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The King and I

Charlie Trotter, reigning monarch of Chicago's dining scene, is summoned to Stockholm by a real king--Carl Gustaf XVI--and scopes out the city's best food and tableware

It's hard keeping up with the aptly named Charlie Trotter. He changes the menu of his eponymous Chicago restaurant daily according to the availability of rarities like pickled lambs' tongues; he produces hefty cookbooks with recipes that he dreams up during photo shoots (elephant garlic soup with cattails and lovage, anyone?); he jets around the world to give ad-lib cooking demos. The day I tagged along, Trotter was roaming Stockholm, pondering what he and French culinary phenomenon Alain Ducasse would cook later that week with the Swedish royal family. King Carl Gustaf XVI, it turns out, is an avid amateur cook who regularly imports great chefs to the palace kitchen so he can learn new culinary tricks. The session would be the king's second class with Trotter; he'd already eaten in Chicago at the chef's table in the kitchen.

Trotter is of average height, with a strong chin and nose that frame a somewhat unchefly small mouth. He rarely smiles, keeps his shirts buttoned at the collar and almost never lets his attention stray far from the kitchen. In addition to his live appearances, he spreads his gospel with a PBS show and a line of such supermarket products as a cinnamon-butterscotch dessert sauce. "You have to be totally obsessed in this business," he tells me. "You have to be totally focused, thinking about it incessantly." He doesn't allow distractions at his restaurant either: no art hangs on the walls, no candles burn, no cocktails are served.

By the time I meet up with Trotter in the narrow lanes of Stockholm's Old Town, he has already combed the wholesale markets for kingly treats: purple carrots so deeply hued they stain a cook's hands, lettuce with pink-spotted yellow fronds. Certain items have been brought from Chicago because they would be hard to find anywhere outside Trotter's kitchen, like green peaches marinated in truffle oil. But he's also fallen for some local specialties like herring, which he plans to soak in a brine of spiced rice vinegar and incorporate into a terrine with caviar cream. "We often try to juxtapose luxury--regal items like caviar--with everyday foods," Trotter explains.

We stop for lunch at a street-corner spot called Erik's. It's owned by chef Erik Lallerstedt, who may be the Charlie Trotter of Stockholm. Instead of changing his menu every time a dish intrigues him, though, he just opens another restaurant. So far he's founded four. Erik's (which, sadly, has since closed) serves Swedish comfort food, and Trotter gives his full approval to cod with asparagus salad, salmon roe and a pile of freshly grated horseradish. He even takes pictures.

Trotter says that his favorite hobby, after eating, is "thinking about the next meal." And with that we head out to the Östermalmshallen, one of Stockholm's large market halls. The products for sale sound friendly and familiar--biff stroganoff, sirloinstek, marinerat lamm--until we hit parisare, which we learn are patties made of meat, beets and capers. Trotter starts asking about their history; I feel as if I'm wandering in a little-known forest with an insatiably curious botanist.

We tour a nearby housewares store, Bruka Design, where Trotter admits that his ascetic restaurant owns 40 china patterns: "Sometimes the shape of a plate alone will suggest a new dish." Back outside, we pick up a chorizo from a sidewalk stand, a sign of Stockholm's increasing multiculturalism. Trotter insists on squeezing his own mustard and ketchup, and the vendor laughs. Then we wind back to Old Town and visit Kristall Butiken, where Trotter considers some Orrefors Champagne glasses ("they'd be great for serving oysters") and buys a dozen Kosta Boda wine goblets striped in gold and cobalt blue: "I love these whimsical pieces--for home use."

We meet for dinner at another of Lallerstedt's restaurants, Erik's Bakficka. Trotter and some friends sample (and critique) blood sausage with lingonberries, butterflied turbot and crème brûlée. Afterward, they trade kitchen war stories, and Trotter outdoes everyone with the tale of the time he put an oyster blade through his hand, was sewn up at an emergency room and returned to his post a half-hour later.

I'm not invited to cook with Trotter, Ducasse and the king a few days later, but Trotter calls me with a report. His contributions to the menu: Caesar salad with those marinated peaches, poached chicken breast and seared foie gras with red wine sauce, calf's liver with rhubarb puree and a fruit napoleon. (The herring terrine would be served at a royal dinner the next night.) For six hours before the meal, the king, who wore chef's whites embroidered with his name, was put to work chopping vegetables and stirring sauces. He was such an eager pupil that he ended up with bandaged cuts on his hands. (So did Queen Silvia, Princess Lillian and four invited friends who also took part.) The king even had the session videotaped, the better to capture Trotter in motion.

"I think the king liked being told what to do," Trotter tells me. Did he show promise as a chef? "Let's just say I think he'd better stay a king," Trotter replies.

Story by Eve M. Kahn, who writes about food and culture from New York City.

Published July 1999
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