Sue Zelickson is consulting her calendar. A large daybook — with a hot pink cover — allows the James Beard Award-winning food reporter and radio host to see a month at a glance.
And what a glance it is: Each day’s square is penned in from top to bottom, filled with meetings, meals, charity events, gala fundraisers and more.
Zelickson consults her autumn schedule, the “high season” for nonprofit events, and muses as she tries to find an open hour for an interview: “There are four fundraisers in a row during this week. And here, I’m supposed to be in two places at the same time. Hmmm.”
The 82-year-old dynamo doesn’t seem at all perturbed by her jam-packed schedule. It’s clear she loves to stay busy — and help others while she’s doing it — usually with a theme of food as the foundation for her work.
“Sue has tons of energy. She goes to more events every week than anyone I know,” said Scott Mayer, owner of MAYER, an event-production and sponsorship-marketing company. “I get emails from her at midnight: ‘Come down and meet me at the Dakota, I’m at a show’ — or ‘I’m leaving one event and heading to another.’”
Several years ago, Mayer ran into Zelickson and then-mayor R.T. Rybak as they were leaving the Ivey Awards, the annual celebration of local theater that Mayer produces.
“Sue said to me: ‘Why don’t we have anything like this to celebrate local food?’”
And then, in her trademark never-say-die fashion, she set about working with Mayer and his team to make the idea a reality.
The result was the hugely popular Charlie Awards — named after the legendary restaurant, Charlie’s Cafe Exceptionale, a culinary mainstay in downtown Minneapolis until the 1980s.
This month the awards are entering their sixth year — in a city fast becoming known for its world-class food scene. Today’s Charlie Awards festivities have gone beyond the one-night affair to include free happy-hour panel discussions for food industry folks.
“Sue was instrumental in the concepting and the execution of the Charlie Awards,” Mayer said. “She’s been in the business for so many years in such a variety of capacities, so she knows people all over the food scene. In the food and beverage business, nothing is more important than relationships, and she has a unique ability to create and maintain personal relationships.”
If there were a personality contest in the in the Twin Cities’ food community, Zelickson would definitely win the title of Miss Congeniality, said Molly Steinke, the media relations director at Nemer Fieger, the local agency that manages publicity for the Charlie Awards.
“Sue’s positive attitude is infectious, and her philanthropy is inspirational,” Steinke said. “She is just a joy to be around, and she’s one of my favorite people in the world.”
Zelickson, though short in stature, cuts a wide swath through the Twin Cities cultural life. She appears at many grand events and galas, but she’s also just as likely to be found having a cup of coffee with a local food purveyor who is seeking her wisdom, or attending a board meeting at one of the multiple charities she supports.
It isn’t just her diminutive frame that makes her distinctive, though: With her chic cropped hair, contemporary glasses and impeccably pulled-together wardrobe, she brings a bit of glamour with her wherever she goes.
“I’ve always loved art and design in all forms,” she said. “And certainly in fashion.”
Case in point: Fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi once caught a glimpse of Sue when both were dashing through the WCCO lobby and quickly veered off course to compliment her on her outfit.
Crafting her own cookie
Zelickson, who now lives in Golden Valley, grew up in South Minneapolis and attended Washburn High School. She found an early food mentor in her beloved grandmother, who lived on the Bryant Avenue streetcar line.
Zelickson would venture out to the farmers market for ingredients and then take the streetcar to her grandmother’s apartment to help her cook.
“She never used a measuring cup, and I’d try to take her handfuls and put them into measuring cups to figure out recipes,” Zelickson said. “But they never turned out quite the same.”
In fact, Zelickson’s recipe for her Lacey Sue Z cookies came from a recipe she came up with while baking some of her first chocolate chip cookies — without measuring (just like Grandma). They turned out flat — but delicious.
Today mixes for her signature cookies are now sold locally and online to raise money for the Kids Cafe at Perspective in St. Louis Park (more on that later).
Despite her sensational cookie recipe, Zelickson makes no claims of culinary greatness, insisting that appreciating and supporting all things food-related is her real talent.
The making of a local foodie
After beginning college studying Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Zelickson finished her studies at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.
Even then, she had an active social life.
“Things were different than they are today, and I dated a lot of different people,” she said. “I kept a ‘date book’ that said who I went out with, if we had doubled with another couple, where we went, that sort of thing.”
Her grandson, Arlo, was looking at the book recently and said, “Grandma, you had two dates in one night!”
Zelickson met her husband, Al, now a retired dermatologist, on a blind date in 10th grade. And they remained “buddies,” even while he was away in New York for his internship in medicine.
“He was sending me letters about all the New York debutantes he was dating, and I began to think I was missing something,” she said.
The couple recently celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary.
Zelickson’s entry into the food world happened through her charitable, editorial work. First, she edited a cookbook for the Guthrie Theater, then another for the YWCA and eventually edited — and promoted — 10 cookbooks for nonprofit organizations.
A breast cancer survivor, Zelickson has edited cookbooks for the American Cancer Society, including a variety of Minnesota Heritage cookbooks, which have raised more than $150,000 since 1979.
While she was promoting a cookbook on-air at WCCO Radio, Zelickson caught the attention of decision-makers at Rogers Cable, who asked her to do food reporting in the then brand-new world of cable television.
From there, she joined the WCCO family, both on television and radio, and was a long-time radio host.
Her show, Food for Thought, won a James Beard Award for Best Radio Show in 2005. Along with Greenspring Media’s then-publisher Steve Fox, Zelickson conceived and launched Minnesota Monthly’s Food & Wine Experience, which will celebrate its 23rd anniversary this March.
Today Zelickson continues to comment on the local food scene through her long-running column in Minnesota Monthly, Sue Z’s Finds. She’s also judged numerous food-related contests locally and nationally, including the Pillsbury Bake-Off contest, which offers a $1 million grand prize.
Zelickson’s commitment to helping the community has remained strong. In 1993, she founded Women Who Really Cook, a networking organization for women in the food and hospitality industry.
Its mission is to provide members with culinary information, resources and ongoing promotional opportunities to help them reach personal and professional goals.
In 2007, the group launched the Sue Zelickson Grant program, which has so far awarded more than $40,000 to female students pursuing education in the culinary or hospitality field.
“Her whole motivation in starting the organization was to give women in the food business the opportunity to network and support each other, something they were not able to do in the male-dominated world of food,” said LoAnn Mockler, the organization’s executive director. “Sue has mentored so many people in so many ways — inviting them to meetings, introducing them to people or helping them get a job. She is a great motivator, and her encouragement has led many women to become leaders in their field.”
Zelickson’s support of local women has been monetary, too, Mockler said.
“She buys their products, donates to their causes, promotes them to others and helps fund their Kickstarter campaigns,” Mockler said. “And when they are having a hard time, she is often there, offering a ride, to babysit, to work behind the scenes. Whatever they need, she offers it.”
More energetic with age
Zelickson continues to support many other organizations.
She’s involved in fund-raising activities for The Cookie Cart, a nonprofit in which teens gain work, life and leadership skills at a Minneapolis bakery. (A second branch of the program is in the works in St. Paul, too.)
Zelickson also launched Kids Cafes at the Boys & Girls Clubs in North and South Minneapolis — and at Perspectives Family Center in St. Louis Park — to teach young students how to cook and enjoy healthy foods at dinner five nights a week.
Jeannie Seeley-Smith, the organization’s president and CEO, said Zelickson has made an invaluable contribution to the organization.
“Her enthusiasm is so contagious,” she said. “She can gather more people around a cause than anyone I’ve ever known. I always say: ‘You can develop a whole committee, or you can get one Sue Zelickson, because she knows how to get things done.’ She’s such a dynamo, and her age has only made her wiser and more energetic.”
All this on four hours’ sleep
Zelickson attributes her whirlwind lifestyle to what she calls “an acute case of FOMO, or Fear Of Missing Out.”
She sleeps just a few hours a night, going to bed around midnight or 1 a.m., and rising every day at 5 a.m.
“You have to be active and take part in things. Otherwise, there’s no reason to get up,” Zelickson said. “If I’d offer advice to anyone, it’s to be aware of what’s going on in the world and take part in it. Don’t sit on the sidelines; go out there and make a difference.”
A mother of two grown sons, Brian and Barry, and mother-in-law to Lisa and Mary, Zelickson is close with her four grandchildren — Zach, Nicole, Eve and Arlo.
Eve Zelickson, 19, a sophomore at Brown University, said her grandmother’s busy schedule hasn’t made her any less present in her life.
“She has taught me the importance of following through and always keeping your word, because I’ve watched her do it so many times,” she said. “She is the Energizer bunny in human form, and despite how busy she is, she manages to stay in my life and has always been at every dance concert, mock-trial case or high-school dance.”
The younger Zelickson also notes a phenomenon that might be termed “The Zelickson Effect.”
“When I was younger, I would get frustrated when we were out together, because she would stop every 20 feet to talk to someone she knew. Later, I realized that’s part of the reason I love her so much. She treats everyone with so much respect and an open heart.”
Zelickson’s friend of 16 years, Carolyn Dunne, has also seen the effect in action.
“I’ve traveled with Sue many times, and it doesn’t matter where we are — New York, Chicago, Napa Valley, San Francisco — people will cross the street to see her and talk to her. Everyone she talks to feels like they’re her best friend.”
Julie Kendrick is a contributing writer for many local publications. She lives in Minneapolis and blogs at kendrickworks.blogspot.com.
This sixth-annual event, which is open to the public, salutes the stars of local food and beverage community. This year’s awards will also showcase area farmers and their contributions to the industry. A portion of the proceeds will go to Open Arms of Minnesota, the state’s largest distributor for hot meals for people facing life-challenging illnesses.
When: 3:30 p.m. Nov. 13 at Pantages Theatre, followed by a 5 p.m. after-party reception at IDS Center’s Crystal Court (a few blocks away) and an optional four-course Minnesota chef’s dinner with wine parings at 6:30 p.m. at WINDOWS on Minnesota on the 50th floor of the IDS Center
Where: Downtown Minneapolis
Cost: $35 ($150 with the optional chef’s dinner)