11/12/2013 12:52 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Charlie Trotter: We Are Forever in Your Debt

I did not know Charlie Trotter personally.  However, because he had mentored so many chefs who have been guests on The Dinner Party, I feel like I knew him.      My only run-in with Charlie went like this: We were seated at the kitchen table at the eponymous restaurant and Charlie walked up to one of the chefs cooking wildly and tasted what he was plating. "Do you have salt at your station?" he demanded.  The man nodded quickly in the affirmative. "Then use it!" he exclaimed.  I remember being awe-struck at the determination for excellence, at the passion that demanded that the food, every night, reach new heights.     That story has stayed with me since 2000, and I repeat it often.  It says so much about how one man, through sheer creative force and will, can change how a nation views food.  Charlie Trotter influenced and mentored so many and raised the culinary bar for restauranteurs all over the United States.  Before there was Homaro Cantu and before there was Curtis Duffy, there was Charlie Trotter -- paving the way for culinary creativity and chefs as artists for years to come.   At the memorial service on Monday, there were at least 400 people and an estimated 50 of them were wearing white chef jackets.  The pastor likened eating with Charlie Trotter to the sacrament of breaking bread because it was so important to him and he had shared this fundamental joy with both the elite and down and out.  Trotter was famous for opening his Michelin starred restaurant to the homeless, as well as celebrities from around the world. Mayor Rahm Emanuel recalled:

He was hard-working to the extreme, generous to a fault and making it happen to the end.  That is why he was loved when he was here, why he will be missed now that he is gone and why he will be remembered forever.

Understandably, the tears were flowing at the Fourth Presbyterian Church Monday morning. Champagne and exquisite hors d'oeuvres were served to guests following the service where friends, families and chefs gathered and shared stories.  I am forever grateful to have been affected by the passion and drive that was Charlie Trotter.  Although I didn't know Charlie personally, I feel the effects of his work ethic and discipline in many of the chefs that I interview on The Dinner Party.  As his sister Anne noted during the service, Charlie felt that "If you are willing to work hard enough, no obstacle is too big to overcome."  She ended by saying of her childhood with Charlie, "He raised us to levels of greatness that he saw we had within us, levels we never imagined were within our reach and that we never imagined were possible."  Charlie Trotter did that for so many chefs and restauranteurs and our culinary experiences in American cuisine have never been the same. Thank you, Charlie.  We are forever in your debt.