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November 04, 2022

Denver Film Festival - Love, Charlie: The Rise and Fall of Chef Charlie Trotter

love, charlie.jpg

Rebecca Halpern - 2021
Greenwich Entertainment

Until I saw this new documentary, I had never heard of celebrity chef Charlie Trotter or his Chicago restaurant. I never watched the Food Network when I had cable. The only chefs I could name off the top of my head would be Wolfgang Puck and Julia Child. As for food, my tastes are mostly plebeian, the higher end burger joints or Korean barbecue. Even when I visited Spain and Italy, I went to the neighborhood restaurants where a good, filling meal could be had for around ten euros. My taste buds are not what they use to be, so spending one-hundred dollars or more on a tasting menu would be both a financial and culinary waste.

While the main thrust is about a man who became became an influencial and innovative chef, the deeper story is about obsession in the professional sphere becoming self-destructive. Usually the story is about business tycoons, the plot of several movies. In this case, Trotter opens a restaurant that is known for its unusual menus, a destination for customers from around the world. A hard taskmaster, some of his former employees open their own restaurants. The dream is to be the first American chef to get three stars from Michelin. The cost is failed marriages, ill health, business expansion followed by loss and closure.

I do view documentaries about celebrities with some suspicion. Is the person of interest because of their particular fame? Would this person be of interest if they were not famous? For someone like myself who has not paid much attention to culinary artists, part of the reason why someone like Anthony Bourdain was of interest was because of his travels where he immersed himself, for better or worse, into the local culture. When Charlie Trotter traveled, he went to check out the competition, other high end restaurants. Even without checking out street food in Vietnam, Bourdain was an engaged and engaging personality. Trotter, in comparison, seemed to have mostly lived inside a bubble of his own making. The documentary ends with a mention of the scholarships and other philanthropic contributions made by Trotter, but it comes as an afterthought.

It is possible that Halpern's film was made for a niche audience. I have no problem with that, being the kind of person who has eagerly watched documentaries on filmmakers obscure or forgotten. That the two excerpted reviews I came across by Chicago film critics suggests that the most enthusiastic audience is Chicago based. Aside from the arc of an innovator who eventually stopped being inventive, the saga of Charlie Trotter is not very compelling. A good documentary is one that makes the viewer interested in a person, idea, or event that they might not have previously considered or known of prior to viewing. Love, Charle is the cinematic equivalent to a flavorless meal lacking any real substance.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 4, 2022 05:45 AM