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.
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?
Yes, on the first day of culinary school. I walked in, and I immediately felt like I had found my people. But I was very naive then, and I thought I would graduate from school and become a chef instantly. I quickly learned that I would graduate and make salads and for $7.50 an hour. And I was so happy to do it.
Let’s talk a little about Top Chef. Was it weird when it first aired, to be walking down the street and have people know your name?
I remember the first time that happened. I was at the airport heading out to a scuba diving trip with my sister. The first episode had just aired and the curbside baggage guy was like, ‘Hey, you’re that girl from Top Chef!’ And I was like, wow, the curbside check-in guy knows who I am? Then I walked into the airport and another person came up to me and said, you are that girl from Top Chef, and I was like, oh my god it’s happening. It happened very quickly, and it’s a strange feeling.
Where did the name Girl and The Goat come from?
My last name is Izard, which is a Mountain Goat from the Pyrenees Mountains. Well, actually it’s sort of a cross between a goat and an antelope, so naming my restaurant goat-alope was not appealing. My first restaurant, which closed before I did Top Chef, was called Scylla. It was always pronounced wrong, so I wanted something simpler.
First, it was Drunken Goat and then we got to Girl and The Goat. But then I was like, oh crap I should learn to cook goat. I had not even eaten goat before. But we found a farmer who raises the best goat meat. A lot of cultures use strong flavors and curries to cover up the flavor of the meat, but his is so beautiful and clean, so we try to utilize it and let that flavor shine through.
Tell me about the vision for Girl and the Goat. What sort of a restaurant did you hope to create?
Scylla was a little more fine dining than I wanted it to be. I had to use white tablecloths, because I needed to cover the tables; I could not afford nice ones. For Girl and The Goat, I really wanted to do something more casual and fun, but still a place where you could get great food with that level of fine-dining service.
Do you think fine dining is done?
No, I think that there is still a place for it, and chefs who do it well have huge respect in the industry. For me, most times, I am happy eating at a casual place, but I you want those places to be there for that special occasion.
You clearly have a sense of humor that comes across on your menus—bread courses like “Miso Hungry” with Miso butter and kimchi relish, and “Olive You” with whipped feta and extra virgin olive oil. And your “This Little Piggy Went to China” breakfast plate at Little Goat—sesame cheddar biscuit with sunny eggs, Szechuan pork sausage and chili garlic chive sauce. Do you write your menus or do you get help?
Most of it is my silly humor, but I try to get my staff on board if I am having an un-clever day. We try to hire people who love food, and who love dining and service, but who are also funny, witty, and silly. It’s nice to surround myself with people like that.
What inspired you to open the Little Goat as a diner? What do you love about diners?
We needed to move our baking operation out of Girl and the Goat because it was taking too much space to bake all that bread every day from scratch. We thought it would be a bakery with 12 seats, but when we found the space it was like a super-sized goat. So then we were trying to come up with a concept.
Growing up on the East Coast everyone went to diners, whether it was drunk late at night or with your family for breakfast. So we went to New York and looked at diners and saw that most had like 300 items on the menu. Ours has 95.
Wow, that’s a different animal than a restaurant with 16 to 20 dishes on it. Was it hard to get a kitchen set up to do that much food?
Luckily, Girl and the Goat actually has a fairly large menu with 35 items on it, but there was still a learning curve. For the diner, we wanted to do breakfast, lunch, dinner all day. We only have one set of burners and that station has 11 dishes. People have to work up to that station. The rest is done on the flat top.
My cooks are awesome. It’s such a different way of cooking at Little Goat and we had to teach ourselves how to use this equipment. I wasn’t a short order cook so I was not experienced on the flat top at all. When I watch the burger guy with rows of burger tickets with toppings and temps I am always amazed.
Where did the idea for Duck Duck Goat come from?
We do a Sunday Supper at Little Goat where we try to focus on different countries. One week, we did a Chinese dinner and it was really fun to take the day learning about and cooking Chinese food. That night, I took some of the food home for my husband and me—some fried rice and cashew chicken—and we were like, wow, this is really good. We know where ingredients come from and it’s not super greasy. And we were like, we should open a Chinese restaurant.
I brought my idea to my partners, even though I swore I would never open another restaurant, but they were into it. They had been thinking that there was a void in good Chinese food in Chicago outside of Chinatown. So we did it.
How did you develop your menu?
We went to China for a couple weeks to learn about what real Chinese food is as opposed to Americanized Chinese food. And the Duck Duck Goat menu is a hodgepodge of familiar and unfamiliar. So you have Crab Rangoon alongside a dish called Mapo Doufu, which is this really great spicy Sichuan tofu and pork dish. We have Chinese guests come in and they’ll say, “to have truly authentic stuff we will go to Chinatown, but this is still pretty good.”
Like the diner kitchen, it must have been a different kitchen to build out.
We have woks and lots of basket steamers for buns and dumplings. We are adding a third wok now because we realize that we need more space. I was scared of the wok at first because it’s just like the hottest burner ever. It’s like a jet engine, so it’s really awesome — you can boil water in the wok in 25 seconds.
Since you are about to have a baby, have you had any aversions or cravings since you have been pregnant?
The biggest aversion was to Sichuan food, which was not ideal since I was opening a Chinese restaurant. But yesterday was the first day I tried something and felt I could like it again. I am getting back to normal. I have been eating lots of cheese and bread, which is not normal for me.
Everyone’s talking about the minimum wage going up to $15 an hour in New York City. What do you think about how this will effect the industry?
We have gone up a couple of dollars on starting points, and people have to realize it will be reflected in menu pricing. We hope that guests understand that. Pricing in Chicago is a bit lower because rent is lower, but I think that it’s gonna change.
It’s hard for me because at all of my restaurants I have tried to keep entrees under $20. We want to be very reasonable, but we will just have to inform our guests that prices are going up so that we can make sure to keep paying our cooks a fair wage.
What about the restaurant business has changed the most in your time as a chef?
In Chicago it’s now become very normal for chefs to have a lot of restaurants. It’s almost expected. I feel like as soon as I opened Duck Duck Goat, the first question I was asked was, “What is next?” So the days of one restaurant are behind us.
Andrea Strong’s writing chronicles the world of food—from farm to fork, and all the stops along the way. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, and a host of other publications, including The Strong Buzz, her pioneering blog devoted to New York City’s food scene. She lives in Queens with her husband, her two kids, and her big appetite.
Photo Credit: Galdones Photography