I feel so much luckier than all the youngs who never got to experience Charlie Trotter's at its wondrous peak. But at least he has bequeathed them five big, important cookbooks (along with several smaller ones), all photographed in exquisite detail, with instructions as painstaking as you would expect from a famously super-obsessive chef. Escoffier had only words to describe his cuisine. Trotter has left a dazzling documentation, visual and verbal.
As with everything he did, the books were revolutionary. The first — Charlie Trotter's, published in 1994 — showcased ingredients and techniques and combinations way ahead of their time. Even the "basics" in the appendix include crispy pig's feet and pickled lamb's tongues. He also dispensed with the props and frippery common at the time and literally focused on the food; many of these full-page photos would almost look at home in Modernist Cuisine. His publisher, Aaron Wehner at Ten Speed Press, says it was "seminal" because "it was the first book at that price point and that level of production values." Then and now, the books sell for $50.
But Trotter handed his books out generously. I was mailed a personally inscribed copy of every one, and I was not alone — Wehner says that "more than a few chefs have said how much it meant to them when he sent them signed copies." Wehner says Trotter was as insistent on extreme excellence with his food on the page as he was in the kitchen and dining room. He put together his own recipe and photography team to produce the oversized books because he "wanted everything to be perfect." No hacks and handoffs for him.
While Trotter may come off pompous on the page, the quote he offers from Oscar Wilde explains why: "I hate people who are not serious about food." And sensuality always mattered. Between the photo and the title, you can almost taste Morel Flan with Black-Eyed Peas, Roasted Baby Fennel and Herb-Infused Chicken Stock Reduction.
The first doorstop, Charlie Trotter's, came out seven years after the restaurant opened but the foreword could have been written this morning: Use "foodstuffs at the height of their flavor: potatoes just out of the ground, berries right off the bush, line-caught fish straight from the sea." And "cuisine is only about making foods taste the way they are supposed to taste . . . Had he written about food, the 18th-century British philosopher Jeremy Bentham might have dismissed some of today's cuisine as nonsense upon stilts, and I think he would have been right . . . For me, purity is the only approach."
Not surprisingly, the book also communicated that it would be easier to walk to Chicago than assemble the likes of the Terrine of Sliced Heirloom Tomatoes and Eggplant with Tomato Fondant, Chevre Cream and Tomato Oil. Or the Scallops with Pickled Lamb's Tongue in Truffled Celery Broth.
Charlie Trotter's Seafood, published in 1997, must have baffled the fins off most home cooks as well. Where would s/he even find a whole mullet to roast (and serve with French green lentils, roasted yellow beets, baby turnips and veal stock reduction)?
He gave recipes for frog's legs and eel and fish even I'd never heard of, like gindai and nairagi. Who else would use tuna slices as a "roll" to wrap around crab, with tuna tartare on the side? Still, flip through these pages and you'll see why there came to be so many knockoffs of monkfish wrapped in prosciutto, so many pairings of butternut squash with scallops.
As Trotter said from the beginning:
The recipes in these books are only a guide. You can use any or all of a recipe, deviate wherever you like, or, indeed, substitute ingredients completely if it suits your desires. In fact you may want to forget about recipe specifics and use the photographs alone as your inspiration for putting together a meal. You can contemplate food on an intellectual level, but ultimately it is a sensual experience and it is perhaps best to enjoy it that way.
Charlie Trotter's Meat & Game, from 2001, proves he was already nose-to-tail while other chefs were just starting to dabble in pork bellies. He offers tea-smoked Amish chicken and a turkey breast all gussied up with foie gras (an ingredient he later spurned) and a relatively straightforward-sounding braised short ribs with horseradish-potato purée. But more of the recipes lean toward Peppered Squab Breast with Its Liver in Tempura, Steel-Cut Oats, Braised Rhubarb and Vanilla Gastrique.
Charlie Trotter's Desserts came along in 1998, and he introduced it with:
I have long thought of the food at the restaurant as vegetable-driven cuisine where, besides outright vegetarian dishes, the preparations derive much of their identity and character from a liberal use of vegetables, herbs and grains... It boils down to preserving clean, explosive flavors — flavors that maintain their integrity and elegance. In the same way, my approach to desserts celebrates a fruit-driven style, where flash and visual pyrotechniques (cq) are shunned in favor of celebrating the glorious flavors of a perfectly ripe piece of fruit in the height of its season.
He offers soups, including one made with apple cider floating Granny Smith apple fritters, and easily incorporates tropical elements, such as as sapotes and boniato. As always, you can separate out elements of the final dishes to produce something stunning without all the pyrotechnics, like the ginger-molasses spice cake sans the mascarpone cream and clear Lady Apple chips, or the devil's food cake without the cardamom ice cream and candied carrot lattice.
Because Trotter's truest inspiration came from produce, I think his Vegetables, from 1996, was the most groundbreaking. Already, he was working with 50 farmers, growers and foragers. At the restaurant, his all-vegetable menus rivaled the meat alternatives, and he solved the problem of how to make a vegetarian feel not just accommodated but blissful. There is no substitute for a honking haunch of beef or pork; it's better to serve multiple small plates. Plus he was adamant that he did not think of "vegetable cuisine in terms of health food, alternative food, or spa food." It was all about flavor and textures and combinations. In short, cuisine.
So he offered collard greens tortellini (with Bleeding Heart radish sauce and smoked tofu), rutabaga gnocchi, flourless chocolate beet cake, morels stuffed with grits (paired with okra) and cardoon. All of 17 years ago he was doing what the cool kids often do today: roasting a whole cauliflower (to team with broccoli juice). And like all the other books, this one is rich in terrines. Which is the most appropriate way to present anything Trotter-style: multi-layered and melding.
Some enterprising blogger should cook her/his way through all of these.