As one of the very first celebrity chefs, Charlie Trotter spent the early 2000s on top of the culinary world. In her new documentary Love, Charlie: The Rise and Fall of Chef Charlie Trotter, writer/director Rebecca Halpern (History Channel’s Gangland) traces Charlie’s rise to prominence and the enduring mark that he left on the culinary world.
The film presents the major events in Charlie’s life in roughly chronological order. Young Charlie isn’t interested in cooking right away, but his father — a successful businessman — encourages his son to build his own career and empire.
It’s hard, at first, to look past Charlie’s advantages. Once he decides to pursue a passion for food, both parents are on board. His father supports him financially when he decides to open a restaurant, even though Charlie has never even worked as head chef at another establishment. But through archival footage, photographs, letters, and interviews with Charlie’s family and friends, the documentary is careful to emphasize that Charlie’s commitment to hard work and perfection were the real driving forces behind his massive success.
Many of Charlie Trotter’s friends that are interviewed in the film were also his contemporaries. Big name chefs like Wolfgang Puck and Emeril Lagasse reminisce about their relationships with Charlie. One of the most compelling chefs interviewed is Greg Achatz, who is most well known for his work in molecular gastronomy. Achatz describes his admiration for Charlie and his early years working for him in Chicago. The multidecade relationship between the two men, who were occasionally friends and frequently rivals, is central to the film’s portrait of Charlie as a culinary visionary obsessed with greatness.
Charlie’s restaurant, Charlie Trotter’s, put Chicago on the culinary map when it was opened in 1987, and was named one of the best restaurants in the world in 2007. Michelin Stars and James Beard Awards followed, but Charlie’s empire was not invincible. His business and celebrity were both tarnished by health problems and the 2008 financial crisis.
Love, Charlie: The Rise and Fall of Chef Charlie Trotter is a peek behind the glossy, official version of Charlie’s story. It covers a lot of ground, but the pacing is tight and the interviews are well-edited, engaging, and human. By the time the film begins to unpack the circumstances around Charlie’s untimely death in 2013, at the age of 54, the story of his “rise and fall” has been placed firmly within the context of the explosion of American gastronomy and celebrity food culture. It’s an industry that takes its toll, even on the most celebrated chefs.
In the end, this documentary is a complex portrait of a complex figure. Halpern approaches her subject with compassion and curiosity, managing to show the difficult sides of Charlie’s personality without villainizing him or detracting from the astounding contributions he made to American cuisine.
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