In 2008, my audio recorder and I followed a woman whose husband had bought her a “Chef for the Day at Charlie Trotter’s” certificate donated by the restaurant to a school’s silent auction. She was treated like a queen, and so was I, and so were the dozen public high school students who arrived on a yellow school bus that afternoon and sat down to a banquet, compliments of the chef, as part of the restaurant’s Excellence Program. Their assignment: Ask at least two questions of the chef and staff, and taste everything that was put in front of them–even if it turned out to be sea urchin or lamb’s tongue. There was steamed cod with mussels, English peas, and pork cheek. Roasted squab with hazelnut, pearl onion marmalade, and cocoa nib. Venison loin with dried prune, salt-baked rutabaga, and prune tortellini.
Yes, the chef was temperamental. Yes the restaurant was hideously elite and expensive. Yet I saw an enormous helping of education being served up in that space that night, and a lot of generosity flowing back into a community that would never otherwise have been touched by such a culinary experience–or such an exquisite encounter with the perfection that comes from pursuing your art and your craft with such single-minded passion.