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Chi Lives: chef Ted Cizma's wild tastes

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Ted Cizma radiates calm. Never mind that carpenters are badgering him to decide how many holes to drill into the bar and maitre d' station. Or that his understandably flustered designer almost took delivery of the wrong truckload of banquettes (they were for Blue Point, the restaurant next door). Or that the kitchen staff must devise a way to trim racks of rabbit and venison while keeping them clear of the sawdust flying everywhere (aluminum foil does the trick).

Cizma is trying to get his restaurant, Grace, which was raw space a week ago, ready to open within six days. One of the reasons he's calm, says the onetime U.S. marine and steel-business middle manager, is that he's now doing exactly what he wants. "I'm not too worried," he says with a smile. "I know everything's coming, and we'll open on time."

Grace is the first restaurant Cizma has shaped from scratch. He built a strong following as executive chef at the Outpost in Wrigleyville, which managed to mix the informal welcome of a neighborhood restaurant with haughty fusion cuisine. There he was known for his penchant for exotic meats--he dished up medallions of wild boar, lion-tail osso buco, and zebra chops, which he says look like something the Flintstones might have eaten.

A Cizma menu always grants pride of place to meat. Red meat. He attributes his carnivorous leanings to having grown up on a "family compound" in the rural southwestern suburb of Burr Ridge. His maternal grandfather had filled an old farm lot with houses for his children, and Cizma's mother had been given one of them. Food came into Cizma's consciousness through his grandfather, who was first a butcher, then the owner of a small chain of grocery stores. The dinner that came out of the communal kitchen every night was almost always grandpa's show, and red meat was the centerpiece. "We had chicken maybe once a year," Cizma remembers, "and then my grandfather would ask when we were going to have 'real meat.'"

Cizma's chef skills took shape in the family kitchen. On a dare, he once beat the instructor of one of the few chefs' classes he took in a race to see who could tie a prime rib faster. He still uses the 100-year-old Swedish knives his grandfather used in his butcher shop.

Cizma tried college briefly, then the marines. Eighteen months after he enlisted, he was discharged because of a bad back. Then he went to a steel company, starting out as a clerk and working his way up to plant manager. He was put in charge of a factory in Texas, where his first duty was to steer its downsizing effort. He did, then got downsized himself. "That's when I decided to be a chef," he says. "I always loved being around food, and that's what I wanted to do."

At 29, Cizma thought he was too old to last through a full-blown cooking-school program. Instead he took a few scattered classes and talked his way into a job without pay at the Winnetka Grill, one of the North Shore's most lauded restaurants. That was followed by stints at Daniel J's and Zealous before he took over the kitchen at the Outpost.

Cizma stayed at the Outpost long enough to develop his distinctive cuisine--and his personal style. First came the long hair, then the pirate earrings that pit his earlobes against gravity, then the tattoos. "I always wanted to get tattooed," he says, pulling up his sleeve. He's a former weight lifter, and his upper arms make a large canvas. He sketched the design himself and had a pro do the needlework.

Above each elbow are spread his favorite foods, beginning with parsley leaves, basil, and rosemary, all rendered in twilight blue. "Here's a picture of the food chain," he says, pointing to a panorama that begins with a worm being swallowed by a fish, which is then eaten by a shark that's about to get snared by a giant octopus. Above them honeybees mingle with wheat, grapes, and a red sun. And at the very top, so high on his shoulder that he has to yank his sleeve up almost to his neck, is a small portrait of him, knives in hand, face threatening, about to devour the world below. A butcher's grandson has no doubt about where he fits in the food chain.

At the Outpost, Cizma built up a full staff of assistant chefs, many of whom have followed him to Grace. "I left the Outpost in good shape and on good terms," he says, "but I'm sure they're probably upset that so much of the staff came to work with me."

The decor in the new space is simple: brick walls and wood-plank floors. The tables sit well apart from one another to keep the noise down--Cizma wants his guests to be able to hear one another. Despite his background, half of the inaugural entrees will feature fish. There's "grilled wild striped bass filet with forest mushrooms and roasted fingerling potatoes" and "wild caught Alaskan salmon with pecan smoked fennel and fresh hearts of palm." But of course there's still meat, including venison, wild boar, and bison.

Grace will open Tuesday, May 18, at 623 W. Randolph. Hours are 5 to 10 PM Tuesday through Thursday, 5 to midnight Friday and Saturday, and 5 to 9 PM Sunday; 312-928-9200. --Ted C. Fishman

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/J.B. Spector.

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