Arguments disputing Charlie Trotter’s position as America’s premier restaurateur won’t hold weight in these quarters — his sensual marriage of flavors, combined with a first-rate knowledge of how to match wine with food, arouse every last taste bud like no other. Also, his cookbooks are exquisite roadmaps into uncharted terrain and true tests for any open-minded home cook ready for uncharted exotic terrain. But he makes two dangerous assumptions in his cooking show debut, “The Kitchen Sessions”: One, that his audience is familiar with the multi-cultural exotica served at his tony restaurant in Chi’s Lincoln Park West; and second, that they’ve already shelled out 30 bucks for the cookbook that accompanies the 13 episodes of “The Kitchen Sessions.”
Trotter is the ultimate no-nonsense chef and teacher. He won’t pander to an audience, he doesn’t spell out recipes, he doesn’t speak about the history of cuisines — he simply lets the viewer in for a half-hour visit at his famed eatery with instruction hinted at rather than spelled out. The emphasis is on experimentation, an approach he parallels with jazz. (That theme is even extended to some of the typography, which captures the classic style of the Blue Note record label).
“The Kitchen Sessions” starts extremely promising — on technical and content levels — with a balance of black-and-white and color shot in the kitchens of the restaurant and the demonstration area next door. Trotter’s subdued personality never overwhelms the No. 1 goal of the show: food and the creation of attractive and flavorful plates.
Each episode is dedicated to a specific food — lobster, duck, salads, poultry, etc. — and each produces two recipes, many with delightfully long titles such as “cumin-crusted tuna loin with wild mushroom-strewn barley and red wine emulsion.”
The host starts episode 1, “Beef,” by larding a piece of beef tenderloin with vegetables and anchovy. It immediately signals that Trotter and his cooking style are a world apart from the average cooking show — no shouting, no pandering, no audience, no lengthy explanation of the subtle differences between ingredients — i.e. this is no Food Network show. “Sessions,” for even the best home cook, can be a challenge for those not familiar with Trotter’s cookbooks.
As much as the production values of the first five minutes or so suggest a distinctiveness with this blandly produced genre, the generally vague directions — to achieve what’s on screen you’ll need his recipes for beef stock, red wine reduction and consommé — cut into show’s usefulness. If the show is to elicit a greater understanding of how to mix and match flavors of the world, it stops short of giving direction beyond the recipe at hand. That, too, cuts into what could be a wonderful lesson in food.
Trotter’s restaurant has won numerous citations for its food and wine service, sommelier Joseph Spellmann having been named the best in the United States. But beyond an off-handed suggestion that a rosé would go well with his grilled beef tenderloin Cobb salad, there is no wine advice here. Sad, because that is a key ingredient in what has defined Charlie Trotter’s, the restaurant, and made his name synonymous with gastronomic ecstasy.