Management A La Trotter

Would you like Charlie Trotter to be your cabdriver? Of course you would. If Charlie Trotter, the famously perfectionist Chicago chef, drove a cab, its door handles would gleam like polished flatware, and if you weren't satisfied with your ride, he'd offer to drive you somewhere else, gratis. "It would be so easy to say, 'Hi, how're you doing?' " he mused recently, apropos of his favorite topic: why the rest of the world should be more like Charlie Trotter's restaurant. "'Where can I take you today? Do you have a preferred route?'" So of course you'd want Charlie Trotter as your cabdriver--even if, based on the prices in his restaurant, a ride to Chicago from O'Hare might set you back $175 before tax and tip.

Is that any way to run a business? A surprising number of people seem to think so, and Trotter has transformed himself into a new archetype: chef as management guru. He has lectured to business classes at Northwestern and the University of Chicago. Last year Ten Speed Press published "Lessons in Excellence From Charlie Trotter." (Sample lesson: "You've got to approach work like it's a religious experience.") Now Trotter has a sequel in the works, to be called "Lessons in Service." A new book, "The Soul of a Chef," by Michael Ruhlman, describes the management philosophy of Thomas Keller, the chef at the French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley. "A chef today is a coach, a psychologist, an entrepreneur and a public spokesman," Trotter, 40, says. "I think these skills apply in any kind of business."

Yes, but on strictly financial grounds it's hard to see why the rest of the economy should emulate superluxury French-American restaurants. Charlie Trotter's, which serves a maximum of 150 dinners, five nights a week, does around $6 million in business annually. That's roughly equal to a half hour's worth of revenue by General Electric, whose CEO, Jack Welch, recently signed a $7 million deal to spill his management secrets in a book. But is it possible that the globe-straddling purveyor of automobile insurance and jet engines actually has something to learn from a guy who turns out 150 squab breasts a night? "At the very highest level," says Michael Whiteman, a restaurant consultant, chefs "fabricate a product on demand. Chefs pioneered the whole business of flexible manufacturing. Now you've got carmakers trying to learn how to do it."

Except that you couldn't run any other business the way Keller and Trotter run theirs. "I read Trotter's book," says Robert Chase, a chef who has run kitchens in New York and San Francisco, "and I got to the part about sending out busboys with Scotch tape on their shoes to pick lint off the carpet, and I said, 'Well, if that's what it takes, I guess I'm never going to run a three-star restaurant.' " Trotter's relentless quest for perfection has led him to plan a $1.5 million renovation next year that will double the size of his kitchen--but which cannot possibly ever pay for itself. "What kind of mad person is going to do this?" Trotter asks, and then answers: "It's about running against the tide of mediocrity."

Which is such an inspiring thought that I can barely stand the grimy door handle on the taxi I hail outside, the stained upholstery. Wouldn't it be wonderful, I think, if Charlie Trotter were my cabdriver? It would be. But, of course, I'm in Chicago on an expense account.