For 25 years, Reginald Watkins was the backbone of one of the most famous kitchens in the world, the acclaimed Charlie Trotter’s in Lincoln Park. While a stunning roster of chefs passed through the restaurant throughout the years, Watkins remained a constant, working as the primary sous chef — and kitchen confidante for owner Charlie Trotter — until he left the restaurant in 2011, a year before it closed for good.
On Monday night, Watkins died at age 64, of unknown causes during a visit to the emergency room in his home city of Chicago, after having spent the last several years working and living in Louisiana.
Following news of his death, many former co-workers from Trotter’s and beyond shared heartfelt memories and regards on social media about “Chef Reggie,” a man they remembered as being tough but gentle — and a necessary guide to help young chefs survive what was a notoriously demanding kitchen environment.
“He was a legend in his own right,” said his daughter, Lerita Watkins.
“He was a real icon at that restaurant,” echoed chef David LeFevre, who worked two stints at Trotter’s kitchen between 1995 and 2004.
The Los Angleles-based LeFevre was among a long list of former co-workers who shared tributes to Watkins earlier this week, along with Grant Achatz, Bill Kim, Giuseppe Tentori, Sari Zernich-Worsham and plenty more.
“My dad was in love with cooking, working, being amongst his peers who also shared his love with being a chef,” Lerita Watkins said. “He kept in touch with so many of those people that he trained. He did.”
Born and raised near 35th Street and King Drive, Reggie Watkins was raised by his mother and grandmother and lived in the city for almost his entire life. In 1987, he responded to a newspaper classified ad seeking kitchen help, which led to his meeting Charlie Trotter, who was looking to open a restaurant. The ad had published for the first time on that date, Trotter’s son Dylan said, and Watkins was the first person to respond.
“When he first met my dad, he was just going to lie and be like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ve cooked before,’” Dylan Trotter said Watkins recently shared with him. “But then when he saw my dad and saw his face, he was like, ‘I knew I couldn’t lie to this guy. I had to tell him the truth.’ They just had the connection right off the bat.”
The rest is actual history. Watkins was famously hired as the first-ever employee at Trotter’s, running the kitchen from its first day until his last day in 2011. He and Charlie Trotter grew to be close friends, almost like brothers: “We always envisioned those two getting old together,” LeFevre said. (The restaurant closed in 2012, and Trotter died the next year.)
Watkins worked his way up through the responsibilities of the kitchen, beginning with washing dishes and diligently learning task after task until eventually reaching his permanent position as sous chef. Dylan Trotter called him the “backbone” of the kitchen. Both Lerita Watkins and Dylan Trotter remember Reggie Watkins as a hard worker and said that drive was part of what bonded their fathers so closely.
“He was adamant about being professional,” Lerita Watkins said, then repeated one of her father’s favorite sayings: “Always handle business.”
Friends and former co-workers remember Reggie Watkins being like a father or an older brother, albeit one who had exacting standards. Given his trajectory in the kitchen, he emphasized the importance of even maligned responsibilities, like breaking down boxes or a “sweep and a mop.”
“The first instant you get in the kitchen, Reggie was testing you on how to sweep and mop the floor,” said Tentori, who started at Trotter’s in 1998, and is now chef/owner of GT Fish & Oyster and GT Prime Steakhouse in Chicago. “Not too many people these days — a lot of cooks don’t know how to sweep and mop the floor like that.”
Watkins came to occupy a unique position. He was Trotter’s close friend and right-hand man, helping him keep tabs on the kitchen and also traveling around the world. But, despite his closeness with the boss, Watkins was able to remain “one of the guys and girls” among the kitchen staff, said LeFevre.
“He was kind of a ‘scoundrel,’ he used to say,” LeFevre said. “He’d stay on Charlie’s good side, but he’d also be one of us, and he’d really support us.
“The environment at that restaurant was very, very tough,” he said. “He had to balance getting the things done that chef wanted to get done, with knowing that everyone was working their hardest, trying their best.”
Watkins often provided a necessary levity in an intense environment, chefs agreed, including his many “Reggie-isms,” sayings he would invoke all the time throughout the years: “Oatmeal beats no meal,” “there’s no romance without finance” and “my Charlie Trotter dollars” — the last one from when he’d beat Trotter in boxing-match wagers.
They remember his contagious laugh — a deep, slow “ha ha ha” — that would often follow his own jokes. Everyone who stuck around the kitchen would get a nickname from Watkins. Tentori was “Papa Joe”; LeFevre was “Baby D”; Zernich-Worsham was dubbed “Mama.” From his standards to his smile, Watkins became a defining influence for the chefs who came through Trotter’s kitchen.
“He was someone that you would look to for guidance,” said Zernich-Worsham, co-owner of mfk and the now-closed Bar Biscay. “He would usher you along. He saved all of our butts many a time and many a service.”
She added: “Chefs from all around the world would come into that kitchen as guest chefs, and aside from chef Trotter, the one person that all of those people remembered was chef Reggie.”
Outside of the kitchen, Watkins remained friends with many of his former co-workers, and he was also a passionate family man, said Lerita Watkins. When she chose to attend college in Rhode Island, “I never felt alone,” despite the distance between them, as well as Reggie’s travels for work.
“He would always call me two or three times a week,” she said. “Even on the day he passed, we talked twice that day.”
Her father “poured into” Lerita Watkins the same verve that his friends from Trotter’s remember. Reggie was a lover of history and regularly took her to museums in Chicago as a way to show her the world outside of the city.
“He made sure I knew my history both as a little Black girl, and also as a Chicagoan,” she said.
Earlier this year, Lerita Watkins earned her doctorate in education from Chicago’s National Louis University. Of course, Reggie attended the graduation ceremony via Zoom — and proudly reminded her to include the “Dr.” prefix going forward. After all, he said, she had earned it.
Of all the big names who had ever cooked in the Charlie Trotter’s kitchen, only one of them has a custom bobblehead made for them: Reginald Watkins. The cherished memento — which LeFevre, Tentori and Zernich-Worsham all still have — was the signature gift-bag item at the blowout 20th-anniversary celebration for the restaurant more than 13 years ago.
The Tribune wrote at the time: “The official Reggie Watkins bobblehead doll inscribed with the sous-chef’s signature phrase: ‘Chef, cut it out.’ Watkins is touched and offers an emotional speech that ends with yet another joke and a toast to ‘another 20 years.’”
Neither Watkins nor Trotter would make it another 20 years, but as Lerita Watkins said, “I always say, ‘God needs his angels back.’ God needed my dad back, and God needed Charlie back, maybe to cook a little food.”
In addition to his daughter, Watkins is survived by his sister, Gerri Holliday, and brothers Christopher Watkins and Paris Watkins.
A private viewing for Reggie Watkins will be held at Leak and Sons Funeral Home from 2-4 p.m. Saturday. A GoFundMe page has been set up to assist with memorial expenses. Flowers are welcome, but in lieu of flowers, family and friends can send donations. 100 percent of remaining funds will be donated to the Chicago Food Depository in his name.
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