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Review: Love, Charlie: The Rise and Fall of Chef Charlie Trotter

January 31, 2023

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Love, Charlie: The Rise and Fall of Chef Charlie Trotter is a documentary portrait of the brilliant but troubled celebrity chef, whose self-named Chicago restaurant Charlie Trotter’s became known as one of the best restaurants in the world during its heyday.

Directed by Rebecca Halpern, Love, Charlie mainly works as a compelling portrait of this complicated, outsider genius who struggled to maintain his success through to the end, as he faced a series of financial setbacks and major health challenges, which he kept hidden from almost everyone around him.

Family members and friends recall a unique personality with an almost philosophical approach to food, who didn’t suffer fools gladly. Trotter was basically a self-taught chef (he dropped out of culinary school after six weeks), and cut his teeth working in other kitchens, before opening his eponymous restaurant (the first in what became a chain) with financial help from his businessman father and the support of his family.

But, while Trotter’s perfectionism and strive to be the best kept him constantly innovating in the kitchen, he also struggled to maintain relationships with his employees, and was known for his cantankerous personality and impatient treatment of his staff (which he self-parodied in a cameo role in My Best Friend’s Wedding). What emerges is a slightly thorny portrait of an eccentric chef with a unique vision for how to run a restaurant, including putting a dining table in the middle of his kitchen so special guests could watch him and his cooks work while they ate.

Despite using a lot of different meats in his cooking, it’s interestingly noted that Trotter also helped to revolutionize vegetarian cuisine with a variety of vegetable dishes. He also decided to stop serving foie gras at his restaurants in 2005 after visiting several farms and seeing the cruelty behind producing it, a stand that led to a flame war with other Chicago restaurateurs.

The film almost breathlessly takes us through his many accomplishments, telling a warts-and-all version of Trotter’s story through a mix of archival footage and interviews with a variety of subjects who knew him, including his best friend and first wife Lisa Ehrlich, who shares the constant stream of letters he initially sent to court her, and other celebrity chefs who were in his orbit. They include Wolfgang Puck and Emeril Lagasse, as well as employee turned rival Grant Achatz, who recounts the falling out he had with Trotter after leaving his kitchen to open Alinea, which ended up overtaking Trotter’s as the most celebrated restaurant in Chicago.

The mostly standard talking-heads approach of Halpern’s film works thanks to solid editing and a quick pace that, at a brisk 96 minutes, keeps us engaged with stories, offering an engaging glimpse into the personal life and work ethic of the fiercely independent Trotter.

Love, Charlie: The Rise and Fall of Chef Charlie Trotter is now available on a variety of Digital and VOD platforms. It’s being distributed in Canada by levelFILM.


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