Legendary Charlie Trotter’s sous chef Reggie Watkins, ‘backbone’ of kitchen for 25 many years, dies at 64

For 25 several years, Reginald Watkins was the spine of 1 of the most famous kitchens in the entire world, the acclaimed Charlie Trotter’s in Lincoln Park. Whilst a stunning roster of chefs handed by the restaurant all over the decades, Watkins remained a continuous, doing work as the principal sous chef — and kitchen confidante for operator Charlie Trotter — until he still left the restaurant in 2011, a calendar year ahead of it closed for superior.

Charlie Trotter, Margalita Chakhnashvili posing for the camera: Chef Reginald Watkins, right, holds a sign honoring his former boss Charlie Trotter, center, during a ceremony naming a portion of Armitage Avenue as Honorary Charlie Trotter Way in August 2012.

© Chris Walker, Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS
Chef Reginald Watkins, right, holds a indicator honoring his former manager Charlie Trotter, centre, through a ceremony naming a portion of Armitage Avenue as Honorary Charlie Trotter Way in August 2012.

On Monday night time, Watkins died at age 64, of not known will cause all through a stop by to the emergency space in his household metropolis of Chicago, following having put in the last various decades doing the job and dwelling in Louisiana.


Adhering to information of his dying, numerous former co-personnel from Trotter’s and over and above shared heartfelt recollections and regards on social media about “Chef Reggie,” a person they remembered as becoming rough but light — and a important manual to enable young chefs endure what was a notoriously demanding kitchen atmosphere.

“He was a legend in his own proper,” stated his daughter, Lerita Watkins.

“He was a serious icon at that cafe,” echoed chef David LeFevre, who worked two stints at Trotter’s kitchen area between 1995 and 2004.

The Los Angleles-dependent LeFevre was among the a long list of previous co-staff who shared tributes to Watkins earlier this week, along with Grant Achatz, Monthly bill Kim, Giuseppe Tentori, Sari Zernich-Worsham and a lot more.

“My dad was in really like with cooking, functioning, being amongst his peers who also shared his love with remaining a chef,” Lerita Watkins said. “He held in contact with so numerous of those folks that he properly trained. He did.”

Born and lifted around 35th Avenue and King Drive, Reggie Watkins was lifted by his mom and grandmother and lived in the city for practically his complete lifestyle. In 1987, he responded to a newspaper labeled advert trying to get kitchen area assist, which led to his assembly Charlie Trotter, who was wanting to open a restaurant. The ad had printed for the initial time on that date, Trotter’s son Dylan mentioned, and Watkins was the initial person to react.

“When he 1st met my father, he was just likely to lie and be like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ve cooked ahead of,’” Dylan Trotter said Watkins a short while ago shared with him. “But then when he noticed my dad and saw his experience, he was like, ‘I realized I could not lie to this male. I had to notify him the reality.’ They just had the relationship appropriate off the bat.”

The relaxation is precise history. Watkins was famously hired as the initial-at any time personnel at Trotter’s, running the kitchen area from its very first working day until his last day in 2011. He and Charlie Trotter grew to be close close friends, pretty much like brothers: “We always envisioned those people two acquiring outdated alongside one another,” LeFevre claimed. (The restaurant closed in 2012, and Trotter died the next calendar year.)

Watkins worked his way up by means of the obligations of the kitchen area, commencing with washing dishes and diligently discovering undertaking just after job right until inevitably achieving his long-lasting posture as sous chef. Dylan Trotter referred to as him the “backbone” of the kitchen area. Equally Lerita Watkins and Dylan Trotter keep in mind Reggie Watkins as a tough worker and claimed that generate was portion of what bonded their fathers so closely.

“He was adamant about staying expert,” Lerita Watkins explained, then repeated 1 of her father’s favored sayings: “Always handle company.”

Pals and former co-staff don’t forget Reggie Watkins becoming like a father or an more mature brother, albeit one particular who had exacting requirements. Offered his trajectory in the kitchen area, he emphasized the relevance of even maligned responsibilities, like breaking down boxes or a “sweep and a mop.”

“The very first immediate you get in the kitchen area, Reggie was tests you on how to sweep and mop the floor,” stated Tentori, who begun at Trotter’s in 1998, and is now chef/owner of GT Fish & Oyster and GT Primary Steakhouse in Chicago. “Not much too numerous people today these times — a great deal of cooks never know how to sweep and mop the ground like that.”

Watkins came to occupy a one of a kind position. He was Trotter’s near close friend and suitable-hand man, assisting him preserve tabs on the kitchen and also touring all over the entire world. But, even with his closeness with the manager, Watkins was equipped to remain “one of the men and girls” among the kitchen staff, claimed LeFevre.

“He was variety of a ‘scoundrel,’ he employed to say,” LeFevre said. “He’d stay on Charlie’s great side, but he’d also be just one of us, and he’d actually assist us.

“The natural environment at that cafe was quite, pretty tough,” he reported. “He experienced to balance getting the items finished that chef needed to get performed, with being aware of that everyone was performing their toughest, hoping their very best.”

Watkins frequently offered a needed levity in an intensive environment, chefs agreed, which includes his quite a few “Reggie-isms,” sayings he would invoke all the time through the several years: “Oatmeal beats no food,” “there’s no romance without the need of finance” and “my Charlie Trotter dollars” — the final a single from when he’d conquer Trotter in boxing-match wagers.

They bear in mind his contagious chuckle — a deep, gradual “ha ha ha” — that would usually observe his individual jokes. Every person who stuck all-around the kitchen would get a nickname from Watkins. Tentori was “Papa Joe” LeFevre was “Baby D” Zernich-Worsham was dubbed “Mama.” From his expectations to his smile, Watkins became a defining impact for the chefs who came via Trotter’s kitchen.

“He was someone that you would look to for steering,” mentioned Zernich-Worsham, co-proprietor of mfk and the now-closed Bar Biscay. “He would usher you alongside. He saved all of our butts many a time and several a support.”

She extra: “Chefs from all all around the planet would occur into that kitchen area as guest chefs, and apart from chef Trotter, the just one person that all of all those people today remembered was chef Reggie.”

Outdoors of the kitchen area, Watkins remained good friends with several of his former co-workers, and he was also a passionate relatives gentleman, reported Lerita Watkins. When she selected to attend school in Rhode Island, “I hardly ever felt by itself,” irrespective of the distance concerning them, as well as Reggie’s travels for get the job done.

“He would usually simply call me two or a few times a 7 days,” she stated. “Even on the working day he handed, we talked twice that working day.”

Her father “poured into” Lerita Watkins the very same verve that his close friends from Trotter’s remember. Reggie was a lover of history and often took her to museums in Chicago as a way to display her the globe outdoors of the town.

“He built confident I realized my historical past each as a minimal Black girl, and also as a Chicagoan,” she stated.

Earlier this 12 months, Lerita Watkins earned her doctorate in education and learning from Chicago’s National Louis College. Of system, Reggie attended the graduation ceremony by using Zoom — and proudly reminded her to contain the “Dr.” prefix going forward. Soon after all, he mentioned, she experienced attained it.

Of all the large names who had ever cooked in the Charlie Trotter’s kitchen, only one of them has a custom bobblehead built for them: Reginald Watkins. The cherished memento — which LeFevre, Tentori and Zernich-Worsham all even now have — was the signature gift-bag product at the blowout 20th-anniversary celebration for the restaurant extra than 13 a long time ago.

The Tribune wrote at the time: “The official Reggie Watkins bobblehead doll inscribed with the sous-chef’s signature phrase: ‘Chef, slice it out.’ Watkins is touched and gives an emotional speech that ends with but one more joke and a toast to ‘another 20 several years.’”

Neither Watkins nor Trotter would make it a different 20 decades, but as Lerita Watkins stated, “I constantly say, ‘God desires his angels again.’ God essential my father again, and God desired Charlie back again, maybe to cook a small food items.”

In addition to his daughter, Watkins is survived by his sister, Gerri Holliday, and brothers Christopher Watkins and Paris Watkins.

A no
n-public viewing for Reggie Watkins will be held at Leak and Sons Funeral Household from 2-4 p.m. Saturday. A GoFundMe site has been set up to aid with memorial fees. Bouquets are welcome, but in lieu of bouquets, household and friends can mail donations. 100 % of remaining funds will be donated to the Chicago Food Depository in his title.

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