Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Culinary Artists Week #3: Cutting-Edge Chef

Ted Cizma (Photo for the Sun-Times by Richard A. Chapman)

     This ran on a Sunday, and the reason that is important is the Sunday editor was a solid man named Michael Arnold. I happened to be sitting in his office when the subject of this story phoned, in a lather because I had accurately quoted him answering my question about why he got divorced. Mike earned my eternal admiration by his reply, which was along the lines of, "Here's a thought Ted. Next time you are being profiled by a reporter, and there is something you don't want to be quoted saying in the newspaper, DON'T SAY IT!" 
     There's still a Grace restaurant in the West Loop, but it's not the one Cizma opened: that's closed. In 2016, he was the executive chef of Space X, but that's about all I can find.

     Ted Cizma's love of cooking is etched on his body.
     A stockpot, ladle, frying pan and cleaver tattooed on a tableau running up one arm; chili peppers, beef cattle and a fish being sliced for sushi on the other. An entire food chain, with Cizma himself, knife and fork in hand, at the top.
     "The more comfortable I get with myself," he says, sitting in the cool, high-ceilinged dining room of his hot new Randolph Street restaurant, Grace, "the more I want to express my personal style."
     Cizma must be feeling very comfortable with himself of late. Food & Wine magazine has just named him among "America's Ten Best New Chefs"—one of only two chefs not on the East or West coast to be honored. A second restaurant is in the works, as is a cookbook, and the other trappings of culinary fame —TV shows, signature kitchen apparel—perhaps are not far behind.
     While Food & Wine might consider Cizma "new," the 37-year-old native Chicagoan is no newcomer to the local scene. He cut his teeth at cult favorite Daniel J.'s, then went to Zealous in Elmhurst and was five years at Lake View's the Outpost, before starting Grace last year.
     His grandfather was a butcher, and there is a certain meatiness to Grace's menu. Featured are lamb chops and ribeye, and there is a focus on game: venison loin stuffed with wild blackberries, plum glazed antelope tenderloin, grilled rabbit salad.
     The wine list is first rate, studded with hard-to-find vintages from coveted vineyards—with several bottles topping at $ 700 apiece—acquired by Cizma's careful personal lobbying of the top vintners in California.
     "It's pretty straightforward American," he says. "I tend to utilize almost exclusively domestic products -- small artisanal and boutique producers, a few local farmers who plant specific crops for me. Simple food, aggressively flavored. People seem to like it."
     "He cooks as well as anyone," says Paul Wildermuth, chef and owner of nearby Red Light. "He cooks as well as (Charlie) Trotter. He cooks as well as Paul Kahan from Blackbird—as well as anyone I've ever worked with. He's just as good or better."
     Not everyone is enamored of Cizma's cuisine; when the restaurant opened, it was suggested that he heaps on the flavors and textures, a charge he denies.
     "I truly believe my food was never contrived," he says. Yet, as time passes, he does find himself getting back to the unadorned flavors of his materials.
     "I realized that simpler is better," he says. "I think it's a sign of maturity."
     Maturity has its downsides. As his restaurant has grown in popularity, he has found success sometimes standing between himself and his kitchen.
     "The more successful you get, the less time you have left to do what made you successful in the first place," he says. "I find that lately I rarely have time to actually cook."
     Or to play. "I did have hobbies," he says, noting how pastimes such as golf and bicycling have fallen by the wayside.
     As has his marriage, a victim of his passion for food.
     "Absolutely," he says. "It was the mind-set. I was so focused." His wife didn't share his passion. He was fascinated by restaurants and recipes, while "all she wanted to do was fill her stomach."
     "She would boil a chicken breast and eat it plain between two pieces of bread," he says, explaining the separation that left him with custody of their two girls, Grace—the restaurant's namesake—who is 5, and her older sister, Elaine, 7, who will get her own moniker on a restaurant next year when Cizma's second eatery opens in Naperville.
     "My kids have an idyllic life. They are surrounded by people who love them. They come in here and are treated like rock stars," he says, adding that the life of a chef often makes parenting easier.
     "It certainly is a challenge, but I think I do a pretty good job," he says. "It's not that hard if you're willing to make the effort. It helps that my schedule is so flexible. I get to have virtually every meal with my kids."
     This despite a routine that—as with all restaurants—is filled with crisis. "Every day brings some form of disaster," Cizma says. "The basement flooded three times. The power went out twice, once at 6:30 on a Friday night. There were 90 people in the dining room when the lights and the air went off."
     Despite the occasional crisis, Grace is usually filled at dinner and is so successful that Cizma has a philosophy of whom he doesn't want to eat there.
     "I want to populate it entirely with people who 'get' it," he says. "I do not want to be all things to all people."
     Recognition such as the Food & Wine plaudit often means a gig in a top New York restaurant. But Cizma, who grew up in Burr Ridge, says he is staying put.
     "I'm a Chicago guy, born and raised," he says. "I'm dedicated to Chicago. It's a great restaurant town and only getting better."
     That said, the attention that has already risen to a furious boil is a little daunting to the former Marine.
     "I'm a little dazzled by all this," he admits. "I've always considered myself a regular guy without affectations or delusions of grandeur."
     So what is this regular guy's recipe for success?
     "Pay attention to quality at every step," he says. "Pay attention to the details."

          —Published in the Chicago Sun-Times, July 2, 2000


  1. Well, 21 years later he looks a lot different, according to his LinkedIn profile. But who doesn’t? Still at SpaceX, if you can believe his profile, and on the board of Food System 6 Accelerator, whatever that may be. It appears Grace was open for only 2 1/2 years, but he’s worked at some interesting places since.

  2. Looks like he lost about 75 pounds, got remarried, had more kids, got into real bike riding (not motorcycle) and sounds like he's doing great charity work in addition to working at SpaceX to feed all those engineers who work 20 hours a day.

  3. Had the opportunity to frequent Elaine restaurant in Naperville. Memorable dishes and wine pairings. Still crave it twenty years later and cherish the experiences.


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