Stephanie Izard turns "Top Chef" into big break

MICHELE KAYAL For The Associated Press Published:

In the beginning there was Scylla, a cozy, quiet neighborhood restaurant where Stephanie Izard turned out reliable Mediterranean seafood in a living room atmosphere. Her dad made the hostess stand. Her then-boyfriend's mom made the drapes. She bought the house with a loan and some money from her late grandfather.

"We didn't work with a designer and things like that," says the 34-year-old Chicago chef. "We just did it ourselves."

Fast forward to Girl and the Goat, Izard's West Loop restaurant that rocks charred wood walls and a non-stop party that's anything but sedate.

Izard has abandoned the politesse of bouillabaisse and seared diver scallops for Fergus-Henderson-meets-Zak Pelaccio dishes such as goat belly confit and pan-fried duck tongue with pickled watermelon rind. And no offense to Grandpa, but The Goat's backers are Chicago's most prominent restaurateurs, with three of the four chefs in the roster -- including Izard -- named best new chef by Food and Wine magazine.

In the year since it opened, Girl and the Goat already has been nominated for a James Beard award and won accolades from critics across the country.

"Girl and the Goat is her coming out party," says Heather Shouse, a Chicago-based food writer and Izard's co-author on her new cookbook, "Girl in the Kitchen." ''It's really in-your-face, full-frontal aggressive food. It's really fun, it's really loud, it has a lot of personality."

Just like Izard.

But it wasn't always that way. Shy as a child, Izard would tag along with older sister Stacey, who remembers being the ring leader for their adventures in the woods and the times they turned their living room into a restaurant, putting the coffee table on blocks for the bar and setting numerous card tables for the imaginary "patrons." ''I was louder and outgoing and she was kind of with me," says Stacey Izard.

Then came Bravo's "Top Chef."

Shortly after Izard sold Scylla in 2007, out of sheer exhaustion, producers from the hit show approached her about being on it. She wooed the audience with her good nature, easy smile and girl-next-door appeal. She floored the judges with bold, unlikely flavors -- her final dish combined mushrooms, pistachios and blackberries -- and locked out the competition, becoming the first -- and still the only -- woman ever to win "Top Chef."

"It really brought her into her own," Stacey says. "The show gave her a chance to be in the spotlight and she fit right in."

Shy maybe, but Izard has never been retiring. After "Top Chef," she could have let her 15 minutes of fame evaporate into the pop culture landscape. Instead, she embraced her inner extrovert, turning her victory into Chicago's hottest restaurant, with a sister joint -- Little Goat -- set to open in the spring. She's parlayed her celebrity into cookbook success and a chance to raise money for hungry children, conversations about a television show, and a possible line of cookware.

"I'm just a really driven person," Izard says. "Going on 'Top Chef' presented a lot of doors and you can choose to open them or not."

But even when doors are closed, Izard simply busts through them. Much of her dizzying success has come from embracing the unexpected and taking large, terrifying risks the way someone else might order a cappuccino. Ten years ago, she spent the weekend with friends in Chicago, then called home to Scottsdale, Az., on Monday morning to have her stuff shipped to her. She opened Scylla almost on a dare, quitting her job at what then was a top Chicago bistro right after a fellow line cook suggested she should have her own restaurant.

"I don't think about things too much," she says. "I just go for them."

If it sounds like a Nike ad, maybe it's because Izard is a born competitor. A swimmer from the age of 3, she was all about 5 a.m. practice and taking on opponents across the country. She placed first in the national rankings for the mile, but quit competing at 16 because she lost -- to herself.

"I set myself a certain goal and missed it by a tenth-of-a-second," she says. "What's made me successful is that I'm always pushing myself to be the best that I can."

At Jean-George Vongerichten's Vong, her first job in Chicago, Izard was put on garde manger (read as making salads), but fought her way to the stove.

"They always put the girls in garde manger or pastry," says Shouse, who worked with Izard at Vong before becoming a writer. "She was given that role in a restaurant that was filled with testosterone and she fought her way over to the hot line and into places that were typically male-dominated."

Today, Izard runs with a group of chefs occupying the West Loop that Shouse calls a "brain trust" -- the spawn of old guard Chicago chefs like Charlie Trotter and Rick Bayless. All hovering around the age of 35, the young-uns are creating a cuisine that is edgier, funkier, less expensive, but just as luxurious.

Izard is among the many local chefs experimenting with whole animal dishes, presenting parts and pieces with pranksterish glee. For Valentine's Day, Izard served skewered lamb heart with spiced figs. And one of the best loved dishes on her menu is "wood oven roasted pig face" served with a fried egg.

"It's a crispy porky goodness," Izard says. "We like to call it 'breakfast on crack.'"

Izard's food today is as inventive as it once was safe. In her search for the biggest, boldest flavors, she mixes and matches cultures in dishes like escargot with tamarind and miso, amberjack crudo with crisp pork bellies and Latin American chilies, and goat meat chorizo with Serbian pepper relish.

"We look to partner with people that have a signature voice," says Kevin Boehm, co-founder of the Boka Restaurant group, the Goat's backer. "You turn on the radio and hear Axel Rose sing and you know instantly that it's him. Stephanie fits that profile. You taste her food and it's distinctly Stephanie Izard. She's a superstar."

In the coming year, Izard is looking forward to the strong launch of Little Goat, beginning work on her second cookbook, and, she hints, possibly TV. So where will it all lead?

"I'm just on this fun ride right now," she says. "You only live once. You might as well try to do as much cool stuff as you can."

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