Stephanie Izard on Girl & the Goat, “Top Chef,” and more

STEPHANIE IZARD, INC.: In the two years since the curly-haired Chicago chef won a TV reality show, she has managed to turn her 15 minutes of fame into the launching pad for a celebrity brand. Her $1.5-million, 130-seat restaurant in the West Loop is racing to open next month. Will the crowds come?

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Izard had already decided to close Scylla when, in August 2007, the casting agents for Top Chef called. She took it as a sign: The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. “It was one of the first things that showed me that everything happens for a reason,” she says. She interviewed for the show at a downtown hotel, then wined and dined the casting agents that night at Scylla. (Because the whole process was shrouded in secrecy, she told her staff they were friends from California.) A month or so later, she got a call that the show would start taping in seven days in Chicago. Was she in?

“I couldn’t tell anybody what I was doing,” she says. “I signed the [Scylla] building over to Takashi Yagihashi [1952 North Damen Avenue is now home to his namesake restaurant] the day before I went to film Top Chef. He thought I was going to Europe. I was like, I have to leave for Europe tomorrow. We have to make this happen.”

Izard nervously went to the first taping for the show, which pits 16 contestants against each other in a series of elaborate kitchen challenges designed to confound even the best chefs. In the course of competition, she had to bake a wedding cake, cater an event at Lincoln Park Zoo for 250, and craft multicourse meals for such megawatt chefs as Daniel Boulud, Anthony Bourdain, and Eric Ripert. (In a Top Chef episode, Ripert did a publicity turn as Izard’s sous-chef. His job: scaling and cutting fish.)

After 11 episodes, the number of competitors had been whittled down to four, with Izard still standing. The show went on a six-month hiatus—during which Izard traveled through Southeast Asia—then, in April 2008, the remaining four contestants convened for a trio of final episodes in Puerto Rico. The night of the final taping, Izard faced the host, Padma Lakshmi, and the judges. Her third course—lamb medallions topped with blackberries, wild mushrooms, and braised pistachios—particularly impressed the judges, but her des­sert, an uninspired ricotta pound cake, threatened to undo her.

Fortunately, the other finalists had bigger missteps. “We had been in that room for five hours, it was all night, you could hear birds chirping. [Padma] said my name, and I was like, Oh, that’s good,” Izard recalls a bit wistfully. “I wish that I hadn’t been so tired. I wish I had jumped up and down. I mean, at the end of the day it’s just a TV show, but we all put our heart and soul into it.” Izard spent the early-morning hours doing TV interviews, then met the rest of the cast and the producers at a bar. She was drunk and giddy on the plane ride back to Chicago. “I was like, This is it, this is over, what am I going to do now?”

The answer: open another restaurant. Izard knew she wanted the word “goat” to appear somewhere in the name, as “izard” is French for a Pyrenees mountain goat–antelope with curved horns. She asked Antonia Lofaso, a Los Angeles restaurateur who was a fellow contestant on Top Chef, for an adjective to describe her. When Lofaso said “drunken,” The Drunken Goat was born. (It was a huge disappointment later to discover that the name Drunken Goat was already taken by a cheese company, and its owner did not care to share it with an ambitious chef from Chicago. Hence, the name change to Girl & the Goat.)

Izard knew something else: She wanted to cook. That was it. She didn’t want to mind the reservations and scrutinize monthly profit-and-loss statements. Those days were done. Then, while she was on hiatus from Top Chef, she was approached by Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz, the owners of the Lincoln Park restaurants Boka, Perennial, and Landmark. She told them what she envisioned: a beer-focused, shared-plates casual restaurant—don’t call it a gastro­pub, Izard insists—with a menu that changed daily. She even already had the name. “We were excited because instantly when she told us what it was going to be, it had sensibility,” says Boehm. “We weren’t interested in something high concept. When she said it had a casual vibe, we were like, Absolutely.”

They knew they needed to strike, despite the down economy. “The wave is cresting on the notoriety of the show, so, from a business standpoint, we were like, We have to find the right place,” says Katz. “There is no room for error—because of the notoriety, because of the expectations, we have to find the perfect spot.”

It took almost a year to find it. Boehm, 39, and Katz, 43, believed a see-and-be-seen place in River North would be the most profitable. Izard preferred the cozier neigh­borhood feel of Wicker Park or Logan Square. The trio would regularly go on drives in Boehm’s BMW, looking at spaces to no avail. “We were all thinking of different locations for a long time,” says Katz. “I think she would have felt like she was a sellout if she went down to River North.”

“When I try to describe it to people, it’s the kind of place that I want to hang out, where chefs want to hang out,” says Izard. “Chefs don’t want to hang out on Michigan Avenue.”

The compromise? Randolph Street. Izard thought the area had an unpretentious enough vibe; her partners believed it was central enough that they could make their aggressive numbers. (The restaurant will seat about 130.) But the building—a former manufacturing facility—had never been a restaurant, and, with no plumbing or electricity, it required a complete overhaul.

While Boehm and Katz fussed with permits and licensing and an excavation project in the basement, Izard concentrated on building her brand. She began writing a blog (at stephanieizard.com) about her adventures on the celebrity culinary circuit. In the summer of 2009, she started a series of documentary-style short videos called The Tasty Life, in which she chronicled a pig slaughter at a farm in Wisconsin, a stint on the brew line at Three Floyds Brewing Company in Munster, Indiana, and a farm dinner for 100 using only a fire pit and a grill. When asked about her communications strategy, she fully acknowledges that she is aiming to be more than Stephanie Izard, the chef. She is working toward Stephanie Izard, the brand. “I figure I’d been given the op­por­tunity from a show to jump-start a fan base, but it’s taken so long to get the restaurant open,” she says. “I’m trying to keep people excited about the restaurant and excited about me.”

The strategy is working. Izard is everywhere. I stop for gas one day at an Exxon station in Ukrainian Village, and there she is, making a chive yogurt on an instructional video at the pump. “I am very driven in the fact that I like to be successful,” she explains. “I always wanted to be an Olympic champion. I have an Olympic champion mentality.”

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