Charlie Trotter looks ahead to returning to school

HOLLY RAMER Associated Press Published:

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. (AP) -- As he prepares to quit the kitchen for the classroom, chef Charlie Trotter makes it clear that he won't be just nibbling around the edges when it comes to graduate school.

Earlier this year, Trotter announced that he will close his acclaimed eponymous restaurant in Chicago after it celebrates its 25th anniversary in August. He plans to return to school to earn a master's degree in philosophy, something he has been considering for the last five years.

"It's not just some sort of thing where I'm dabbling. I'm really going to have to put some effort into it. And for the record, I wasn't the greatest student ever. I wasn't a bad student, but I wasn't one of these whiz kid types that can do it all," Trotter said during an interview Friday at the South Beach Wine and Food Festival. "It's studying for studying's sake, but in a really rigorous disciplined way. It's going to be a full-time effort for sure."

Trotter wouldn't confirm that he plans to open another restaurant after earning his degree in the next two to three years, but said if he does, he envisions an entirely new experience.

"I think the one thing it will do for me is let me wipe a certain slate clean," said Trotter, who has undergraduate degrees in philosophy and political theory. "If I decide to come back to the restaurant world, I think I'm going to bring a different perspective, and not just like, a riff off this or something different. My hope is to really learn how to think very differently."

His departure comes at a time when Trotter has become conspicuously absent from the national dialogue on food, a conversation dominated by many of the chefs who came up under him. But he insists that his restaurant is better than it's ever been. If it gets overlooked, it's because people naturally gravitate toward what's new, he said.

"I don't want this to come off as something that's too arrogant, but on our worst day, we're in the top three restaurants in America," he said. "The problem we've had for a few years here, it's not so much a problem but we're really in a sense just competing with ourselves."

People are looking for new experiences, he said. "But I know what we do and it's at the highest possible level of cuisine, service, ambiance and wine program all wrapped into one."

Trotter, who is being honored Saturday at the festival's annual tribute dinner, in the past has rejected the notion that he is a food legend, saying "a legend is an old person known for what they used to do. I'm still doing it."

On Friday, Trotter said closing his restaurant will edge him closer to that label, but he's not entirely there.

"I'm an older person, I don't think yet that I'm an old person. I don't know about that. Maybe so, just because I've been around enough," he said. "If you do anything long enough and you can do it at a reasonable level, there's a certain kind of credibility that goes along with that."