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Grilled In a Minute: Stephanie Izard

Julie Mautner / April 15th, 2013

Stephanie Izard is the exec chef/partner of Chicago’s Girl & the Goat and Little Goat (a concept comprising Little Goat Diner, Little Goat Bread, and Little Goat Kitchen). She sprung onto the national stage by winning Bravo’s Top Chef Season 4 in 2008 and until this year was the only woman to have taken the “Top Chef” title.

Izard was born in the Chicago suburb of Evanston (1976) but grew up in Stamford, Connecticut, where her parents loved to throw themed dinner parties; she says that’s what got her hooked on food. She remembers a trip to Epcot at age 8 as “life-changing” and remembers she couldn’t wait to get home to re-create the crêpes she ate in the France pavilion.

She went on to earn a sociology degree from the University of Michigan before heading for the Cordon Bleu program at The Scottsdale Culinary Institute. In Arizona, she worked at Camelback Inn Resort & Spa and other local spots but decided to move to Chicago in 2001. She says she’s been wildly in love with the Windy City ever since.

In Chicago, Izard worked at La Tache, Spring, and Vong before opening her first restaurant, Scylla, in 2006. She closed it in 2008, just prior to being selected for Top Chef.

After Top Chef, Izard teamed up with Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz of the BOKA Restaurant Group, and the trio opened Girl & the Goat, in the West Loop neighborhood, in 2010. Time Out Chicago gave it four out of five stars; the Tribune gave it three out of four. Girl & the Goat was the subject of Saveur’s first-ever restaurant review, which called it “America’s best new restaurant.”

Girl & the Goat was nominated for the 2011 James Beard Best New Restaurant Award, right around the time Izard was named one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs. (“You could say that was a good year,” she quips.)

A James Beard nomination for “Best Chef: Great Lakes” came last year (2012) and again this year.

Izard opened Little Goat in December 2012. It’s her take on the American diner, with an adjacent bar, bread shop, and coffee shop. Next, she plans to “tackle chicken” with a locally sourced chicken chain, also in partnership with Boehm and Katz of BOKA.

Izard’s first book, Girl in the Kitchen came out in 2011 (Chronicle).

She lives in the West Loop and is engaged to be married to Gary Valentine this year.

What’s your earliest memorable culinary experience?
I have so many memories of food from my childhood it’s hard to say the earliest. But I remember spending Sundays with my mom and my sister, flipping through recipes and cookbooks to plan the week’s menu. We actually had a menu hanging on the fridge, with things like tempura, moo-shu pork, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, and that cheesy tuna bake from the Bisquick box on it. Our friends could look on the menu and decide what night they wanted to come over for dinner.

Little Goat is the third restaurant you’ve opened. What’s one thing you know now that you wish you’d known when you opened Scylla, your first?
I actually wouldn’t change a thing. Opening a restaurant at age 27, without a clue to what I was doing, was the best experience I could have had.

What’s the very best thing about your job?   The fact that I have what feels like a dozen jobs, with two restaurants and books and private dining and events and farm projects, etc. It makes every part of every day different.

And the very worst thing, the aspect you like the least?  Trying to find enough hours in the day for the dozen jobs.

What’s one thing that’s absolutely forbidden in your kitchen?
Angry screaming music. I just today made the dish guys change their iPod choice. 

In the kitchen—during prep—music or no music? And what about during service? And after service? If music, what music?   Music during prep is a must. It keeps the kitchen fun and motivated. During service, no music, as there are orders to remember and more things to focus on. But lucky for me when I’m in the expo kitchen, there’s music in the dining room to sing along with! Happy fun music that I know the words to, even if it is cheesy. 

What’s the one thing in your kitchen you couldn’t live without?  Salt

Three adjectives please to describe honestly the kind of boss you think you are.   Fun, fair, and pretty easy-going…unless you don’t admit it and try to fix when you mess something up.

Three adjectives please that your staff would use to describe you as a boss.   I just asked my pastry chef, Matthew, for his thoughts. He said fun and passionate, but he says he’s having trouble thinking of a word to describe “here all the time.” I voted for crazy.

What recent culinary discovery really intrigued you, and why?   I wouldn't say it’s a new discovery, but kimchi is all over our menus right now. We make vats of it in-house and use it in dishes from scallops to our Reuben sandwich.

Best recent meal in a restaurant not your own?   In Asheville, North Carolina, we ate at a place called The Admiral. Awesome dive bar with amazing food. Perfect! In Chicago, La Sirena Clandestina, which our chef friend John Manion opened recently. Cozy and intimate with great food and drinks.

Next restaurant you’re excited to try?   I think we’re going to Daniel on our next NYC trip. My fiancé and I like to get dressed up every once in a while and treat ourselves, and Daniel is one of my favorite chefs for both his food and his whimsy.

Where would/will your next foodie trip be, and why?  I think we’re going to Italy on our honeymoon! Hard to admit as a chef I haven’t been there.

What was the best day of your culinary career so far?   A few pop into my head. I think the day our review for Girl & the Goat came out in the Chicago Tribune. I was inside the Goat by myself reading it and in runs my partner, Kevin, who had been just outside reading it in the car. We screamed and hugged and I cried. After such a challenging opening, it was nice to read that people were getting what we were trying to do.

And the worst day?   Wow…lots of these too! I used to have a sauté pan hanging in the kitchen with a hole burnt clear through the bottom. I didn’t even know you could do that on the stove, but one day during the opening, while having a crazy day, I left it on the stove with wood chips to soak for a bit for smoking tomatoes. A couple hours later, there it was. I kept it as a reminder that no day could ever be quite as hard as that one!

Were you ever fired? Where and why?   Once. From a temp job answering phones at a glass company. Guess I was supposed to organize the filing system. Whoops.

If you could work with one chef, alive or dead, who would it be and why?  I sometimes wish I had worked for more chefs before jumping to open Scylla. But I’m not sure I can really pick just one. OK, maybe José Andrés…he's just funny.

What’s one thing your customers do that makes you nuts?   Eat finger food with a knife and fork. I actually watched a woman use a knife on olives.

Professional goal/fantasy not yet attained?  
Jedi Master. Or goat-shaped Cheez-Its. 

Career wise, what’s one thing you should have done differently? 
I don’t think I know yet. 

OK: Top Chef versus Iron Chef. Who would you most like to go up against in the kitchen stadium…and why?  
Well, I did lose to Michael Symon, so I'd vote for a rematch. Just because I hate losing.

Very best advice for a young chef who would like a career like yours? 
Go work for the chefs you most admire rather than just taking jobs for jobs. Take the time to learn as much as you can. 

If not this, then what? Meaning what would you be doing if not cooking and restauranting?  
For sure not sitting in an office. Just typing these answers is enough for me!

To learn more about Stephanie, visit stephanieizard.com or follow her on Twitter: @StephAndTheGoat.