Tag: facets

Love, Charlie







“When the restaurant closed, Charlie closed.”—Chef Grant Achatz on the late Charlie Trotter

Love, Charlie: The Rise and Fall of Chef Charlie Trotter, written and directed by Rebecca Halpern, premiered last month at the 57th Chicago International Film Festival (CIFF), with family members, legendary chefs, and diners in attendance, remembering the immense impact of this legendary chef, who along with figures like Michael Jordan and Oprah Winfrey put Chicago on the map in the 1990s.


Charlie Trotter. Photo by Paul Elledge.

The documentary captures the ways Trotter revolutionized his industry and achieved worldwide fame: the 10-course tasting menu, the cookbooks with photos so lush they were called “food porn,” the exquisite vegetables sourced from an Ohio farm, the chef’s table in his pristine kitchen, the up-and-coming culinary stars he inspired (who soon would be nipping at his heels), an experimental cooking video that was of the first of its kind, the international interviews.


Chef Norman Van Aken and Naha’s Chef Carrie Nahabedian at the Love, Charlie world premiere. Photo by Lynn Renee Photography.


Chef Della Gossett, former pastry chef at Charlie Trotter’s and current Spago Pastry Executive Chef in Los Angeles; Farmer Lee Jones. the supplier of Charlie Trotter’s microgreens; and Michelle Gayer, former executive pastry chef at Charlie Trotters and currently a pastry chef in Minneapolis. Photo by Lynn Renee Photography.

The daughter of Madeline Halpern, a Today’s Chicago Woman and Pioneer Press food writer who once described Trotter as a “magical unicorn,” Rebecca Halpern grew up in Winnetka, just a suburb away from the renowned chef. Delights of this directorial debut are the home movies, intimate interviews with family and New Trier High School classmates, including his first wife, Lisa Ehrlich, all of whom called him Chuck.


Tom Trotter, Charlie’s brother; mother Dona-Lee Trotter; and sister Anne Trotter Hinkamp. Photo by Lynn Renee Photography.

Home videos show a fresh-faced little boy who loved to do flips off diving boards. At University of Wisconsin, he is remembered driving around campus in his sports car, blaring Ayn Rand tapes. Against a backdrop of the hundreds of postcards and letters he sent her when he was getting started, Ehrlich speaks with both tenderness and passion for the early Chuck Trotter, the best friend who became her husband.


Larry Stone, Master Sommelier, and Lisa Ehrlich, Trotter’s first wife. Photo by Lynn Renee Photography.

Halpern, who is currently working on the documentary’s national distribution, shares, “The thesis of the film is that when someone’s identity fades away, they fade too. It is a cautionary tale, not a tragedy, not an inspiring piece. It shows what happened to this Wilmette boy who exploded onto the scene. He opened in a brownstone in August 1987 and right away it was booked solid for the next six months. What happened in that Lincoln Park restaurant until its closing in 2012, and how he was consumed in the end by his passion, is only part of our story. I really wanted to humanize him. In the end he had tremendous health issues and he couldn’t keep up with the times. I wanted to cement his legacy.”

Halpern was hired by Renee Frigo, founder of Oak Street Pictures, to do the documentary. She was the co-founder of Lucini Italia olive oil, which Charlie championed, and she wanted to do an homage to him. “At the time I had never met him, eaten at his restaurant, and only had his takeout food one time,” she says.


Director Rebecca Halpern.

Effective unifying features throughout the documentary are shots of just shoes going up the steps of the restaurant. First, the running shoes—Trotter ran daily for years in Lincoln Park close to his home—then heavy shoes for chefs, then nondescript, all the time footfalls getting more labored. Halpern believes that Trotter suffered several mini-strokes that he kept a secret before his death in 2013 of a stroke at age of 54.

“He didn’t care about being happy, he wanted to pursue excellence on every level. It was a process not an outcome,” she says. “He had his employees cleaning the inside of the dumpster every night. He was totally consumed and at one point was sleeping on the floor of the dining room. Getting everything just right became the most important thing.”


Chef Guillermo Tellez, Chef Bill Kim, Chef Giuseppe Tentori aka “Charlie’s Angels,” all of whom used to work for Trotter.

The film opens with Trotter saying that if it weren’t for the employees and the customers the restaurant business would be the best in the world: “Basically, I hate people,” he says as he prepares for a TV interview. “By today’s standards his conduct with his staff would be considered abusive. He did inspire a whole generation of chefs, now in their forties and fifties,” Halpern explains. “It is sad to realize that the newest generation of chefs often have no idea who Charlie Trotter was.”

Trotter’s first jobs were at the Ground Round in Wilmette and at the Monastery in Madison where he wore the requisite monk’s robe. The popular entrepreneur Gordon Sinclair hired him as a busboy for his local restaurant and soon took off to work in Sinclair’s Jupiter location.


Here’s Charlie’s kitchen in San Francisco when/where he had a brief, six-week stint at the California Culinary Academy. While in San Francisco, Trotter also worked at Cafe Bedford, Le Méridien, and Campton Place Restaurant (now Taj Campton Place Hotel) under Bradley Ogden. Photo courtesy of Anne Trotter Hinkamp.


A photo of young Chuck, inscribed on the back to his then-best friend and later first wife, Lisa Ehrlich, during his time in San Francisco (1983-1984). Photo courtesy of Lisa Ehrlich.

Trotter and Erhlich headed to California to meet Alice Waters in her kitchen at Chez Panesse. In the film she, along with other chefs, including Achatz, Emeril Lagasse, and Wolfgang Puck, speak of his brilliance. She says to Puck, “He was the first American kid to open a great restaurant, to be a fearless pioneer.”

His first hire, Reginald Watkins, a saucier from New Orleans who worked with him for 24 years, shared insightful recollections with Halpern for the film before he died in 2020: “The cooks had to re-invent every night. It was energy mixed with extreme panic. The atmosphere could be very cutthroat. We were all fighting over pots and pans.”

Trotter did his homework, not only visiting American chefs but touring Europe, particularly France and Switzerland, as well. “He drew red lines all over maps of Europe. It was like a General Patton plotting battle attacks,” Ehrlich remembers in the film. “It was Girardet in Switzerland that fit his vision of cuisine, wines, service, and table settings.”

Trotter eventually returned to Chicago, where in 1987 he told his recently retired businessman father, Bob Trotter, he was ready to open his own restaurant. With Bob as the financial backer and his mother, who would first help out in the cloakroom, Chuck opened Charlie Trotter’s (he thought “Chuck Trotter’s” sounded too much like a steakhouse). His parents previously rejected his name choice of “Zelda’s,” after F. Scott Fitzgerald’s troubled wife.

“Opening the restaurant was in part to make his father proud,” Ehrlich comments in the film. “Sadly, I think he came to the realization that some people have great marriages and some have great restaurants. He chose having a great restaurant. And our marriage ended.” But they always kept in touch.

Halpern took six months to do background research and wrapped the film in April of this year. She says, “Every day my work was my bliss. These were 20 hours a day without a day off. On the first day, everything closed because of COVID. It probably took a third longer to made and cost a third more money to produce because of the pandemic. The interviewing was me on an iPad and the cameraman.”


Brooks Yang, Associate Producer; Renee Frigo, Producer; Rebecca Halpern, Director; and Holly Meehl, Co-Producer. Photo by Lynn Renee Photography.


Shaun Harris and Ray Harris, Executive Producer of Love, Charlie. Photo by Lynn Renee Photography.


Sold-out audience at the Love, Charlie world premiere at CIFF. Photo by Lynn Renee Photography.

The final credits detail Trotter’s far-reaching philanthropy: the many scholarships he underwrote for promising chefs, the cooking classes for more than 30,000 inner-city children, the numbers of young people he invited into the restaurant to eat and learn about good food and good manners. Halpern captures Trotter in all his captivating capacity.

Despite the arduous schedule, Halpern continued to play a leadership role on the board at FACETS, the non-profit that connects adults and children to transformative film experiences: “I want to teach children the power of storytelling through documentary filmmaking. FACETS is a hometown organization that opens the world to underserved children and those in the Chicago Public Schools through its classes, Film Festival, and website. There is nothing more valuable. I am proud of the legacy of our founder, Milos Stehlik, and blown away by what Karen Cardarelli, our executive director, has accomplished.”


Karen Cardarelli and Rebecca Halpern. Photo by Lynn Renee Photography.


CIFF Senior Programmer Anthony Kaufman and Halpern at the post-screening Q and A. Photo by Lynn Renee Photography.

Halpern lives in Los Angeles now but wants to be a bridge between Chicago and Hollywood and open doors for FACETS to the documentary film community out there: “I want to have a satellite community for this thriving organization,” she says.

“Rebecca has shown her dedication to supporting independent filmmakers in many ways: one of which is by sitting on the FACETS Board of Directors for nearly 10 years. Her passion for excellence in film has been a critical catalyst for us,” Cardarelli shares. “We were exhilarated to be a fly on the wall while she worked on the LOVE, CHARLIE project. It’s extraordinary to watch from afar as a film develops, questions, reaches, pushes, and finds its shape. We had the privilege of watching Rebecca’s process through this project.”

“Rebecca and this film and the work of CIFF embolden all that FACETS is proud to support: independent voices and independent stories,” she adds. “We can’t wait to see what’s next from our favorite storyteller and board member.”


For more information about FACETS and its 38th annual Chicago International Children’s Film Festival on now through November 14, visit facets.org.


The Power of Film



By Milos Stehlik

Next month will mark the 30th anniversary of my annual pilgrimage to the Cannes Film Festival.

That being said, Cannes is on my mind.  Though I’ve never done it, Cannes is something like space flight. You have to prepare and then let go because the experience is so intense that you can never control it. You can only go with the flow and react as it happens. Seeing five or six films a day for ten days straight is not for the faint-hearted.

The intensity explodes when a movie truly hits its mark. Seeing the world premiere of Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso – a very emotional film about the fragility of cinema – was astonishing. Seeing three thousand other people (the capacity of the Grand Theatre Lumiere where the film was shown) with tears streaming down their faces when the film ended is not an experience to forget. The opposite, too, can be true. Last year at the screening of Sean Penn’s new feature, The Last Face, starring his ex-girlfriend Charlize Theron (they supposedly broke up in Cannes the year before), I sat next to New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis. When the film was finally over, we were both totally stunned by the film’s insipid stupidity.  Manohla gave a huge sigh and simply said, “Wow.”

Fortunately, Cannes does offer comic relief.  Sometimes this happens in the Cannes awards ceremony. It’s nationally televised live and – unlike the heavily scripted Oscars – often veers off course. Last year, no one could figure out just how to shut up director Houda Benyamina who received the Camera d’Or (for best first feature) and get her off stage as she went on and on.  Some years ago, every other word from the mouth of actress Sophie Marceau was, “merde” – the films were “merde,” Cannes was “merde,” the weather was “merde” and so on.


2017 Cannes Film Festival poster.

Sometimes, ignorance is just wonderful. Even though I know just how cynical the film world can be, I was disillusioned when I realized that I had just seen Jeanne Moreau ascending the red carpeted staircase to the Palais Festivals for a screening. ‘Just because she was going up the red carpet doesn’t mean she was going to actually stay and watch the movie,’ I was corrected. Many of the stars just go up the stairs to be seen and then escape through a side door and rarely stay to watch the movie. No very, very slow 4-hour Filipino movies for them.

I  saw one such escape while walking down the interior center stairs of the Palais. Suddenly there was a surging huge crowd; people packed together, shoving, pushing, and slowly moving out of the side theatre entrance towards the stairs.  It was impossible to see what all the commotion was about, except that in the center of the sea of black, there was a blonde head with a garland of white flowers. It made no sense. Then suddenly, the crowd parted for a moment and through the crack I saw Cicciolina, (real name, Ilona Staller), a porn star, once the wife of artist Jeff Koons, and eventually a member of the Italian parliament. With the exception of the garland on her head, she was stark naked.


Graduation film poster.

The pleasant or relaxing moments are not so many since everyone is always rushed and exhausted, but one such gentle moment was during the screening of Steven Soderbergh’s two-part film (which he now says he regrets having made) Che, the subject being Che Guevara. The producers  generously gave out sandwiches in paper bags in the intermission between the two-hour parts of the film.

The French are very good at pomp and circumstance. Though I no longer remember which movie occasioned this, I do recall a special detail of the French police or military in Napoleonic  dress,  poised with their swords on the steps to the Palais. Or does my memory play tricks? There was also some historic Russian film for which the Russian producer closed down the Croisette – the street bordering the Mediterranean and the Palais which is always impossibly congested – and had a parade of soldiers (or hired actors– who could tell?) on horseback, in similar historic dress. They minted special coins for the occasion and gave them to passersby – kind of like the Russian czar visiting the muzhiks on a distant estate and doling out alms.

Despite the circus of Cannes, the contradiction is that Cannes is really about one thing: film. Movies can be high profile, star-driven vehicles. But the genius of the Cannes Film Festival is that it can put films without stars on a world stage — films for which it is a pre-eminent global launching pad.

Last year’s Romanian film, Graduation, (just now opening in Chicago) is a quiet and totally brilliant film about compromise, corruption and complicity, and is just as intense as the best thriller. But it’s without stars recognizable to Americans, and it is a film for adults, not pre-pubescent teenagers. A good example is also Ousmane Sembene’s last film, Moolade. The last feature by this great African filmmaker is a powerful call to arms and a stirring tribute to the power of women.


Ousmane Sembene.

Sembene, who was Senegalese, fought against near-impossible odds to make films in Africa, where the film industry was mostly non-existent. Emigrating from Senegal to France, he first worked as a dock worker – carrying heavy sacks and loading ships. Then he hurt his back and began writing. He wrote a novel, Black Girl, about the experiences of an African servant girl in France. He wanted to turn the novel into a film, but since no European film school would accept him, he went to film school in Moscow, learned filmmaking, and turned his novel into a film.

Moolade is set in a village in Burkina Faso.  Its protagonist, Colle, is the second of her husband’s three wives. When four young girls face undergoing ritual genital circumcision, they flee to Colle’s household for protection.  Colle, who has successfully shielded her own daughter from mutilation, invokes the custom of “moolade,” (sanctuary) to protect the girls.  Without giving away the entire plot, the film dramatizes the bravery of the village women as they rise up against the village traditionalists and against the  “purification” ritual. It all sounds very dark and tragic, but the film is, in fact, exhilarating and empowering because here are characters who are “real” people, who, when they come together, can create change.


Moolaade film poster.

This is why film is so powerful: would there have been such an outcry against how United Airlines treated a passenger if two people had not captured his “removal” from the airplane on their cellphones? Would the president’s press secretary have apologized as much for his (at best) insensitive comparison to Hitler’s poison gas if there had been no cameras present?

It’s the moving image which shapes our attitudes and is the most powerful element in writing our history.


(Editor’s Note:  Milos Stehlik is the Founder and Artistic Director of Facets which for 41 years has harnessed the power of film to change lives and thus change the world. Meet Milos at the Facets Screen Gems Gala May 3 at the Arts Club.  Marjorie Craig Benton and Judy and Mickey Gaynor chair the benefit honoring civil rights advocate Doris Conant. Proceeds support year-round educational programs at Facets and the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival, the most celebrated children’s film festival in North America.

For further information call 773-281-9075, ext. 3052 or visit facets.org)