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A Conversation with Chef Ted

Rick Coates - January 4th, 2010
A Conversation with Chef Ted
By Rick Coates
Executive Chef Ted Cizma epitomizes the modern day chef—“this is not a
job, it is a lifestyle”—seven day work weeks, 15 hour days and
believing that being a great chef is more than just about the food, it
is about creating a “memorable experience.”
He took time from his busy schedule to answer a few questions.

Northern Express: What inspired you to become a Chef?
Chef Ted: Not only were my father and grandfather butchers, they often
cooked meals at our large family gatherings. They were the two coolest
guys I knew and seeing two strong men in the kitchen and passionate
about food was an inspiration for me.
They also believed in the importance of education, so I was encouraged
at a young age to excel academically and go off to college. While I
did that I found that when I was in college becoming an attorney
didn’t appeal to me as much as I originally thought. After college I
went back to the kitchen because when I started working in kitchens in
junior high I loved the camaraderie of my fellow workers. I was also
attracted to that immediate response you get from the guest; I loved
the ability to make people happy by preparing food for them. I also
love the fact that this is a business that gives you an opportunity to
express yourself creatively.

NE: Why Traverse City? After all, you were in the restaurant capital
of the Midwest and one of the top dining destinations in the world.
Chef Ted: To use the old adage “been there done that.” I had already
met a lot of my personal and professional goals and I was looking for
a move. What I mean by that is I wanted something different from both
a lifestyle and a work perspective.  I wanted to live in the woods or
at least in a smaller community.
I thought I would end up in Columbus or a community like that, so
Traverse City was not on my radar and I ended up here by accident. I
was struck by the community on my very first visit -- the beauty, and
it was a spectacular fall day.
The other appeal was what the Resort was looking for and giving me
total autonomy to create a brand new dining experience with Aerie
(atop the Resort) was what helped to seal the deal. What I quickly
found out is that living and working in Northern Michigan I have a
quality of life that other chefs in places like Chicago only dream of.
But it doesn’t matter if you are in Traverse City, Chicago, San
Francisco or Paris -- you are only as good as your last meal.

NE: One of the first challenges new chefs to a region are faced with
is staffing. With 60 employees did you experience this?
Chef Ted: Yes. What I have learned after three years of being here,
the labor pool is still the same. It has a lot to do with the
seasonality of this region. The fact that population-wise we are the
size of a small suburb in Chicago, so the labor pool is much smaller.
The challenge is the employee who sees this just as a job; the passion
is not there -- this is just a paycheck. So much of my work is
reinforcing, reinforcing and reinforcing my principles and
philosophies -- not just every so often, but every day.
I try to lead by example. There certainly was an adjustment for
anyone working for me because you must get on my program, and my
program starts with ‘good just is not good enough’. Business as usual
is no longer acceptable in this business.
NE: You replaced a popular chef in Richie Beitner (now in Colorado)
who had been around the Resort for several years, was well liked and
won several area chef competitions. Was the transition tough for you
at first?
Chef Ted: I did not know Richie but from everything I have heard from
my assistant to others here that he is a great chef and did a lot of
wonderful things in his time here. In many ways I had advantages by
being the new guy versus Richie, who worked his way up the ladder to
the top spot here at the Resort.
What I mean by that is one minute when you are just one of the guys on
the line you are buddies with your fellow workers, and then the next
minute you are their boss. That is a tough position to be in
sometimes. So coming from the outside I had no preconceived notions of
the staff or the operation. I was part of the new ownership and the
new look that was taking place at the time. I feel the transition was
very smooth.

NE: What do you consider your biggest challenge to be?
Chef Ted: In the hotel business you have to be all things to all
people. That makes writing a menu challenging because we get people
from all over the world who have differing expectations from the
dining-out experience when they are traveling. We also get the couple
that this might be their big night out for an anniversary or birthday
and they typically do not dine at fine dining establishments.
So it is pretty challenging writing a menu that is sophisticated but
not intimidating. My focus is creating a menu that is approachable and
focuses on local offerings and adds to the overall experience. We are
in the hospitality business and at the end of the day for the guest it
is about their overall experience. It is about walking out having that
warm fuzzy feeling because every aspect from the food to the service
was perfect.

NE: Describe a typical day.
Chef Ted (chuckles): Is there such a thing in this business? I am up
at 5 a.m., have a cup of coffee, go for a run, shower, help get the
kids to school, arrive to my office by 7 a.m., turn on the computer,
check phone and e-mail messages, head to Sweetwater (restaurant) to
see how breakfast is going and assist if needed if there is a rush.
By 8 a.m. I am back in my office to review the schedule for the day
with my assistant, answer e-mails, messages, work on menus for
upcoming events. At 9:05 I embark on my world tour of the property
stopping in at all culinary operations within the Resort to answer
questions, take comments, suggestions and even criticisms from my
From 9:30 to 11 a.m. I attend a series of meetings with other
department heads to discuss upcoming business to make sure we are all
on the same page. I return to my department share info with my team.
Depending on the day I may find myself from 11:30 to 1 p.m. assisting
with lunch or banquet preparation or even conducting interviews with
prospective staff.
Much of my afternoon may be spent visiting the different departments
from the bake shop to the commissary and butcher shop assisting in
production, answering questions, meeting with vendors.
By 5 p.m. I return to my office, close the door, and dive into the
paperwork aspect of the business, menus, recipes, costing, the e-mails
and messages of the day. Typically, we have conferences with banquets
so by 6 p.m. I am often assisting where needed there and by 7 p.m. I
head to Aerie where I work as the expeditor (standing across from the
lead cook barking out the tickets as they come across the kitchen
printer) and answer questions from the servers about where different
food items are from.
By 9:30 I head to my office, turn off my computer and lights and head
home to get some sleep. But in this business, not every day is

NE: What besides the obvious of consistency, quality and great service
do you emphasize to your team?
Chef Ted: Teamwork. I know a lot of places talk a big game but do they
walk the walk? It is an essential ingredient to a successful kitchen.
There are a lot of jobs that if you do not show up the work waits on
your desk until you return. That is not the case in this business; the
show must go on. So if we are having a large banquet with 1,000 guests
and you decide not to show up for your scheduled shift, someone has to
not only do their job but your job. The lack of teamwork is a morale
killer in the kitchen, so it is something I emphasize and remind my
staff daily.

NE:  We are starting not only a new year but a new decade. What do you
see as the trends for the future?
Chef Ted: Most times what the general public interprets as a dining
trend is more likely just a case of any number of smart (or not) chefs
and restaurateurs  implementing the same concepts simultaneously,
almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
As for myself, I have always endeavored to not try and “guess” what
the dining public will embrace, but rather to cook things that I
like—would I order this if I saw it on a menu?—because chances are
that others feel the same as me.
I also think that preparing food in this fashion lends it credibility
and integrity. My father and grandfather taught me to respect and
appreciate the food that we cook and eat, and this remains my core
One “trend” that I feel will continue to gain traction is, of course,
buying local. As people become more aware of the significance of
sourcing local and the financial and environmental ramifications of
doing so, you will see more and more operations that had previously
not considered buying local a priority, make it one. I think that
because of this region’s unique demographic mix, restaurants that
embrace straightforward, well-prepared food with style will be
successful no matter what the trend in NYC or LA is.

NE: Speaking of other restaurants, where do you like to dine in
Northern Michigan?
Chef Ted: I enjoy lunch at the Wellington Street Market, I am a big
fan of what they are doing at Bowers Harbor Inn/Jolly Pumpkin. For
family birthdays we love the Blue Tractor. For dining out without the
kids my wife and I love Stella. The rustic approach that Chef Myles
takes with the menu to the wonderful wine list Amanda Danielson has
assembled. I am also a big fan of what they have done at Siren Hall in
Elk Rapids. We are very fortunate to have a lot of great restaurants
and I am pleased to be a part of a chef community that has so many
inspired individuals committed to creating an excellent culinary scene
here in Northern Michigan.

Getting to know Chef Ted Cizma:

Executive Chef · Grand Traverse Resort and Spa · Acme, MI · Since 2007
Employees: 60+ (depends on the season)
Volume: 100,000+ plus served in 2009
Age: 46

Experience: 34 years (started in grandfather’s butcher shop at age 12)
Shedd Aquarium, Chicago, Executive Chef
Custom Cuisine, Chicago, Chef/Owner
Elaine, Naperville, Executive Chef/Co-Owner
Grace, Chicago, Executive Chef/Co-Owner
The Outpost, Chicago, Executive Chef
Zealous, Elmhurst, Line Cook
Daniel J’s, Chicago, Sous Chef
Winnetka Grill, Winnetka, Line Cook

Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science, Loyola University, Chicago

Certificate from the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago

Culinary Foundations Certified Trainer with the Culinary Institute of America

Awards & Affiliations:
2009 Chef Magazine Chef of the Year Finalist (one of five)
2000 Food and Wine Magazine Best New Chef in America
Chicago Tribune “Three-Star” for eight straight years
Chicago Magazine “Best New Restaurant”  winner three times, 1997, 2000, 2002
Honorary Chef Michigan Land Use Institute “Cooking with Kids” program
Slow Food
· Numerous charitable organizations in the region

Married to wife Erica, five children ages 10 months to 17 years. Lives
in the woods of Williamsburg. Exercises, runs marathons, lifts
weights, races motorcycles, and spends time with his family when not

“This business of food and hospitality lends itself to the trappings
of late night partying, drugs and alcohol (bars are the only place
open when you get out of work). I find myself much more efficient
bypassing the trappings and focusing instead on staying fit physically
and mentally by exercising and getting a good night sleep. My days at
work are more enjoyable and productive coming in without a hangover.”

  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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