Restaurants: Girl & the Goat; Little Goat
Book: Girl In the Kitchen: How a Top Chef Cooks, Thinks, Shops, Eats and Drinks
When Stephanie Izard took home the title of Bravo TV’s Top Chef in 2008—the first woman to do so—she turned heads on a national level. Back home in Chicago, she had already turned heads with her first restaurant, Scylla, which earned top marks but closed before her Top Chef gig. She was just 27 at the time—already revered by her peers and known for her exceptionally balanced cooking (e.g., sweet and savory, crunchy and smooth).
As for her celebrity status, Izard’s quick to point out the idea of competing on Top Chef wasn’t hers. “They called me,” she says, “I had just sold Scylla two weeks before and got a phone call asking me to try out for the show.” Her initial response: “I have to work.” But she gave it a try anyway.
Of the takeaway lessons from that experience, Izard says: “If you can get through that, you can probably deal with a lot more day-to-day stresses. I also learned how to listen to other people’s ideas and not just be bullheaded when teaming up with other chefs, although I still work on this.”
Even with hefty winnings in hand, Izard waited for the right moment to open Girl & the Goat. Initially she declined an offer to open the restaurant with Rob Katz and Kevin Boehm of the Boka Restaurant Group, because she wanted to go it alone. But Izard ultimately embraced the partnership opportunity, recognizing it offered the perfect blend of creativity (her forte) with Katz’s and Boehm’s real estate, financial, and people skills. “We ended up being a great team,” she says.
In a nod to her last name, which in French refers to a type of goat-antelope (“goatalope”) that lives in the Pyrenees Mountains, Girl & the Goat first launched as a traveling, underground dinner series, gaining followers and anticipation for a permanent location along the way. She also learned to cook goat for the first time, braising it for a farmer’s market BBQ in beer and cherry juice from a local orchard.
“Now we do everything to goat you would do with a pig—we use the loin, the rib, the neck, and belly for bacon.”
Last year, also in partnership with the Boka Restaurant Group, Izard launched Little Goat, a large-scale, diner-bakery-coffee shop across the street from her flagship eatery. This year, Izard was named a finalist for the Best Chef Great Lakes James Beard award. (Winners to be announced on May 6.)
Her reputation is one of a sourcing perfectionist and purist. Izard’s particular about where she sources her goat—and other animals for that matter. Even dairy must come from pasture-raised cows. As a result, she’s become known as a proponent and advocate of Midwestern farmers and meat producers just as much as for animal welfare. Sustainably-raised, fresh-picked produce is an important part of that, as is a fine craft beer or properly-made cocktail.
Aside from simply having fun with the farm experience, Izard says the taste is paramount. “We did a taste test between store-bought cauliflower and cauliflower from a nearby farm, and there was no better way to describe it other than ‘this tastes so much more cauliflower-y,’” she says with a laugh.
Beyond helping to define modern Midwestern cuisine, Izard looks to other cultures and cuisines for inspiration.
“I love reading about different spices and ingredients from other cuisines and then wondering how I can incorporate those elements into my own dishes,” says Izard, noting a new fondness for Chinese-style XO sauce, garam masala, and kimchi. On the menu, she adds the spicy, fermented vegetables as a special topping to burgers, Rueben sandwiches, and pork chops.
What she tells aspiring chefs—both women and men—is this: “It’s great to take risks, but don’t be afraid to ask other people for help. Yes, we are all competing for the same customers; but everyone in this industry wants others to succeed. I try to remember that the whole reason I’m in this business is to make people full and happy.”