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Exclusive Interview With Top Chef Stephanie Izard

Exclusive Interview With Top Chef Stephanie Izard

Pursuitist - 5-Star Luxury

As one of America’s most outstanding female chefs, Stephanie Izard knows how to inspire, captivate, and cook up a storm. The first woman to win on TV’s “Top Chef,” she’s also the chef and owner of the acclaimed Girl & the Goat restaurant in Chicago specializing in nose-to-tail whole animal cooking.

After mastering her art at various Chicago restaurants for amazing chefs  — Jean-Georges Vongerichten at Vong; Sean McClain at Spring; and Dale Levitski at La Tache — she opened her first restaurant Scylla in Bucktown in 2004. Her James Beard-awarded Girl & the Goat restaurant opened in 2010 with the goal of serving a family style menu of tasty, bold flavored foods with global influence in a fun and lively setting.  Little Goat Diner opened nearby in 2012. Chronicle Books published Izard’s first cookbook, “The Girl in the Kitchen,” a collection of more than 100 of her best recipes plus insights into the top chef’s process. Izard is now preparing the launch of her next restaurant in the same Chicago neighborhood later this year, but first took time to chew the fat with Pursuitist for an exclusive interview.

What was the secret to your success as the first woman to win Bravo’s Top Chef? 

STEPHANIE IZARD: I don’t think there was any secret! I just tried to make good food, and the couple of times I was on the bottom I just accepted the criticism because I knew they were right. At this point, eight years later, I look back at the experience as something you can never fully describe to anyone who has not been on the show. It was fun. Intense. Scary. Hard. Tiring yet exhilarating. A rollercoaster of emotions. I was surrounded by talented chefs and now I have some great friends all around the country which has been the best part.

You also won a James Beard Foundation award for “Best New Chef: Great Lakes.” As a woman succeeding in the kitchen trenches, why do you think there so few James Beard award winners who can’t grow beards? 

The restaurant industry is gaining more female chefs all the time which is great! I honestly think part of it is balancing life and being a chef is hard for everyone, but as a woman it can be an even bigger challenge to balance family with career.  It certainly is not because of the lack of talent – there are amazing female chefs in the field!

You and Michelin-starred chef Domenique Crenn sure kicked some butt in a sold-out event at this year’s big Pebble Beach Food and Wine food festival! The other star chef presenters – Curtis Stone, Daniel Boulud, Masaharu Morimoto and Jose Garces — really took notice.

Pebble Beach Food and Wine was such a blast. We had lots of events and demos — the weekend flew by. It was so fun to try new dishes and to see what other chefs were serving. We made our masa recipe used for chips at Little Goat Diner, but for the welcome reception we served it as a goat mole tostada. We paired these Cubano sandwiches paired with Hoegarden for a lunch with Stella Artois. I demoed our pan-seared halibut with marcona almond butter and nuoc cham. We used blueberries for the dish, but this recipe works year round!

Goat isn’t a meat on most menus or most American’s taste buds. What are we missing, and how did you come to love cooking goat for your restaurants including Girl & The Goat?

Goat is the most widely eaten meat in the world, but for some reason it’s hard to find on menus in the US, though I think its popularity is increasing. To be honest, a lot of goat meat can be very intensely flavored and unpleasant, hence the strong curries and other spices used in goat-eating countries.

We were able to find a farmer who raises amazingly pure-tasting goat. For me and my team, it has been fun to try different techniques with goat and learn various ways to prepare the meat. We serve every part of the animal, from the neck, to the whole leg, to the goat loin. Goat is a lot leaner than its friend the pig, so working with goat can be a bit tricky. But it is a tasty experiment to have to work on!

What exactly is “nose-to-tail” cuisine?  What dishes do you recommend?

It is really just saying that every part of the animal can and should be used. It is not right to eat just the loin of an animal and waste the rest. In fact the other parts of the animal, like the head and neck and tail, are where the flavor is!  Pig tails are quite tasty! Full of fatty, flavor goodness.

What three courses should every first-timer order at Girl & The Goat?

That is a hard one. I think most first time guests get the pig face. And you must try a goat dish — the belly or the neck are my favorites. Then do not forget a veggie. The green beans, cauliflower, broccoli and shishitos are some of the best things on menu. Just vegetables made to taste good.

What are the best restaurants – besides yours – in your hometown of Chicago?

So many! I love all of Paul Kahan restaurants — Nico Osteria, avec and The Publican being my favorite. Aside from Paul’s places, Parachute is amazing, as are La Sirena Clandestina and Momotaro.

Did you and your husband Gary Valentine “meet cute” in Chicago like on an episode of his TV show “King of Queens”?  What dishes did you cook for him that helped win his heart?

We met while I was drinking at the bar of Lillie’s Q where he was a manager. I certainly don’t think I was cute at the moment — I was a bit intoxicated! We became friends first for about a year then one thing led to another. He actually does more of the cooking at home, but I do think that I got him to try new foods when he started eating at Girl & the Goat after we met. He was a bit of a picky eater before and as time goes on he has tried and started to love many new things.

Congratulations on becoming Lexus’ newest chef ambassador. I hear you and your husband are both Lexus drivers. What are your favorite models?

I am awaiting an NX 200t, and my husband a GS 450h F SPORT. I picked the new NX because I love the size — it’s an SUV that’s not too big for me. I had never driven a Lexus before test driving one a few months ago. It’s like hovering, such a smooth ride. My husband has not stopped talking about the GS since he picked it out! His car should be here any day now and he will probably just go drive for hours with a destination in mind the moment it arrives!

What culinary destinations are on your bucket list?

I’ve never been to Italy so an eating trip there is next on my list.

Where and what would you order for your last meal on Earth?

Honestly it wouldn’t be at a restaurant. It would be in my backyard with my husband Gary and maybe a couple friends, ordering whatever Gary is grilling up. That’s my favorite meal always, even if the food isn’t perfect.

Away from the kitchen, what are your personal obsessions?

Sports and travel! I swim on a masters team as often as possible, which helps keep me sane. Traveling is something I have always loved though work sometimes does not allow for many trips. We went to China for research for my new restaurant and are heading to Taiwan in a few weeks, so I guess work also sometimes helps with travel.

If you had a $1 million to spend in the next 24 hours, what would you buy?

That’s a tough one! Maybe a little lake house not far from Chicago where we could escape once and a while.

Guilty pleasures: What do you eat when nobody’s looking?