Staying power: Twenty years ago, fledgling restaurateur Charlie Trotter told his first two hires ‘the sky’s the limit.’ It turns out he was right.
By Janet Rausa Fuller
August 15, 2007
The ad in the paper said something about a new restaurant on Armitage Avenue hiring.
Didn’t matter that the restaurant, in not yet gentrified Lincoln Park, was months away from opening and miles away from Reginald Watkins’ Bronzeville home.
Watkins, a Triton College student, needed the job. He could take the train to the North Side. He had some experience — prep work at a catfish joint on 22nd and Michigan and at a Chili Mac’s near DuSable High School. He’d be fine.
Ubaldo Mazariegos heard about the same restaurant from a friend who worked in the industry.
“He said it was going to be a real nice, exciting place to work,” said Mazariegos, then a busboy at another North Side restaurant.
In the spring of 1987, Watkins made his way up to 816 W. Armitage to ask the 27-year-old chef in charge for a job as a cook.
The restaurant was still under construction. Watkins went to the rear of the building, where the chef had set up a makeshift office.
“I’m Charlie,” the chef said.
The chef was only 27, five years younger than Watkins. But the way he carried himself told Watkins he shouldn’t pretend he could cook, when he couldn’t.
“I can’t cook,” Watkins confessed. “I just want to get in.”
“Reggie, I like your honesty,” the chef said. “Come back here, and I’ll find something for you to do.”
About 90 minutes later, Mazariegos arrived for his interview. The chef told the quiet Guatemalan native he was looking for people with the right attitude. Mazariegos, too, was hired.
In the two weeks before opening, the chef held practice dinners for friends and fellow chefs. Mazariegos, a service assistant, hustled between the back and front of house. Watkins washed dishes. They soaked in the action around them.
Around this time, the chef gave a pep talk to his new staff.
“If you all do your job, I’ll do mine,” Watkins remembers him saying. “The sky’s the limit. And we’re all in here on the ground floor, and we can really take off if we’re willing to work hard.”
“And I heard that,” Watkins says.
And on Aug. 17, 1987, the restaurant, Charlie Trotter’s, opened to the public.
Competing with himself
On Friday, 20 years to the day, Trotter will stand outside his namesake restaurant for the city’s proclamation of Charlie Trotter Day.
“I still feel giddy. Nervous butterflies when I come in in the morning,” Trotter, 47, says. “But good nervous. You want to earn what you do every day.”
The accolades are numerous. Five Mobil stars. Five AAA diamonds. Ten James Beard Foundation awards.
Trotter, the brand, continues its slow and deliberate expansion beyond Armitage Avenue, with a restaurant in Los Cabos, Mexico and new ones planned for swanky hotels on Chicago’s Gold Coast and in Las Vegas. He is consulting, again, for United Airlines. His name is on 14 cookbooks, with two more in the works.
But if there is a peak, Trotter has not yet reached it. That’s the best part, he says.
“In the early days it was much easier to mark big steps of progress. Now, it’s different,” he says. “It’s a little bit like climbing a mountain. … The air is thinner up there. And you expend a lot of energy to get to that level. Before, it was about competing with others, and in the past 10 years it’s been about competing with ourselves, and that’s much more interesting.”
Watkins, 52, and Mazariegos, 45, are the only two employees who have been with Trotter since day one.
They say he is still as exacting a boss as he was 20 years ago, though Watkins adds, “He’s much smoother.”
At the restaurant, they eschew titles. Watkins is the first one there in the morning, the one who gets sauces going and deals with purveyors and every product that comes in the back door. He’s the only one who calls Trotter “Charlie.”
Mazariegos is a dining room manager who trains front-of-house staff in doling out impeccable service, which to Trotter is as essential as the cuisine.
“They’re part of the fabric,” Trotter says. “They’ve become the historians, the folklorians.”
Both Watkins and Mazariegos say they didn’t know then that they were signing on to something special. Even Trotter jokes, “We were just trying to get anybody we could get that would show up for work.”
Now, says Watkins, this is home.
“I don’t think of it as work anymore,” he says. “It stopped being a career and just became a lifestyle. I just get up and do it. If I’m not doing this, I get lost, because the world I used to live in is gone.”
Focusing on quality
In the restaurant’s infancy, Trotter would pick up lint off the dining room carpet and mop the kitchen floor. He would end every night at the sink next to Watkins, washing dishes.
The restaurant opened with an a la carte menu. Patrons could have an appetizer, entree, dessert and glass of wine for $35, tops.
Trotter only served about 50 diners each night to keep his staff focused rather than rushing to meet volume.
“You could see from the very beginning how clean the food was,” Mazariegos said. “He didn’t use that much cream and butter.”
In a matter of months, Trotter forbade smoking in the dining room, changed to a degustation-only format and added a kitchen table, where diners could pay a premium to watch their food being prepared — elements not nearly as commonplace then as they are now.
Still, on paper, the restaurant was losing money. At one point, it was open seven days a week. It took 22 months before they turned a profit, Trotter says.
Anxious as he was as a fledgling restaurateur, Trotter was nurturing with staff.
“Charlie opened my eyes to food in general,” says Watkins, who eventually quit school to work full-time at Trotter’s. “I love the fact that he would take the time out to explain to me what was on the plate, the different temperatures of meat, because in my culture we all ate well-done meat.”
Watkins remembers a young cook named Daniel, whose cockiness rubbed the other cooks the wrong way. They taunted him with the nickname, Sweet Daniel.
“It got so bad, Charlie had to line all of us up and say, ‘Look, treat this guy with respect. We’re not about this. Give him a chance,’ ” Watkins says.
In the kitchen on Aug. 17, 1987, “it was tense,” Watkins says.
“Charlie was a totally different person. His mood, the way he moved, how he was trying to cook behind the line and expedite at the same time. He’d run over to garde manger, help bring out salads. He’d run back to pastries. He was all over. I think he was more tense than all of us put together.”
Appetizers that night included tomato soup with a basil-avocado sorbet. A simple salad was $3. Roast chicken was served with braised cabbage and a wild rice and garlic flan.
All Trotter remembers of the evening was that it went smoothly, though not perfectly.
At the end of the night, when the guests had gone home, Trotter shook every employee’s hand and thanked them.
“Tomorrow’s another day,” Watkins remembers him saying.
It was a Monday, the start of a week. The start of two decades, though no one — except perhaps the chef himself — knew that.
“We’ve never flailed in the wind, or contemplated what’s the next new thing,” Trotter says. “From the beginning, it was, we’re here for the long run.”