Talking Shop with Stephanie Izard: On Goat, Being Recognized at the Airport + ‘Reasonably Authentic’ Chinese Food

Talking Shop with Stephanie Izard: On Goat, Being Recognized at the Airport & “Reasonably Authentic” Chinese Food

Chef Stephanie Izard is not short on accolades. In addition to being named winner of Bravo’s Top Chef — along with being named fan favorite (she had my vote) — she earned James Beard’s Best Chef: Great Lakes award in 2013 and Food & Wine’s Best New Chef title in 2010.

The awards are well deserved. Izard is the Executive Chef/Partner of three beloved Chicago restaurants: Girl & the Goat, Little Goat (a diner and bakery), and her latest, Duck Duck Goat, an ode to what she calls “reasonably authentic” Chinese food. The menu boasts a menu of delights including Duck Eggrolls Nom‎ Wah style; Sichuan Eggplant & Goat Sausage; Sanbeiji (Taiwanese 3-cup chicken); and Slap Noodles with shrimp, goat sausage, eggplant, and mushroom. Bring it.

Andrea Strong spoke to Izard, who was very pregnant with her first baby due in late May, about becoming famous, naming her restaurant after a goat, and what to eat when you’re expecting.

Talking Shop with Stephanie Izard: On Goat, Being Recognized at the Airport & “Reasonably Authentic” Chinese Food

Growing up in Connecticut, how did you get into food?

I always think that chefs either grew up eating really good food or really bad food and had to learn to cook in order to eat. In my case, luckily, my mom was a great cook. She was always making things from all over the world. She was really into Asian food and would make tempura, moo shu pork, even sushi, alongside things like roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. We would make a menu for the week and hang it on the fridge. My friends could look at it and decide what looked good and when they wanted to come over.

When did you know food would be your life?

I was the kid who was always watching Julia Child, but back in the early ’90s being a chef was not what people think it is today. It was not really a career. So my plan was to go to college and get a business degree.

And I guess looking back on it, I found a roundabout way to get into business. I went to the University of Michigan, and let’s just say it was a lot of fun (maybe a little too much fun for me) and I didn’t get into business school. I graduated and I felt lost. My dad actually suggested cooking school. He was the one who said, ‘You’ve always loved to cook, why not try it?’

Did you have an ‘Aha!’ moment where you knew it was the right decision? Continue Reading

Chef Sarah Grueneberg: The ‘Monteverde’ Behind Chicago’s Hottest Pasta Spot

Just when you think Chicago has enough Italian restaurants, along comes soulful Italian Monteverde, slinging some of the best handmade pastas the city’s seen in years, and you’re suddenly asking yourself how many portions per week of ragu alla napoletana is too many (answer: as many as your bank account will permit).

The creative force behind this four-month-old temple to pasta in Chicago’s West Loop is Spiaggia vet and Top Chef season nine runner-up chef Sarah Grueneberg. She caught up with OpenTable on transitioning from executive chef to her first solo venture, the beauty of pasta made to order, and the importance of creating a strong culture at work.

Chef Sarah Grueneberg

A native of Houston, Texas, Grueneberg has a fascination with food that started early. Because her mom traveled a lot for work, she’d spend her free time cooking chicken fried steak and making pickles with her grandmother or out fishing with her uncle before frying up the day’s catch for dinner. She was about 13 when she decided she wanted to be a chef. “For me, it was always about my family and bringing people together around the table over food, and also realizing that I could actually be a chef,” Grueneberg says. “I realized around that time that not everyone else liked to cook.”

She finished culinary school in 2001, landing her first job as garde manger at the Houston outpost of beloved New Orleans restaurant Brennan’s. There she cut her teeth on French-Creole classics like oyster stew and shrimp remoulade under then-chef Chris Shepherd (who now owns Houston contemporary American hotspot Underbelly). “Chris really took me under his wing; he had a huge impact on me,” she says. Within four years, she’d worked her way up to becoming the restaurant’s youngest (and first) female sous chef at age 22 before deciding it was time for a change.

Taking flight…

She took a job in Chicago as a line cook at Tony Mantuano’s fine-dining Italian institution Spiaggia. But the move from the intensely rich sauces of Texas Creole to the minimalist handling of seasonal and regional Italian ingredients, coupled with her own preconceived notions of Italian cuisine as the red sauce- and mozzarella-laden dishes of her childhood, proved challenging. “I thought I knew what Italian food was, but I really had no idea,” she admits. “It was a real struggle for me at first — the notion of finishing a simple dish with a bit of olive oil and lemon.”

After briefly considering leaving it all to become a flight attendant, Grueneberg let herself fall in love with Italian cuisine — the peppery, fruity flavor of great olive oil, the beauty of al dente pasta made to order, an affair cultivated by annual trips to Italy with the Spiaggia team. It was also during that time that she met longtime friend and future business partner, Meg Sahs.

Chef Sarah Grueneberg

By 2010, she was named Spiaggia’s executive chef. But the confidence she gained competing on Top Chef, on which she reached the finals, and increased conversations with Sahs about opening a restaurant together fueled a growing desire to strike out on her own, which she did in 2013. “Meg and I were having dinner together in California,” she recalls. “It was like a movie moment. I looked at her, she looked at me, and we both said, ‘Let’s do this!’ She started a writing business plan right away for a little pasta-centric concept.”

Asking Grueneberg how she and Sahs came up with the name Monteverde elicits a long, nostalgic laugh followed by an admission that some ask if it’s a Costa Rican restaurant (it shares the name of a mountainous town there). The name is the Italian translation of Grueneberg, or “green mountain”, in German. “The first time I went to Italy, I was in the kitchen with my friend (balsamic vinegar producer) Andrea Bezzecchi. He said, ‘Now in Italy you will be known as Sarah Monteverde,’” she says. “We thought of so many names, but in the end, it had to be Monteverde. Plus, you can take monte or verde lots of other places.”

Pasta as theater

Monteverde’s menu is a tantalizing amalgamation of soulful Italian dishes anchored by handmade fresh and dried pastas, plus a handful of dishes that showcase early influences on Grueneberg’s culinary identity. The sleek, 95-seat space is anchored by a raised workstation behind the bar that quite literally elevates pasta making to theater. Perched at the L-shaped butcher-block bar, you can watch as a veritable army of pasta makers hand-roll ribbons of pappardelle, thumb oricchiette, and sheet, fill, and cut yards of ravioli.

These pastas shine in classic (tipica) dishes, such as pappardelle with meaty beef and lamb ragu and pecorino and nontraditional (atipica) dishes like cannelloni saltimbocca — pasta roulades filled with lamb, prosciutto and sage garnished with fried sage leaves and cauliflower — or cacio whey pepe, with tangy, cheesy ricotta whey standing in for pasta water.

Chef Sarah Grueneberg

In simple tortellini in brodo, mortadella-stuffed pasta swims in rich, long-simmered housemade chicken stock. A refined yet invitingly shareable small plate of Broadbent country ham and mozzarella with local hydroponic tomatoes oozes with Emilia Romagna influence. In an ode to Grueneberg’s grandma, comforting stuffed cabbage — filled with softened cabbage hearts, thyme, Parmesan, egg and Saltines — rests atop earthy porcini bolognese and creamy polenta.

In another homage, this time to the Italian Sunday supper, five-day ragu alla napoletana features fusilli tossed in a pork bone and roasted tomato sauce topped with a hulking red wine-brined, tomato-braised pork shank, housemade sausage, and fat pork and soppressata meatballs. “I wanted to showcase food the way it is classically, but also push the boundaries of an American who studied pasta for years with worldly ingredients and techniques,” Grueneberg says.Continue Reading

Top Chef Winners: Where Are They Now?

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Season 13 of Bravo’s hit reality cooking series Top Chef premiered last month (and, after a brief holiday hiatus, the season returns with episode 5, “Big Gay Wedding” Thursday night) which made us wonder: What do winners do after taking home the grand prize? We took a trip down memory lane to catch up on all of the champions, way back to the first season in 2006.

A few learnings: More often than not, Top Chef winners go on to open their own restaurant (or two or three of them). Only three out of 12 Top Chefs are women, and some are more high-profile than others. Some have won James Beard Awards while others have found careers in television. Many have opened or are planning on opening fast-casual concepts.

Here’s an overview of Top Chef winners, then and now.

1. Harold Dieterle

New York native Harold Dieterle won the first season of Top Chef, set in San Francisco in 2006, after besting runner-up Tiffani Faison in the final challenge in Las Vegas. Following stints at Della Femina in the Hamptons and Red Bar and 1770 House in New York City, he worked as a sous chef at The Harrison, also in NYC.

After taking home the $100,000 prize, Harold became a New York City restaurateur. He opened his first restaurant, Perilla, in 2007, and three years later he opened a Thai restaurant called Kin Shop. Later he opened a third concept, The Marrow.

Sadly, none of Harold’s restaurants have stood the test of time. In October 2014, he said goodbye to The Marrow, and last month he announced he would be closing Perilla and Kin Shop as well. In an interview with Eater, he attributed his decision to the rising cost of doing business in New York, adding, “It’s gotten to the point where I’m not having fun and enjoying myself. I’m not saying I never want to return to the restaurant business, but right now, I’m feeling a little beat up and a little tired.”

Up next: Harold and his wife are expecting their first child in February, so he’s planning to take some time off. But he expressed interest in opening a fast-casual concept down the road.

2. Ilan Hall

Filmed in Los Angeles, season two was the first time we saw Padma Lakshmi — now a star onTop Chef and beyond — take over as host. Ilan Hall (also a New Yorker) beat Marcel Vigneron in the season finale in Hawaii, amid plenty of heated rivalry between the two contestants. (Fun fact: Ilan and Marcel studied at the CIA at the same time. Apparently they have since made amends.)

Ilan was a line cook at New York City’s Casa Mono before winning Top Chef. In 2009, he opened his first restaurant, The Gorbals, in Los Angeles, but it closed within a week — the county health department shut it down due to an inadequate water heater. Happily it reopened a couple of months later, and in 2014, he opened a second location in Brooklyn. The same year, he announced he would be moving the location of the L.A. restaurant and changing the menu to be almost entirely vegan (it hasn’t reopened yet).

Now, Ilan is the host of Knife Fight, another reality cooking show in which two cooks square off, preparing dishes using a few designated ingredients in just one hour.

Up next: This week, Ilan announced he’s shutting The Gorbals in Brooklyn, changing the concept and the name. Esh — Hebrew for “fire” — will serve Israeli-Middle Eastern barbecue.

3. Hung Huynh

Season three of Top Chef took place in Miami and ended in Aspen, where Hung Huynh, a Vietnamese-American chef, beat two runners-up: Dale Levitski and Casey Thompson. Hung cooked at Per Se and Gilt in New York and held the post of Executive Sous Chef at Guy Savoy Las Vegas before joining the show.

After Top Chef, Hung competed in the 2008 Bocuse d’Or USA contest, with the aim of representing the United States at the international competition the following year. He lost out to Chef Timothy Hollingsworth but went on open a number restaurants with the EMM Group — The General, Catch, Lexington Brass — helping the group expand globally.

After four years, he cut his ties with the group in February 2015, frustrated that he wasn’t “taken seriously by somewhere like the New York Times” working with the large business.

Up next: There’s no word on Hung’s next project, but he wants it to be national in scope. He added, “I think the direction is going toward much more simple and healthy fare. I think the direction is more casual and less expensive.”Continue Reading

Top Chef’s George Pagonis Is Thankful for What Lies Ahead at Kapnos

Blog IMG_9941(F) copyGeorge Pagonis has always known Thanksgiving as a day of hard work. Growing up the son of Greek immigrants, he helped out in the kitchen alongside his parents and siblings at the family diner for most of the holiday. Only after the last customer was served would the family and a throng of visiting relatives sit down to eat. The table was loaded down with a mix of must-have, pilgrim-approved classics – roast turkey, mashed potatoes, and stuffing – and dishes favored in his parents’ homeland – dolmades (stuffed grape leaves), moussaka (a rich eggplant casserole), and roast lamb.

The Top Chef star and executive chef of the modern-minded Greek restaurant Kapnos still celebrates Thanksgiving with his family, who live in nearby Virginia. His mother, Mary, and his father, Tony, are first generation Greek immigrants. Both are from the small village of Skoura, just outside Sparta in the country’s southern reaches. “If you’ve seen movies set in Greece where the village has nothing but sheep, goats, chickens, and old ladies wearing black as church bells go off in the background, that’s what it is,” says Pagonis.

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However, Pagonis’ parents didn’t meet and get married until after they separately moved to New York City. Diners were a common business for Greek immigrants, so Tony got a job in one as a short order cook. When his brother opened a diner in Vienna, Virginia, Tony moved down to help him run it. He later opened his own in nearby Alexandria. The Four Seasons was a classic Greek diner. “The menu was an encyclopedia,” says Pagonis. “You could have a lobster tail, scrambled eggs, moussaka, baklava, and stuffed grape leaves.”

Starting around the time he was in middle school, Pagonis and his brother, Nicholas, worked as toast boys on the weekend breakfast shift. This was no small duty. The restaurant sat 300 people and there was a line out the door from 9AM until 2PM. Every egg dish came with toast, so the boys were putting out thousands of slices. Waiters would shout out orders, the boys would toss bread in the toaster, butter it up, cut it, and get the toasted triangles on the plates.

At the end of the shift, each server would tip them a few bucks. It added up. Pagonis would routinely take home $60, a small fortune for a sixth grader. “My parents took me to the mall and I bought whatever I wanted: video games, Starter jackets, Jordans,” he says. “Everyone else had to wait for their birthday to get that stuff, but I was like, ‘Eff it, I’ll buy it tomorrow.’”

Interested in learning more about cooking, he began standing on a milk crate by the chef, peeling carrots, chopping potatoes, whatever. “Anytime he needed anything, I did it,” says Pagonis. “I never said no.”

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Over the years, he learned how to make rice pudding, soups, and gravies, so, at age 14, he began working the line. When it came time to go to college, though, he left the diner behind, determined to pursue a career beyond the family business. He enrolled at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia, where he earned a degree in business finance. Upon graduating, he applied for positions as a credit analyst. However, as he nervously sat outside one office waiting for an interview, supremely uncomfortable in his suit, he questioned his nascent career path. “I felt like an idiot,” he admits. “I thought, ‘This isn’t me.’”Continue Reading