Saturday, December 1, 2012

Charlie Trotter’s: Marketing Misfire?

History was made in Chicago just a short time ago. Sure, there was that election and all, but I’m thinking less politically and more restaurant related.

After nearly 25 years, Charlie Trotter's, the restaurant responsible for establishing Chicago as a fine dining destination, closed. At the beginning of the year, Chef Trotter announced seemingly on a whim that he would be closing his landmark, eponymous restaurant.

A month or two later, I heard him on WBEZ (Chicago’s NPR affiliate). During his interview, he explained that he wanted to close his restaurant to pursue an advanced degree in philosophy.

But he also told stories about people from the neighborhood suddenly coming by now that they heard he was closing. And he talked about how so many Chicagoans who had never visited the renowned restaurant were now scrambling to make reservations. Where had they been the past few years, he seemed to be asking? And why hadn’t they come in sooner?

And when I visited the restaurant with three friends and talked to chef myself a month later, I got the same impression. Had we visited the restaurant before, he asked the four of us? Two of us had, two had not. Focusing on the two that hadn’t, he asked why they hadn’t come previously. As for the two of us who’d been, he wondered why we hadn’t eaten there more often.

The chef’s kind but insistent questioning and his comments during his radio interview reminded me of the celebrated Chicago chefs who had passed through his kitchen, from wunderkind Grant Achatz to Graham Elliot. These chefs, of course, enjoy hype, packed dining rooms, and plenty of press. And I wondered, did Trotter feel left behind? Had business dropped off, or did he merely miss being the most celebrated Chicago chef?

As we ate mere feet from him at the kitchen table, he reminded us that he was the chef who had created the concept of the kitchen table (as well as the idea that patrons should pay more for the privilege of being tucked into a corner of an action-packed restaurant kitchen.) And he introduced Americans to degustation and seasonal menus. Undoubtedly, he contributed more than the equivalent of a paltry appetizer to the American dining scene.

But was his demise unavoidable, as the New York Times suggested? Had he truly been left behind?

Sure, Homaro Cantu and Achatz had built and expanded on their teacher’s precepts and philosophy, attracting the attention of the media and the adulation of foodies in the process. But just because his students had moved beyond him, was it inevitable that he close his doors?

I believe it could have gone differently.

In France, senior chefs are often treated like cultural treasures. And closer to home, Alice Waters has certainly yielded little ground to the thousands of chefs and restaurants across California, and the States, that follow her farm to table and seasonal approaches.

So why did Trotter relinquish his undisputed position as father to Chicago’s contemporary dining scene? Perhaps he really did want to pursue another career. But based on some of his comments, I wonder if he was disappointed to no longer be considered the wunderkind of the Second City. Or was it simply that the restaurant was no longer filling its tables?

It’s this last question that leads me to suggest that the restaurant’s closing is the hallmark of a missed marketing opportunity. The restaurant could have been billed as a classic, as the place where Chicago’s renowned chefs cut their teeth. Tourists and foodies could have been appealed to. Sure, visit Alinea or Graham Elliot while you’re in town, he could have suggested, but don’t miss the chef and restaurant that launched them both, Charlie Trotter.

Given Trotter’s reputation for possessing a healthy ego, it’s surprising that he or his team never attempted this approach. Or maybe he didn’t want to have to try too hard to persuade diners to visit his restaurant and devour his perfect creations. Or, maybe he just wants to study philosophy.

But I’m not so certain.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

A Villa in Provence: Cliché, but Worth the Effort

Okay, I admit that renting a villa in Provence seems a bit cliché. And I suppose it shows a complete lack of originality to rent one in order to fulfill a fantasy inspired by Peter Mayles’ A Year in Provence (AYIP)—that blockbuster travelogue from the 80’s that’s blamed for spawning a writing genre and a tidal wave of tourists that washed through the once sleepy towns of the southern French countryside.

While a trip to this sunny region of France might seem unoriginal, the trip I took there with a clutch of family members was anything but.

For starters, instead of opting for the more popular and crowded towns near Aix (these being the ones featured in AYIP, scores of travel articles and the Michelin guide), we booked a rambling, renovated farmhouse outside of Sablet near Gigondas. Haven’t heard of Sablet or Gigondas? Well, many haven’t. And traveling to these small towns means you avoid crowds, movie stars and jacked up prices.

Sure, renowned markets, restaurants and food shops reside further to the south and east, but in this sleepier corner of Provence there’s plenty of good food, sublime scenery and quaint villages in which to park your derriere. Rhones—those delectable, earthy red wines—are made hereabouts and there are plenty of tasting rooms and wineries to visit—a few with settings that make a visit worthwhile for even wine-haters (try Domaine de Coyeux, situated on a mountaintop near Beaumes de Venise). Besides, the Michelin-starred spots in the more cliché part of the country had received bad press, so we decided to sniff out some less celebrated spots.

Within 30 minutes drive of our farmhouse in Sablet (scorpions included—the sort that merely sting like a bee, the villa caretaker assured) were a number of spots worth a visit.

Vaison-la-Romaine, a charming jumble of stone and terra cotta tile covered buildings which clings to and nestles beside a mountainside, affords views of the Rhone Valley, cobblestone streets and little else. There are few tourists, only a restaurant or two, and even some abandoned, crumbling homes. From the almost painfully charming upper village you can overlook an ancient stone bridge that spans a deep chasm far below and hike through winding streets until you reach a ruined castle.

Further west, the ancient theater in the otherwise charmless and petite city of Orange is worth a visit. Rising monolithically from a drab area of town, the aged stone structure is more intact and unusual than any similar Roman structure—including Rome’s Coloseum. While the relic is the only thing worth seeing in Orange, the same doesn’t hold true for nearby Nimes—where I could have spent a week. From its petite and well preserved arena to the artisan Boulangerie Villaret—founded in 1775 and packed with golden-crusted breads and flaky pastries, Nimes packs culture, architecture, history, and charm into a compact center.

Nearby, interesting shops, cafés and restaurants line the streets around Europe’s only intact Roman temple—the exquisite Maison Carrée. A short distance outside Nimes stands a massive, intact Roman aqueduct, the Pont du Gard.

More heavily touristed Avignon with its splendid and rambling papal palace, sidewalk cafés, and squares merits at least an afternoon. If you’re not up for exploring the enormous palace, grab a seat in one of the many cafés on the square fronting it. Order a local Cigales beer and soak up the atmosphere and a killer view of the palace.

And what about those less-celebrated eateries?

On the edge of Sablet where the village melts into vineyards you’ll find the diminutive Les Abeilles which boasts an outdoor dining terrace that smacks of a Provencale photo shoot: giant plane trees with spreading branches, tufts of blooming lavender, a boules court, and a tall, sturdy wall that surrounds it all and provides privacy from the nearby road. It’s tough to beat lunch here on a sublime Provencale day when a few rays of warm, golden sun penetrate the leafy tree branches, a slight breeze blows and a bottle of local rosé sits before you. And that’s before delicious plates of escargot, roasted lamb or chicken, or mushroom tarts land on your table. The only thing better than lunch on the terrace here is, well, dinner.

Les Florets, in nearby Gigondas, boasts one of the most idyllic terraces in all of France. Embraced by forest-cloaked hills, the restaurant serves traditional French fare and offers one of the most extensive local wine collections in the area. Visit just before sunset to watch the green hillsides glow amber as twinkling stars emerge and strings of lights in nearby trees blink on.

For a fine dining experience, we visited the much-celebrated l’Oustalet which is situated right on the sleepy square in the tres petite village of Gigondas. The only mistake you can make here is to order too much (well, and to park your vehicle at the edge of a dimly lit lot and so have your rental car broken into.) The food is crazy good and prices reflect that. Order a full menu, sure, but I’d recommend omitting the cheese course which we all agreed was one incredible dish too many. Instead, order one cheese plate for the table so as to at least be able to sample the incredible offerings here. Local truffles, rich, buttery slabs of foie gras, roasted pigeon, and tea-infused salmon are a few of the possibilities. Reservations are essential.

On the eastern flank of the Dentelles de Montmirail in Crestet, you’ll find Le Fleur Bleue, a half gypsy, half shabby chic spot in a somewhat renovated former barn. Whitewashed walls, scores of candles, fresh picked wild flowers, and a small, but well executed menu comprised of mostly French bistro classics make for a memorable meal.

For more recommendations, write me a note. For inspiration, read A Year in Provence. To rent a villa, check out

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