The ‘Yes’ of Sue Z.

For decades, Sue Zelickson has made things happen in the Twin Cities culinary scene, with a seemingly boundless supply of energy—but where does that drive come from?
Sue Zelickson

Photo by Nate Ryan

Some people carry an air of the fictional character. They are instantly recognizable. They bear trademarks. Sue Zelickson, known as Sue Z., is one such person—although you may not even see her at first, instead noticing the clump of people knotted around her. They stand taller than Sue, who is 4’7”, and they chat amiably because, according to a few close to her, she rarely walks a direct route anywhere, stopping to talk with those who spot her, or whom she spots, which could be many.

Within her orbit of bright-eyed, fast-paced conversation, you clock the trademarks: a fashionably loose-fitting silhouette, likely in a muted, neutral, earthy, or wintry tone—browns, grays, blacks, whites—and splashed here and there with mod accessories, sometimes of toy-like vibrancy. Beneath the clean swoop of her formerly chestnut-brown and now ivory-white hair, she always wears circular spectacles. Overall, her presence feels like New York. But the intimidation misleads. Sue is sweet, if also feisty and opinionated, and there’s a mischievous, fun-loving sparkle at play. You want to know Sue not for her sense of “somebody” but because she probably wants to know you.

I have known Sue Z. for about five years, meeting her in my role as editor, since she has long written the magazine’s who’s-who-and-what’s-new-in-food column, which recently moved online. But Sue has worked the Twin Cities as a food journalist and philanthropist for more than four decades. She is not fictional, despite the catchy moniker—nice-sounding on the radio, good-looking on the boxes of cookies she created and sold for charity. Nor is she an archetype, even though it feels as if every city should have a Sue Z.: a power grid of a human being whose brain can connect the past zigs and future zags within some sphere of influence (in Sue’s case: the dining and hospitality scene), whose fluid networking can make things happen (in Sue’s case, too many to list easily: a restaurant-industry awards show; 10 cookbooks; Minnesota Monthly’s Food & Wine Experience; multiple food-related charitable organizations; countless fundraisers), and whose go-to compliment runs as dependably as a public resource (in Sue’s case: “fabulous”). 

But, of course, there is just one Sue Z.

And recently, the Twin Cities social fixture has found herself encircled by the laurels of local legacy. 

In 2015, the Minnesota Broadcasting Hall of Fame honored Sue for her work on KSTP-TV and WCCO-TV, not to mention her James Beard Award-winning turn at WCCO Radio. It had to be a secret when the Charlie Awards, which Sue co-founded in 2011 to show love to food-service players, named her the Lifetime Achievement Award recipient in 2019. And earlier this year, Taste of the Twin Cities, a food-centered charitable event, made Sue its inaugural hall-of-fame inductee. It furthers the myth making: From a pharmacist’s daughter who grew up near Minnehaha Creek in south Minneapolis, and who would take the streetcar from 50th Street all over the city, Sue has risen to “the first lady of all things culinary in the Twin Cities.” In September, she turns 88. And she is staying involved.

Because Sue is always involved. Inexorably, even. Of note: Her charitable organization for kids, Kids Cafe at Perspectives Family Center, is scaling up, adding more programs and building out the space in St. Louis Park. The nonprofit teaches cooking skills and serves nutritious meals to homeless and at-risk youth and families. It marked a full-circle moment last year when Donyelle Williams, a former beneficiary, took over as head chef and manager. “She loves the kids, and she remembers sitting in the same chairs that they are sitting in,” Sue tells me recently at her kitchen table, citing Williams’ trajectory as one of her proudest achievements. “My heart just bursts every time I see her.”

A few years ago, Sue also handed over the Charlie Awards to Foodservice News, although she stays on as a consultant. (The show is on pause as restaurants resettle.) The networking organization she started for women in the food business, Women Who Really Cook, has meanwhile resumed the “more touchy-feely” in-person meetings after a staid Zoom period. 

A spontaneous idea generator, Sue tells me about some other recent stirrings. Originally, she says she offered this stratagem to Mall of America when it opened in 1992: Give the new employees a metro tour, to entice the transplants to stay. She wants to run that idea past the new five-star Four Seasons Hotel Minneapolis. From ’90s commercial bastion to pandemic-era palace of swank—“the fires are still burning,” she says.

Sue Zelickson

Photo by Nate Ryan

Kitchen Table

Laurels are one thing, but I have an ulterior motive. Perhaps selfishly, I would like to understand Sue’s inner dynamism. And so, I have brought my voice recorder to a few of our conversations.

“I’ve never met anybody like her, [who] wants to do so much good,” says Nancy Monroe, who has worked with Sue on the Charlie Awards.

“Everywhere she goes, the mood is better, the people feel more hopeful,” says chef David Fhima, who has worked with Sue through Kids Cafe.

“She’s always on the go, always thinking of others,” says Molly Steinke, a longtime friend who has done public relations for the Charlie Awards.

There is a “mystery” to Sue. “I think people might think sometimes she’s unapproachable, but she’s not,” says Jerrod Sumner, Minnesota Monthly’s aesthetic editor and a friend of Sue’s over the past two decades. He says he has worked with a certain big-name media personality known for making people feel special and singled out. “And I’ve always thought, ‘Is it an act? Is it not an act?’ With Sue, it really is [real],” he says. “I mean, you can be in a swirling farmers market, and she makes you feel like the only one there that she’s talking to.”

Sumner and his husband visited Sue recently after a scary medical ordeal, and they stayed up until midnight, laughing and taking one another’s blood pressure around the kitchen table. A year before, Sue had hosted their wedding in her backyard. If you’re one of her people, Sumner says, “she will do anything for you.” 

I roll up to Sue’s house in Golden Valley on a summer afternoon. She actually designed this two-story more than 50 years ago with her husband, Al Zelickson, a dermatologist, who died last summer at the age of 91. Today, the sun feels close enough to burn holes through the jewel-toned flowers beside the driveway. The pond behind the house is a white-hot gleam.

Before long, I am in Sue’s kitchen—of an updated-rustic barn aesthetic, although she prefers modern vibes. Beside a bay window, family photos overcrowd a huge hutch. I decline her offer of lemonade, but I nonetheless sit down to a glass of it. 

For someone who makes such a strong impression, Sue does not appear to wear a social mask. “There’s not much behind the surface—it’s all laid out in front,” her son Barry Zelickson says. Seated in a packed audience at the Charlie Awards a few years ago, I watched Sue address some technical difficulty from the lectern with the nonchalance of a party host tapping the snack bowl for a refill.

She chuckles at the voice recorder I set on the table, beside a plate of cookies and a bowl of truffle-flavored Cheetos. “It fits in your pocket? Things do change.”

To scratch the surface, I ask Sue about her style. Today, she wears off-white linen. A knotted leather necklace, bright as Play-Doh, came from “a funky store in Florida.” Her nails are a signature taupe-ish color: rubble. But when I say “stylish,” she quirks an eyebrow and launches into a story about a good friend who worked for Ralph Lauren and once asked her, “Who’s your favorite designer?” to which she said, “I don’t buy all that fancy designer stuff—I just buy what I like, the colors and the style.” 

Sue tells me more about that friend, about his career, about where he lived. “He loved to go to restaurants. He was so fun.”

This is how many of my questions will go. Sue answers with a story, someone else appears in that story, and she gradually makes the story about that person.

To refocus, I investigate the centrality of food in Sue’s life. How did the world of restaurants become her life’s backdrop?

We will have to go back a ways. It may start with the small empire her family built, when her father worked late nights owning and operating several drugstores and soda fountains—the Zipps Liquors legacy we know today. Sue took (and lost) her first jobs here: “One day, I couldn’t figure out how much change to give a customer back for returning his empty soda pop bottles, and my father fired me.” Her mother, who studied music in college, was active in the University Women’s Club, and Sue recalls games of bridge and her mother’s long nails clacking on the piano keys.

The soda fountains, the social organizing, the parties, even the self-deprecating sense of humor—Sue Z. was starting to form, but her grandmother would help pull it all together.

Nurturer

For an image, Sue says to picture the diminutive matriarch of “Golden Girls,” Estelle Getty. Her maternal grandmother, a Russian immigrant whose father owned a general store in South Dakota, lent her excellent cooking skills to fundraisers around Minneapolis, Sue says. 

She calls back to this woman as if to consult an inherited blueprint. Once, Sue tried to emulate her grandmother’s cooking, with precision, by measuring out the piles of ingredients that fit within the offering-shaped divot of her grandmother’s joined palms. But the recipe didn’t turn out. “She was fabulous, and I wanted to learn from her,” Sue says, “but I could never be as good as her—and so that was where I maybe thought I couldn’t do it. So, I would do the cookbooks, and other things.”

She initially tried to follow her father into pharmacy. But, as she once put it, “chemistry was not in my brain.” She thought she might try modeling. “I love fashion and I just thought it was a glamorous life, which it is not, really.” But she was too short. She loves kids, so she became a teacher and taught kindergarten and grade school after studying at the University of Minnesota. “Once they got over second grade, they got smarter than me,” she chuckles. 

While her husband, Al, served as a captain in the Navy, they lived on a base in South Carolina, and she taught in a stuffy Quonset hut—“a tin can cut in half”—for a year. “It was terrible,” she laughs, adding that the kids made it bearable. “I’m surprised [Al and I] were still together.”

When they moved back to the Twin Cities, Sue picked up volunteer work with food-related nonprofits. “It’s sort of like a nurturing thing,” she says, of her desire to volunteer. “And I feel that most of my life connections have been through volunteering, joining groups, and reaching out to help other people.”

She attended national meetings for folks in the food industry, then got involved with the James Beard Association, judging cookbooks. While promoting that work on WCCO Radio, the right person (a friend of hers, of course) thought she had a good voice for broadcasting. He pushed for her to get a slot, and decades later, in 2005, Sue would earn a James Beard Award for a radio interview she conducted about Christmas culinary traditions in Paris.

In journalism, Sue carried on nurturing. “She is the anti-critic,” says Fhima, who is executive chef for the Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx, as well as Fhima’s restaurant in Minneapolis. Sue was one of the first people Fhima met when he moved to the Twin Cities from Los Angeles more than 25 years ago, he says. “She’s not there to tell you what you’re doing wrong. She’s there to support you, to help you. And she’s a powerful force that way. When she gives you advice, and when she makes a criticism, it comes from a place almost like your mother telling you what you should be doing better, or what you’re doing very well.” One piece of advice he says she gave him: Give Minnesotans what they want, not what makes you feel like an L.A. hotshot.

Sometime in the ’60s or ’70s, Sue recalls, she attended one of the annual meetings of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and learned about a group that visited schools to bake pies with kids. “The first one was … at a school in the slums of Chicago, and there was barbed wire around the school and guards in the school, and I had never seen that,” she says. She thought Minneapolis could use a similar concept. “So, I came back here and started [Kids Cafe] at the Boys and Girls Club.” Two of her loves—“the ‘kid’ thing and the ‘food’ thing”—merged.

In 1993, Sue also founded Women Who Really Cook, a power-in-numbers think tank for local women emerging in the food world that was “kind of ingenious,” Monroe says. “It’s a networking association where you can go and talk about your product and say, ‘I’m struggling to find a supplier,’ or ‘How do I go about getting this product shipped nationwide?’”

Among these “women who really cook,” Sue does not count herself. “You didn’t have them, I don’t think, when you were growing up—TV dinners?” She assures me her son Barry Zelickson’s new baking venture, a made-to-order sourdough business called BZ Baking, was not inspired by her kitchen skills. Barry, for the record, assures me he is carrying on her foodie spark.

But cooking, often a solitary pursuit, simply does not inspire Sue. She has been known to stash White Castle burgers (one of her favorite foods) in the freezer. Even her name-branded Lacey Sue Z. Cookie Mix, created with some help from a friend at General Mills and sold initially to benefit the Down Syndrome Association, rose out of a kitchen mistake: Something went astray, and the cookies turned out crispy and porous—just another Sue Z. signature.

Beyond the frozen dinners, though, her sons, Barry and Brian, remember trying escargot at home. Her grandson Arlo says Sue combatted his picky eating habits when he was younger, even getting him to try fried lamb testicles left over from local celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern’s show “Bizarre Foods.” “It’s a high-low with her,” Sumner says. “You just never know.”

In her house, you can find a small ceramic Dilly Bar—a treat of fabled Minnesota origins and a testament to the curbside moments she and Al used to spend eating ice cream together. This tchotchke feels charmed, a symbol of the centrality of food in Sue’s life. “I think, for her, it’s like, you eat food and you talk to people, and if those two are combined, then it doesn’t matter what you’re eating or who you’re talking to,” Arlo says.

Sue Zelickson

Photo by Nate Ryan

Nonstop

In Sue’s kitchen, I notice she almost disappears in a good conversational back-and-forth, as if in flow state. She seems to thrive mapping out the people in her life and the wheels in motion, chatting about her neighbor across the street (“I am drawn to people that are good people”), about Linda and Peter Quinn, of Cafe Latte and Bread & Chocolate (“They’ve just helped me in everything I’ve ever done”), or about Julia Child, whom she met through a TV segment many years ago. “She had never milked a cow ever in her life, and we let her milk a cow [by the agriculture campus in St. Paul],” Sue says. She has even thrown two parties to celebrate the “Joy of Cooking” chef’s birthday. “She was bigger than life, but you could talk to her like she was your best friend,” she says. This is how others have described Sue, as well.

When I ask her if anyone has suggested she spends time on others to the detriment of herself, I muddle my meaning. “No,” she responds curiously, with a laugh. “Unless they said it behind my back.” When I broached this subject before, Sue ended up telling an unrelated story about a friend who started a charitable apron business.

I rephrase: Do you feel like you’re always putting yourself second?

“OK, so, here’s an example of that,” she says, clearing the way for a story. This one starts with a friend who got involved with Kids Cafe, who moved to Chicago to work for a company that owned some Twin Cities restaurants, and who was called “light bulb” for all her good ideas. “So, anyway … she sent me a little buzzer that they sell at one of the stationery stores that says, ‘No.’ And you’re supposed to push it when people call, because she says I never say no to anything.”

Here is a critical piece of the Sue Z. equation: her notorious, seemingly infinite energy—and the vast, excited, twinkling “Yes” of Sue.

“She’s like the Grandma Energizer Bunny,” her grandson Zach Zelickson says. “There’s always something going on. We’ll make time to do a dinner with her, and then all of a sudden it’s 8 o’clock, and then she’s got her second dinner lined up with another group of fun people, and she invites us along.” Even in his 20s, he didn’t have the energy to keep going.

Sue says she has never needed much sleep—in her 30s and 40s, maybe three to four hours a night throughout the week before crashing. “Despite what my brother and I might tell her, she will go out and do things as often as she can,” Barry says with a laugh. She says her grandma didn’t need a lot of sleep, either.

Multiple times, people tell me, “You can’t say no to Sue.”

“I think she kind of assumes you’re going to do it,” Monroe explains. “And so, by the time the conversation is over, you are going to do it. It’s not any kind of coercion. It’s not twisting your arm. … Someone once told me, ‘How can you say no to her when she says yes to everybody?’”

Or, as Fhima puts it: “Have you ever said no to your mother?”

It’s a subtle power. The trick may lie in Sue’s alchemy of connection. “Sometimes you can’t be an island,” Sue says, “and you have to have partners and share the load.” For Sue, this could mean Kids Cafe partners with Goodness Cakes, which makes birthday cakes for kids (a recent idea she had). Or it could simply mean Sue has discovered Hairless Dog nonalcoholic beer and wants to spread the word (“…because so many people do have alcoholic problems, and it tastes good”). She quotes a Frank Sinatra song: “Little things mean a lot.” 

If there is a way to get on Sue’s bad side, it is this: Do not follow through on something you said you would do. “Following through and seeing the results of an idea that you have is so rewarding and exciting,” she says. Not all ideas pan out—“but at least you tried.” To that end, she tends to a log of correspondence, and I often receive emails from her at night. An old planner from her days of dating shows back-to-back bookings.

These days, Sue is not quite as “on.” She is finding her trademark energy harder to tap. “I don’t know how to explain it,” she says with a dry chuckle. “You try to keep up your lifestyle, but sometimes your body doesn’t want to.” She has survived breast cancer and has, in recent years, undergone heart surgeries at Mayo Clinic for a valve that closes up. “You never get your strength back—that’s the only thing. I just get tired.” Then, laughing: “But I’m very old, so I should realize that that’s part of the problem.”

She has “never had a fondness for old people” and now says she does not like herself. This is a joke, but also not. Sue is critical of her voice. When she started on the radio, she spoke so fast she had to learn to slow down. “I used to have a good voice, and [now] I sound like an old lady.” What I have taken as self-deprecation may actually strike closer to straightforward vulnerability. She tells me her loose-fitting style of dress ultimately comes down to a hip that’s out of place.

Does she really not like herself? “I guess I always like myself when I’m busy and doing something and creating something and helping somebody or doing something,” she says. “And it’s frustrating not to be able to do as much as I want to do.”

Last year, she underwent one of life’s great halting moments when her husband died. She resists the idea of either a walker or a caretaker, but her grandson Zach lives down the street. (He visits all the time, he figured, so why not live closer?) Al and Sue balanced each other, Brian says. She is inevitably among the last to leave a party, and Al, the reserved one, was comfortable hitting the road early, knowing she would find a ride home. “They managed their personalities and understood each other,” Brian says.

Sue overcame her insecurity about her voice last year, agreeing to do a podcast. And she has now done some of her own “legacy” work. Last year, she cleared out thousands of her cookbooks, donating them to the culinary school of St. Paul College. She says, characteristically, she wanted to give back. But she was also thinking ahead, with her mother in mind. Sue’s mom, who died of cancer in her 60s, had cleaned house, to not burden her family with the chore-like aspects of Jewish mourning traditions. Similarly, Sue didn’t want to leave her loved ones to sort through a massive library. It is a heavy subject. Letting go of those books, many acquired through her work in media, churned up a layer of grief, plus so many memories. “I’m not afraid of dying,” she has told me. She is “sort of but not overly” religious.

“I’ve had a great life, I really have. I’ve loved all the things I’ve done,” she says—and then, in the same breath—“and even now, I’m starting a couple other projects.” She’s interested in a movie, “The Starfish Throwers.” In it, a top-tier chef, a young girl, and a schoolteacher team up to feed the disadvantaged. The production team has local ties, and Sue says she ran into one of them at Trader Joe’s. “Let’s do a fundraiser!” she said, thinking of the Kids Cafe. This is just how she works—even the Charlie Awards began as a flicker across Sue’s mind. Leaving a different local awards show, she had shared the idea with those around her: Let’s do the same thing, only to celebrate culinary folks.

She offered me a few of her cookbooks, and here, too, is a trademark: Sue brings presents. It doesn’t make her a pushover, because she will not always actually give those presents—as when a mechanic was rude and didn’t deserve the box of Frango mints she had brought with her (a childhood favorite).

But before I leave, Sue wants to send me off with something. First, she agrees to show me the rest of the house—essentially a gallery loaded with colorful contemporary art that feels joyous, kitschy, funny, youthful, unpretentious, and smart, where a rainbow collection of squat, pod-shaped seating hugs the dining table, and where ceramic flowers glisten because Sue never remembers to water real ones—and she insists I take whatever I want from a basement collection of booze.

“I’m very bad at accepting gifts,” I say, after finally pulling a bottle of gin off the shelf.

“I want you to have a gift—I’ll give you a gift for all the work you’re doing,” she says gently. “Don’t be bad at that.”

As I put on my shoes, Sue is glowing. She is fired up about the new Dayton’s project in downtown Minneapolis. The state of downtown has left her downcast since the pandemic. She has ideas she would like to offer the Dayton’s people—actually, has offered them, she says, apparently to no avail. “That may be the problem,” she says, after laying out a diagnosis of the commercial complex’s heavily covered failure to thrive. “But, I mean, it’s just awful.” I’m standing by the front door, and she turns to me with the beginnings of a solution, something I can’t guess at, but whose potential I catch in her glint of anticipation: “Is the farmers market open downtown yet?” I’m sure she’ll know before I do.

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