On one hand, Ted Cizma sees himself as the chef of a small-town restaurant. "If you think about it, SpaceX is a small town," he says. On the other hand: "I get to go to work every day in a rocket factory! How cool is that?"
We're sitting on a mezzanine at SpaceX that overlooks the production floor where workers are indeed building rocket ships, as well as a large glassed-in room that any moviegoer would immediately recognize as Mission Control. There are the rows of desks and chairs facing a huge wall, upon which charts and maps and data are projected, along with a live-stream image of Falcon 9, SpaceX's rocket, waiting for launch. The mezzanine doubles as one of the two full-service restaurants at SpaceX, which Cizma oversees along with a number of smaller cafes and food trucks scattered throughout the campus.
SpaceX has employed Cizma since 2011 to feed workers at its Hawthorne facility. While most companies of this size have in-house food service operations, practically all of them engage outside vendors to set up and run those operations. Perhaps unsurprisingly, SpaceX's enigmatic leader, Elon Musk, did not want to do things the normal way and opted instead to hire a chef to design a food program in-house. Cizma has built the food program from scratch, hiring his own workers, building restaurants and kitchens in the facility, and finding his own vendors. "There was no road map. We made it up as we built it," he says.
The result is corporate cafeterias that focus on health, on local purveyors and local produce, and on a work culture about which Cizma feels immense pride. "In five years I've not had one employee leave voluntarily," he says. "They are all employees of SpaceX. That makes a difference. We are incredibly tight-knit."
Cizma has come on what he calls a "long, strange trip" to get to this point. Born in Chicago, both his father and his grandfather were butchers. But his parents wanted more for him, and he went to college to study political science. When he graduated, however, "Instead of law school I went to work for Charlie Trotter," he says.
After working with the famous chef, Cizma's career followed a standard, though charmed, trajectory. He opened one restaurant, and then another. Grace opened in Chicago in 1999 (no relation to the present Chicago restaurant of that name), and Cizma says it was "the right place at the right time — at the peak of the first restaurant boom." That year he received glowing reviews and features in magazines and newspapers and was named one of Food & Wine's Best New Chefs in America.
After opening a third restaurant, in 2003 Cizma was given the opportunity to sell all his businesses and real estate in one deal. He recalls discussing the matter with his wife when his 11-year-old daughter (one of three children at the time; he now has five) walked in. "Is she wearing your shirt?" he asked his wife in disbelief. "Is she wearing a bra?" He realized that the life of a working restaurant chef was robbing him of his life as a father.
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"As a chef, things are going to work out one of three ways," Cizma says. "You stay in restaurants and end up burnt out and divorced and hooked on drugs or alcohol. Or you take a corporate job and get some stability. Or you become Emeril [Lagasse]; a consultant, a media figure."
Cizma went the middle route, working for Sodexo for a while, then in hotels. He was running a resort in Sedona, Arizona, when he got a call from a headhunter looking to hire a chef for a company in Los Angeles. He was well into the interview process before they would even divulge the name of the potential employer.
Working for Musk has not always been easy, partly because of his penchant for building brand-new systems rather than following an old model. "There were times early on when I questioned his directives," Cizma says. "But he was right every single time." He declines to elaborate on those conflicts, saying, "I have come to the conclusion that Elon's mind works at a level different to anyone else's. He's the smartest person I've ever encountered."
So is Cizma involved in discussions of how to achieve some of Musk's grander plans, from a food perspective? He doesn't want to talk about that either. But after a pause, he says: "You can say that down the road I do hope to be providing food in space, or on Mars."