“When you lose someone who is as close to you as a brother, the only way to really move forward and out of pain is to do things that commemorate his life.”
On Saturday, December 13, Norman’s at The Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes will be hosting an elegant evening to honor the late Charlie Trotter. This reception, which will feature a variety of hors d’oeuvres and culinary stations presented by renowned local chefs, is the work of Chef Norman Van Aken himself, one of Trotter’s dearest friends and closest confidants.
The story of Chef Norman and Charlie Trotter can be compared to a work of beat poetry or an American folk anthem; the unassuming authenticity that laces their relationship reveals these chefs not only to be masters of their art, but also masters of finding art in the everyday. Just as the poetry of Jack Kerouac and the songwriting of Bob Dylan seemed quite simplistic in their own generation, the story of Norman and Charlie is defined by a realism that, at first sight, may not seem to be of any vibrant worth, yet carries great value when viewed in retrospect.
In the summer of 1982, Charlie Trotter was working as a busboy at Sinclair’s, the restaurant in Illinois in which Norman was hired as a chef, and asked for a job in the kitchen. “I will tell you that I did not see greatness in him when he was a busboy,” Norman remembers. “The first months of him working were like any person struggling when they’re seeking to become a sufficient cook… He burned himself and he cut himself a lot.” Although met with the challenges any beginning chef faces, Charlie was sure that his trying times would pass, as was Norman. “I think I noticed that despite the burns and cuts, he just didn’t let it slow him down.”
The experience shared in this restaurant laid the foundation for a friendship built on not only a love for cooking, but also a dedication to learning. “It was there in that restaurant that I began to see this person that Charlie Trotter could become. It was through his same dedication that I had toward learning… and we were self-teaching. We didn’t have a school, there wasn’t a food network, and there wasn’t James Beard Foundation.” Norman says.
Self-teaching was a necessity because they were not just cooking, they were creating an original genre of culinary culture: New American Cuisine. Sinclair’s was named for Gordon Sinclair, one of Chicago’s pioneering restaurateurs of the 20th Century, and Norman and Charlie earnestly sought to further Sinclair’s vision for expanding the nation’s appetite. There were no limits to the inventions behind the kitchen doors, and surrounded by an infinite optimism, Charlie had found an environment that suited his depth of creativity.
Charlie was perhaps one of the most creative chefs to grace the culinary map, and it is evident in the many honors that paved the path of his career. He reached instant appeal with the 1987 opening of the Chicago restaurant Charlie Trotter’s, and James Beard Foundation named him the nation’s Outstanding Chef in 1999. However, his creativity was not confined to the kitchen.
“Charlie was an extraordinary reader, unlike a lot of chefs,” Norman states, “and our kindred interest in reading created a bond between us that began to morph out into other aesthetics including film and music, which he was as vitally interested in as cooking.”
His talent for the culinary arts may have served as the gateway for Charlie to display his spirit to the world, but Norman will be the first to emphasize that cooking was simply the means of Charlie’s artistic endeavors rather than an end. “I felt like what people sort of don’t see enough of is Charlie beyond the kitchen and his amazing interest in so many different things.”
Looking back on their common affinities, Norman recalls that the foremost trait defining his friendship with Charlie was a reverence for their art at hand, which—although this art took various forms in the lives of the two chefs—began as cooking. “It’s the reverence for food… from how it’s grown to the myriad beauty of food and its so many different iterations…beautiful herbs, beautiful fish, beautiful fruit. You want to work with them, play with them, discover them—for a musician, it’s beautiful instruments—a rare violin or a Martin guitar or an amazing piano: something that just drives you crazy.”
As their careers furthered, this reverence for creation almost became a selfless admiration. Both Charlie and Norman understood that they were creating a consumable art, so the journey of innovating became the goal; after they labored for hours in their kitchens, there was nothing left for themselves, for their masterpieces had vanished from the visual realm. “That’s one thing about being a chef: our art is one that disappears. There’s no statue, there’s no painting, and there’s not even a CD or a tape of it. It’s all gone. Consumed.”
Yet, this vanishing act merely motivated Norman and Charlie to remove themselves from their work, allowing the satisfaction of their customers to become the forefront of their craft’s importance. “As some wise woman pointed out to me, it remains alive through memory,” says Norman. He describes the fullness of his reward as “the satisfaction you see that you can give people once you’ve fed them in ways that have altered their perception as to what food can be.”
As he looks forward to December’s honorary event, Chef Norman hopes to bring Charlie’s myriad charms to life—for all to experience. “When you lose someone who is as close to you as a brother, the only way to really move forward and out of pain is to do things that commemorate his life. It’s a blessing that we have the organization to do something here at Norman’s that lets me act on that commemoration in such a way that brings the community together,” he says.
The evening will also benefit the Trotter Project, which creates charitable initiatives focused on the culinary arts and education programs. Not only does this project share the values and love of giving back that Charlie held dear, it allows those who did not know Charlie to gain a brilliant perception of his caring spirit. “The Trotter Project’s ongoing mission is to create this legacy of learning and community sharing that Charlie believed in so much and dedicated his restaurant to,” says Norman.
Passing on to others that which we have been given is the hallmark of the Trotter Project, a hallmark that Norman states is the incentive behind his commemorative event. “It’s really some of the best that we can do in the world that we live in, which is a mortal world…a mortal world.”
The earthly world we see and feel—and taste—may be merely mortal, but what we choose to do with the beauty that we see, and the love that we feel—even the food that we taste—lives on. A testament to this not-so-idealistic thought, Charlie Trotter was always eager to share his love with those in his reach, wherever it would take him. He even drove across the country twice while reading Kerouac’s beat narrative, On the Road, and when he would finish 50 pages, he would tear them out and leave them somewhere, whether in a diner or on a train, along with the hope that others would come across the excerpts and discover a life they had once lost or a passion they had never found.
“What’s so beautiful about that is the anonymity of it,” Norman says. “He was just moved by Kerouac’s story, and whoever came along and picked it up would not know it came from him. That is the kind of generosity of soul that is the purest.”
It was this love for the postmodern American arts, which he shared with the people of his vast and ethereal generation—hidden in the words of Kerouac—that had fueled Charlie’s spirited drive. “He was constantly trying to avail the great works of art to his teams, so it sort of shocked him that a lot of the people that come to work in kitchens can be incredibly driven when it comes to understanding and caring about food, but not know the scenes out of Coal Miner’s Daughter or The Godfather,” Norman remembers. “Now I could almost wonder whether or not he knew that he had to get all he could into life and give back as much as he could because he was not going to be here for the longest time.”
“I think when death hits early, life becomes something that you don’t wish to waste,” says Norman. This may be one of the greatest tokens of wisdom that Charlie has provided for us. As we face tomorrow with the legacy Charlie has left, may we be inspired by this thought, to live with purpose and always in love. Just as a fortunate passerby may have read in Charlie’s copy of Kerouac’s book, “nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”
Please join us for an unforgettable night with Chef Norman & friends in Tribute To Charlie Trotter and to benefit The Trotter Project.
For more information visit:
Norman’s at The Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes
4012 Central Florida Pkwy,
Orlando, FL 32837