UPDATED: 11/5/2013 7:00 p.m.
CHICAGO (CBS) — Iconic Chicago chef Charlie Trotter, whose namesake restaurant set a global standard for culinary excellence for a quarter century, has died.
Trotter, 54, was found unresponsive at his Chicago home in Lincoln Park on Tuesday morning. He was taken to Northwestern Memorial Hospital around 10:45 a.m., where he was pronounced dead.
The cause of death was not immediately known. Chicago police are conducting a death investigation. An autopsy is scheduled for Wednesday.
Trotter never went to culinary school (he was a political science major at the University of Wisconsin) and was totally self taught. His initial interest in food came from watching his college roommate fix meals. He took a year off from school to immerse himself in the art of cooking.
As news of his death spread, fans of the chef began to leave flowers and cards outside his now closed “Charlie Trotter’s” restaurant.
From near and far, from four-star chefs to busboys, those who worked for master chef Charlie Trotter gathered hours after he died in Lincoln Park outside his now-closed restaurant for a candlelight vigil.
Those who paid tribute were not just from Chicago. Chef David LeFevre operates two highly-rated restaurants in Los Angeles, Manhattan Beach Post and Fishing with Dynamite. He said that going to work for Chef Trotter in 1995 made him what he is today.
“I really look at the time I had with him and I smile,” LeFevre said. “He’s a guy who you walk away ad you’ve achieved so much more than you ever, ever hoped you could achieve. Someone who can do that is life-changing.”
Even Chef Trotter’s former sister-in-law Jennifer said that he changed HER life by making her believe in herself. He would line up his staff at the entrance to greet important guests. Despite the close quarters and a sprinkle, those who paid tribute recreated that line in tribute.
Trotter appeared at a culinary conference on Sunday in Jackson Hole, Wyo. Attendees at the event noticed that Trotter seemed to be acting strange on stage.
Mary Grossman, publisher of the Planet Jackson Hole newspaper, was at the event and said Trotter “didn’t look well.”
“He seemed tired and was sweating and his hands were shaking,” she said.
At one point, Trotter stopped his speech, which Grossman described as rambling, and began to repeat himself.
“It was a really strange event,” Grossman said.
However, she also said the Trotter was very accommodating and was excited to help support the Central Wyoming College Culinary Institute.
The demanding and mercurial Trotter closed the restaurant in August 2012 after 25 years, during which he won a multitude of top culinary awards.
CBS 2’s Mike Parker reported at the time that Trotter insisted he had no regrets.
“I mean there are elements I will miss,” he said. “But you can’t do the same thing forever.”
The final menu was selected and supervised by Graham Elliot, Mindy Segal and some of the other chefs Trotter had inspired and trained over the last quarter-century. Trotter himself was a guest.
At that time, Elliott said he was honored to come back to be a part of the last supper.
“It’s the last hurrah,” Elliott said. “This is sacred ground. It’s like culinary Cooperstown.”
As for Chef Trotter, he told Parker that he planned now to study philosophy and travel around the world with his wife, Rochelle.
“It’s time to change it up. Otherwise, my head just might explode,” Trotter says.
On the day after the restaurant closed, Trotter sat down with CBS 2 to talk about his career.
Producer Ed Marshall recalled Trotter as gracious, offering champagne (politely declined) and setting out pastries and coffee.
Trotter spoke of working as a busboy at the Ground Round Restaurant in Plaza Del Lago in Wilmette as a teen in the late 1970s.
Trotter said it was then, despite the menial nature of that first kitchen job, that he decided he loved working in a restaurant.
He chatted about his teen son and his career ideas. Charlie reminisced about the freedom he felt in his early 20s and the career chances he took.
Trotter was also an active philanthropist, including work with the National Runaway Safeline. Trotter held a fundraiser for the group at his restaurant and personally donated money to their cause. Trotter’s son, Dylan, was also a volunteer.
“He was a leader in many arenas, including philanthropy,” said NRS Executive Director Maureen Blaha. “He will be missed by many, including all of us at NRS.”
Trotter could also be mercurial and recently his behavior was odd.
Trotter left a group of After School Matters photography students scratching their heads this summer, after they said he insulted them and kicked them out of his restaurant.
Trotter agreed to let the students use the space for his now-closed restaurant at 814 W. Armitage Ave., as a gallery to showcase their photos.
The chef apparently became offended when the students’ instructor refused to order the kids to sweep floors and plunge toilets, according to photography student Dominic Tafano, 18, a senior at the Chicago Academy.
Students said their artwork and electronic equipment, including iPads, were locked up inside the restaurant. They eventually were allowed to retrieve their equipment and artwork, and held their display at another site.
Before that, Trotter had battled with the auction house assigned to sell off much of his restaurant equipment. He called off the auction after it started.