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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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Jeff Ruby’s October 2010 Dining Out column

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Design elements of Girl and the Goat

PHOTO GALLERY »

STEPHANIEIZARD.COM »
Official website

When Izard says no, she means it. In the construction meetings, she weighs in on everything from the height of the windows to the revolving door. At a meeting with her design group, 555, she vetoes the idea of a wire goat head. She’s enamored, instead, with the painting style of a pair of Ukrainian Village artists, Quang and Chi Hong. (Quang did the artwork for Scylla.) In the end, Izard commissions an enormous picture of a girl and a goat—it measures seven by seven feet—to hang on the restaurant’s westernmost wall.

Then there’s the logo. One Friday morning, Izard drops by the offices of Grip, the branding team, to take a look at some preliminary sketches. The name of the restaurant has just changed. Izard is here to preview the first series of drawings: It may sound trivial, but it’s a key decision, since the logo shows up everywhere from the sign to the menu to the website.

A dozen potential logos hang on a magnetic wall. One shows the silhouette of a woman with a bun—created from a picture of Izard, who pulls back her curly hair when she’s in the kitchen—and a silhouette of a goat. Izard is horrified. The image would fit on a Victorian perfume bottle. “I look like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s mom,” she says. She’s no fan of the goat, either. She wants something cartoonish, lighthearted, fun, emblematic of the feel of the restaurant. This is not white-tablecloth dining. She wants customers to feel like they’ve been invited to a chef’s house to hang out—with, of course, 130 other diners.

The design team scrambles to revise. Izard begins to doubt whether she even wants to use a silhouette of herself. She especially objects to anything that depicts her with a flowing apron, or in pink, or as overtly female. She tired long ago of explaining that she’s just a chef who happens to be a woman—she’s not trying to blaze a path. “I don’t think of myself as a female chef. I think of myself as a chef—hopefully a good chef. I just happen to be a female.”

* * *

It’s a snowy night in January, and Izard is all focus. Promptly at 7, a hundred diners—many of whom are complete strangers to the chef—will knock on the door for the last in a series of underground dinners called The Wandering Goat. Each event has taken place in a secret location—this time it happens to be a converted church in Logan Square (the owner is a friend of Rob Katz). The dinners are gen­ius: They keep Izard in the public eye and allow her to test potential menu items for a discerning crowd. They also have become one of the hottest tickets in town: When Izard announced the last event via Twitter, it sold out in 45 seconds.

At 6:15, she is still trying to figure out how to plate one of the more complex dishes: a smashed and fried crispy Yukon Gold potato with brandade, smoked tomato, and salsa verde. Once the diners arrive, she’ll step out of the kitchen and mingle. The diners, who each paid $100 to be there, expect some hang time with the chef.

Beer in hand, Izard chats up the crowd: a crew from NBC-5, filming a segment about the new restaurant; foodies who want to see what all the fuss is about; fans of Top Chef; and, to Izard’s delight, some former patrons of Scylla.

I talk to two young attendees who call themselves dedicated fans. “We were sitting in front of the computer trying to get tickets,” says Conor Gee, 24, a health care marketing agent who lives in Uptown. “I’ve never had her food, but she seems so personable, so down to earth, so nice.” Admittedly, attending the dinner isn’t so much about the meal. It is the opportunity to be in Izard’s orbit. Gee’s friend, Lauren Hatty, 26, is so excited to be there she tweets walking in.

For me, at least, the dinner is about the food. Finally. The day before, I had dropped by the test kitchen with the intention of scoring a taste. While the chefs prepped for the meal, they drank beer and ate Subway sandwiches.

So the night of the Wandering Goat dinner, when everyone grabs a fork and a plate, I stand at the front of the line. The first dish to roll out of the kitchen is a seared scallop topped with a tapenade of fermented black beans, black garlic, and green olives. Greedily, I pop the entire thing in my mouth. The scallop tastes fresh and meaty, and the tapenade mysteriously resonates with the flavors of cocoa, coffee, and caramel. I look over to where Izard is holding court with her fans and mouth one word: divine.

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