thursday night became like a contest: What could they do to surprise him next? “They tried to see how different they could make the meal each time,” he says. Harris has been to the restaurant more than 300 times. “I was away from home so much that the restaurant became my living room and the staff became my surrogate family,” says Harris. “I now look back on that stretch of meals as one of the greatest experiences of my life.”

Ron Lieber (rlieber@fastcompany.com), a Fast Company senior writer, is based in New York City. The only thing that he loves more than creating great articles is eating at great restaurants. Learn more about Charlie Trotter and his restaurant on the Web (www.charlietrotters.com), or contact him by email (cht@charlietrotters.com).

Sidebar: What’s Fast

Charlie Trotter’s recipe for success includes one really key ingredient: the people he hires. Which is not to suggest that he’s a warm and fuzzy boss. In the old days, of course, chefs treated their apprentices like slaves. Plate smashing occurred on a regular basis; physical abuse was not uncommon. While Trotter’s charges bear no signs of physical abuse, the chef appeared on Chicago magazine’s list of the meanest people in the city. “In my case, they defined ‘mean’ as intense,” he says. “I have a number of customers who are CEOs, and after that article appeared, they were furious that they hadn’t been included. Besides, Michael Jordan was on the top of the list. Who wouldn’t want to be on a list with Michael Jordan?”

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Cooks who survive the first few weeks working for Trotter — and that’s a little more than half — tend to stick around for at least 18 months, an eternity in an industry marked at its lowest levels by lousy pay, inadequate benefits, and extreme ambition. Waiters tend to stick around for four or five years. Trotter’s employees stay not only because their learning curve is so steep but also because he rewards them well. They get at least two weeks of paid vacation after one year of service, a generous 401(k) plan, and full benefits. Employees who have worked at the restaurant for less than two years earn market rates, but those who stay longer tend to earn 20% to 30% more than what they would make in the same job at a different restaurant. Several long-term employees, including some waiters, earn six-figure salaries.

But Trotter is realistic enough to understand that most of his stars will shine brightly for a while — and then go off in new directions. “If you go around the kitchen and ask my employees what they want to be doing in three to five years,” he says, “most of them, if they’re being honest, will tell you that they don’t want to be working for me. They want to have their own place. And I think that’s great.”