Charlie Trotter: Food for Thought

31 Jul 2009, Posted by Jennifer Iannolo in chefs & restaurants, food

Cooking is not really that difficult. In fact, it’s more about love and touch and caring than about special techniques or magical recipes. – Charlie Trotter

It is intriguing to discover what tidbits our minds file away, only to thrust them to the surface when we least expect it. I started this adventure with the idea of presenting “Charlie Trotter on Tomatoes;” he swoons for them, too, so I was eager to capture his thoughts on such a glorious ingredient.

Then I revisited his cookbooks. Though I have read them many times, my mind has been so preoccupied with his use of colors, exotic ingredients, and innovative flavor combinations that I only subconsciously registered his commentary. Suddenly, as I re-read the pages, it seemed as if everywhere I looked, passages jumped out about sensuality, desire, touch — the things we espouse on every page of this site. Just by reading his words, I was reminded of the intensity with which he approaches his craft, the reverence he holds for even the humblest of ingredients — and the true sensualist behind the creations. Tomatoes quickly became a secondary matter.

With one look at the composition and presentation of his dishes, the aesthetic nuances of Charlie’s food philosophy spring to life; each dish is meant to tease the senses in a cacophony of color and aroma, followed by the flavor explosions that have earned him a global reputation as a culinary giant.

He often says that “cuisine is only about making foods taste the way they are supposed to taste.” On the surface, it is a simple statement, but it belies the foundation of understanding one must achieve to speak with such philosophical brevity.

That underlying commitment to purity of flavor best captures the “why” behind his creations: Each ingredient is coaxed to shine in a state of elegant purity, where the intellectual and aesthetic achieve a state of sublime harmony. The desires of his palate at a given moment dictate the “what” — what does he like to eat, and what is he in the mood for? The rest unfolds as a physical extension of this desire; his hands simply respond in a continuation of the cerebral process.

This is a man who has spent a great deal of time thinking about ingredients at their height of perfection, who constantly challenges his mind to find the cooking methods and flavor complements that will bring them to a new peak, surpassing what has been created before.

But he is also keenly aware of the impact of the physical process, and how it echoes the connection between food and sensuality:

…the art of cooking, that is the act of gathering foodstuffs, preparing them, and serving them, is among the most intimate things that we can do for another. Indeed, since every sense — touching, smelling, seeing, tasting, and hearing — is engaged, at times even profoundly, the entire process more often than not verges on the sensual. And when food and wine stimulate and excite the palate, which in turn stimulates the mind, the act of eating becomes so much more than that of attaining sustenance. It is more about achieving a higher good intellectually, spiritually, and sensually (The Kitchen Sessions, p. 15).

Eating taken to a higher plane? At his table, most certainly.

Charlie Trotter is one of the best modern examples of a food philosopher that I have had the pleasure to encounter. Given his intellectual bent (and a college minor in philosophy), this comes as no great surprise. He actually reminds me of a professor of gastronomy, one from whom I’ve learned that generosity and a deep passion for one’s craft elevate the experience of cooking — and eating — to the level of sensual profundity he mentions.

His cookbooks are peppered with quotes from literary greats, and one simply knows that there is never a book far from his hands. In conversation, he has read Dostoevsky to me one moment, then quoted Fernand Point a moment later; then sent me a copy of Ma gastronomie so I could discover it for myself. His heart and spirit share equal stature with his mind, and his contributions to cuisine — and to those eager to learn — are such that this particular student has had her own mind enriched incomparably. His cooks often say the same.

There is something about a cerebral chef that strikes a deep chord within my inner food geek/philosopher; that resonance is a source of comfort when I look at the piles of gastronomic books and tomes filling my shelves. I know that in seeking a deeper meaning for myself in the realm of gastronomy, and a better understanding of the human condition, I can look to those with a similar approach and discover something new, something that makes me eager to delve into thick books and lose myself for hours; or to feel the black earth beneath my feet as I traverse rows of crops, talking with the farmer whose hands planted the verdant creations before me. Always, there is meaning.

Thank you, Charlie.

To learn more about Charlie Trotter’s restaurants, books, shows, and products, visit

To learn more about Jennifer’s first encounter with Chef Trotter, see her “In the Weeds” anecdote, Trotterism.

This article was originally published in August 2005.