When director Rebecca Halpern set out to make a documentary about chef Charlie Trotter, she imagined emulating Netflix’s Emmy-nominated series Chef’s Table. She hoped to gather Trotter’s proteges at the Chef’s Garden, the Ohio farm that supplied Charlie Trotter’s microgreens. There they would recreate Trotter’s dishes with a farm-to-table dinner and share their memories of the chef that helped make Chicago a true dining destination.
But on what was supposed to be the first day of production in 2020, the United States enacted travel restrictions due to COVID-19 and that plan had to be scrapped. Luckily, Halpern also received something unexpected from Trotter’s first wife, Lisa Ehrlich — a trove of postcards and letters Trotter had sent her, many from before he opened his restaurant. At that time he went by Chuck, but he thought “Chuck Trotter’s” would sound like a steakhouse. When he effectively changed his name to pursue his dream, Halpern says Trotter’s entire personna changed.
“It was remarkable for me to read through more than 400 of these postcards, to learn about him and what his vision was, his philosophy for life, the music he liked to listen to,” Halpern says. “It really hit home to me that Chuck and chef Charlie Trotter were almost two different individuals. It was as if chef Charlie Trotter was a role that Chuck knew he had to play in order to make the restaurant a success. When you play the same role for 25 years, you lose sight of who you really are.”
Those postcards became the heart of Love, Charlie: The Rise and Fall of Chef Charlie Trotter, which premieres October 18 at a sold-out show as part of the Chicago International Film Festival. Halpern will also host a screening of the film in Streeterville at 5 p.m. October 22 at the AMC River East and the documentary is available to stream for a virtual screening.
Trotter was 54 when he died in 2013. The celebrity chef dominated the city’s fine dining scene as his two-Michelin-starred restaurant operated from 1987 to 2012 in Lincoln Park. An influential chef that brought Chicago international acclaim, Trotter represents an era of restaurants that wasn’t without controversy. Trotter possessed a fiery temper that produced a complicated legacy.
Besides offering insights into Trotter’s personality, the postcards provide many of the visuals used in the film. Halpern says animated images from Trotter’s postcards — such as the Hindenburg disaster — to make up for the footage she couldn’t get because of the limitations of the pandemic. The restrictions kept her from interviewing some of the chefs she wanted to include, such as Guillermo Tellez — a Mexican chef who spent 10 years working for Trotter — but she managed to get him into the film through a mix of archival footage and his appearance alongside Trotter in the 1997 Julia Roberts film My Best Friend’s Wedding.
“We had more than 10,000 archival assets that we had to sift through,” Halpern says. “If we didn’t have all of those things, I don’t think we would have been able to make as seamless a film.”
Photographer Paul Elledge, who shot many of Trotter’s cookbooks, is an associate producer on Love Charlie, so he was able to provide materials for a section on how Trotter transformed food photography.
“Charlie was the godfather of food porn,” Halpern says. “We wouldn’t have Instagram timelines full of food if it wasn’t for Charlie Trotter.”
Interviews were primarily done over Zoom. Halpern says that was especially challenging when talking with Trotter’s mother, Donna-Lee Trotter, who in the film describes the often tumultuous relationship Charlie had with his father.
“Being in an interview is unnerving enough, much less talking to an interviewee on an iPad while I asked her about the worst moments in her son’s life and what must be the worst moments of her life as well,” Halpern says. “It wasn’t easy, but it fostered an intimacy for us all.”
Halpern says she didn’t want to focus on Trotter’s downfall, but she did want to provide an honest portrait of a man who was both praised for transforming American cooking but also sued by his staff for abusive labor conditions. Getting Trotter’s family on board with that vision helped Halpern secure the cooperation of his friends and former employees.
“Everyone knew going in we were going to be showing Charlie warts and all,” Halpern says. “This was not just going to be just a puff piece, and they wanted it that way.”
The film includes interviews with other celebrity chefs including Emeril Lagasse, Wolfgang Puck, Grant Achatz, and Carrie Nahabedian, who shares stories about their complex relationships with Trotter and how he impacted their own careers.
“Anyone who pours themselves into their work in the same way that Charlie did, to the point that Charlie did, to the point that it almost consumes you, understands his journey, fears his journey and, if they’re at all self aware, tries to avoid the outcome that happened to him,” Halpern says. “I think this is a story that resonates with anyone whose identity is tied to the work. When the work goes away, who are you at the end of the day?”
Despite all the limitations, Halpern says she wound up with more material on Trotter than she could use in her 96-minute film.
“There are a lot of things that were left on the cutting room floor that I wish we could have included,” she says. “He was very much ahead of his time.”
Love Charlie: the Rise and Fall of Chef Charlie Trotter, in-theater screening on Friday, October 22 at AMC River East, 322 E. Illinois Street; also available to stream as part of the Chicago International Film Festival.