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Cause of death for Trotter could take 2 months

Thursday - 11/7/2013, 9:28am  ET

FILE - In this Aug. 28, 2012 file photo, award-winning chef Charlie Trotter is seen during an interview with The Associated Press at his restaurant in Chicago. Officials in Chicago said Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013, that Trotter has died. (AP Photo/Sitthixay Ditthavong, File)

CARYN ROUSSEAU
Associated Press

CHICAGO (AP) -- Charlie Trotter had built a reputation so stellar that the culinary world still had high expectations for the famed chef after he closed his award-winning namesake Chicago restaurant last summer.

Trotter changed the way Americans viewed fine dining, and his restaurant put Chicago at the vanguard of the food world.

Trotter, 54, died Tuesday at a Chicago hospital after paramedics found him unresponsive at his home. An autopsy on Wednesday found no signs of foul play or trauma, but the Cook County Medical Examiner's Office said it may be as long as two months before a cause of death can be determined.

Fellow celebrity chef Rick Bayless said it's sad the world will never get to see what Trotter would do next.

"I knew that we would hear something more from him and I had hoped that we would have the chance to see the next chapter in his life," said Bayless, among a slew of well-known chefs who paid tribute to Trotter after learning of his death.

The Cook County Medical Examiner's Office did not say anything about whether the acclaimed chef's death was related to what friends and co-workers described as Trotter's declining health in recent years, or the seizure that one said he was hospitalized for over the summer. In a short news release, the office said that "additional tests, including a toxicology analysis will be conducted."

For decades, Trotter's name was synonymous with cutting-edge cuisine. He earned 10 James Beard Awards, wrote 10 cookbooks and in 1999 hosted his own public television series, "The Kitchen Sessions with Charlie Trotter."

Trotter's wife, Rochelle, said in a statement that his "impact upon American cuisine and the culinary world at large will always be remembered."

His restaurant was credited with training dozens of the nation's top chefs, including Grant Achatz and Graham Elliot.

"It was the beginning of the notion that America could have a real haute cuisine on par with Europe," said Anthony Bourdain, the best-selling author and chef who hosts the Travel Channel's "No Reservations." ''That was what Charlie did."

Yet Trotter never went to culinary school. He grew up in the northern Chicago suburb of Wilmette and majored in political science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. But an inspiring meal several years earlier had planted the desire to cook.

After graduation, he created a de facto apprenticeship, landing his first job at a restaurant in Chicago's North Shore area called Sinclair's, where he worked under now well-known chefs such as Van Aken and Carrie Nahabedian.

From there Trotter moved to restaurants in Florida, San Francisco and France, all the while eating widely and reading cookbooks voraciously. When he returned to the U.S. -- and with financial backing from his family -- he purchased a Victorian house in Chicago and opened Charlie Trotter's there in 1987.

Trotter's food was grounded in classical French technique, but blended seamlessly with Asian influences. He believed fervently in the power of simplicity and clean cooking, turning to simple vegetable purees and stocks -- rather than heavy sauces -- to deliver standup flavor in menus that changed daily.

He also was an early advocate of using seasonal and organic ingredients, as well as sustainably raised or caught meat and seafood.

"Charlie was a visionary, an unbelievable chef that brought American cuisine to new heights," Emeril Lagasse, a close friend of Trotter's, said in an email. "We have lost a tremendous human being and an incredible chef and restaurateur."

Trotter was gruff, exacting, demanding and a culinary genius. And for years his restaurant was considered one of the best in the nation, earning two Michelin stars the first year the guide rated Chicago restaurants.

He also was giving. He created a charitable group that not only awarded culinary scholarships, but also brought disadvantaged children to his restaurant every week to teach them about fine dining.

But in time, the food world caught up with him. And food culture changed, with celebrity often trumping skill. It was a world to which he adapted poorly.

"The last few times I saw him were at food and wine festivals where people didn't recognize him. People did not acknowledge him for his incredibly important place in history," said Bourdain. "Back in Charlie's day, it was really the merit system. Being a great chef was enough. You didn't have to be lovable."

Meanwhile, chefs such as Achatz -- of award-winning Chicago restaurants Alinea and Next -- became so avant-garde, Trotter's menus seemed almost dated. And the very organic and seasonal philosophies he'd spearheaded had become commonplace.

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