2012 Humanitarian of the Year: Charlie Trotter

Charlie Trotter at the 2012 James Beard Foundation Awards

This award is given to an individual or organization working in the realm of food who has given selflessly and worked tirelessly to better the lives of others and society at large.

By Nicole Citron

Twenty-five years ago, contemporary American cuisine was forever changed when Charlie Trotter opened his eponymous Chicago restaurant, catalyzing that city’s transformation into the dining mecca it is today. Creative and cerebral, Trotter turns out innovative and thoughtful cuisine that truly celebrates American food. He has also become well known as a mentor for many of the young chefs who have cooked in his kitchen. Perhaps less well known is his longstanding work to change people’s lives both in and beyond his dining room.

“I think the hospitality world is utterly synonymous with the world of giving,” Trotter says. “You’re in this world to do well at what you do, but ultimately to make a difference.” To that end, he founded the Charlie Trotter Culinary Education Foundation in 1999 with the goal of educating and exposing local youth to the culinary arts in as many ways as possible. His foundation has two main components: the Excellence Program, through which he works directly with Chicago-area high school kids, and a scholarship program that supports students interested in a culinary career.

Trotter is particularly passionate about the Excellence Program, which is entirely underwritten by his restaurant. For the past 12 years, three nights a week, 50 weeks a year, Charlie Trotter’s has hosted a new group of 20 Chicago-area high school students for a discussion and gastronomic experience. Over a multi-course meal, the students hear from members of Trotter’s team about subjects ranging from sustainable farming to “being a leader in your own life.” The program is not about recruiting students into the culinary arts, Trotter emphasizes, but about sharing life lessons. 

“My hope is to be able to impart the idea that in life you get what you give, and if you want a lot you’ve got to give a lot,” he explains. The Excellence Program also stresses the importance of eating well: “What we’re trying to emphasize is that food is definitely sustenance, but it’s also the one great sensual experience [you’ll partake in] several times a day for the rest of your life, so you may as well make it interesting.” 

Since its inception, Trotter’s Culinary Education Foundation has raised $3 million for culinary scholarships. “I’ve done so many things for other organizations—from the American Cancer Foundation to battered women’s shelters—and I thought, well it’s time for me to help my own world, the culinary world,” he explains. “I’ve met too many people over the years who have wanted to go to culinary school, and have been accepted but haven’t been able to afford it.”

In 2007 Trotter marked the restaurant’s 20th anniversary with one of the more high-profile fund-raising events for his organization: a $5,000-per-head gala dinner prepared by an incredible list of chefs including Ferran Adrià, Heston Blumenthal, Daniel Boulud, Pierre Hermé, Thomas Keller, and Tetsuya Wakuda. “Now that’s never going to happen again in anybody’s lifetime,” Trotter says, marveling at the confluence of talent in his kitchen all in one night. He estimates they raised $300,000 that evening.

A lower-profile project that is very close to Trotter’s heart was Cooking with Patrick Clark: A Tribute to the Man and His Cuisine (Ten Speed Press, 1999), a book Trotter coordinated for his late friend, designating proceeds to the five children of this pioneering African-American chef and James Beard Award winner. 

Trotter’s philanthropic efforts display the same inventive-ness that made him a leader among American chefs. “There are many ways to give other than just writing checks,” he says, citing his idea to donate dinners cooked in the bid winner’s home. Trotter has given more than 100 of these events to various charity auctions; in the last five years, he has been hosting the dinners in his own home instead, which he describes as an even more personal way to give. “Take whatever wine you want out of my cellar, you’ll have a complete tour of the house,” he says, describing his approach to these dinners. “At the end of the meal we’ll play parlor games!” Not surprisingly, these donations have raised up to $100,000 per dinner. 

Another creative donation Trotter has made nearly every business day since the restaurant’s inauguration is the “Guest Chef for a Day” program, a foodie’s dream-come-true, available for up to $2,000 a bid at charity auctions. This chance to work behind the scenes at Charlie Trotter’s is an entirely unique opportunity, and its popularity has helped Trotter to continue giving back to the causes he believes in.

Charlie Trotter’s will close on August 21, 2012, two weeks after its official 25th-anniversary date, and Trotter will go to graduate school in Chicago to study philosophy. At this point, he says he’s not sure how the closure will affect his philanthropic work, but he knows this work will continue. “However I grow and move forward, ultimately it’s going to affect what I do charitably.”

Nicole Citron is a freelance writer and brand and communications consultant living in New York City.