There is a certain level of dedication that helps one achieve this greatness and status, and “Love, Charlie” allows the more challenging parts about Trotter to stand as they do. His kitchen, for one, was an intense, degrading atmosphere that you could say is either par for the course for the restaurant business or not worth romanticizing (this documentary doesn’t). Many stories are shared here about his temper and volume when chastising his crew; even his cameo in “My Best Friend’s Wedding” has him portraying a version of himself in a hectic kitchen that threatens to kill an employee’s family if they screw up. It was an in-joke that came from a certain place, no matter how much it was meant as parody.
“Love, Charlie” chronicles Trotter’s various accomplishments that have influenced the way we think about, look at, and experience food. He was considered a trailblazer when it came to providing more vegetarian-friendly dishes; his cookbooks shot food in lavish close-ups that Achatz affectionately called “pornographic”; he put a special table in the middle of the kitchen so that guests could appreciate the process that went into their food.
The editorial assembly and presentation of “Love, Charlie” is a little too dry for my taste, and they struggle to build an exciting pace with and-then-it-happened storytelling. But the film’s emotional power benefits from its extensive archive and how it shows it. Through countless letters and photos, Trotter feels like an active presence in the film, where Halpern now and then cuts to close-ups of his small but microscopic penmanship. These various artifacts, largely collected by his first wife, allow him to be the chorus in this retelling of his story. When “Love, Charlie” reaches a particularly rough patch in his life after the restaurant closes and isolates him from his work, he jokingly wrote: “If you ever go through a period of recluse, my friend, make the most of it .”
“Love, Charlie” throws around the word “enigma” when trying to sell Trotter to viewers without embracing him wholeheartedly. It is a key word, since riddles are mysteries, contradictions. Halpern’s documentary is at its best when its tone is able to balance admiration for his achievement but also remain honest about the bridges he burned, the employees he seemingly worked to the ground, or the toll his own passions took on him . Halpern’s film doesn’t try to have all the answers about Trotter, so much as it stands back and looks at all the pieces together.
Now playing in theaters and available on Apple TV+ and Amazon.