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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?


R & D: Recently, Izard (top left) has been trying out dishes for her new restaurant at underground dinners around the city. Photography: Tyllie Barbosa

 

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Official website

Stephanie Izard weaves in and out of traffic, the beams of her Mini Cooper barely piercing the foggy gray haze that envelops I-57. No one has passed us for miles. All the way from Chicago to Champaign, the tiny car whizzes past 18-wheelers, SUVs, and vehicles twice its size. What would take the average driver two and a half hours takes Izard barely two.

We’re off to Champaign to visit Prairie Fruits Farm, a small husband-and-wife-owned establishment that will make unique specialty cheeses for Izard’s forthcoming restaurant, Girl & the Goat. On the way, she tells the Taco Bell story, pausing to abruptly change lanes. A few nights before, the rising young chef and one of her two sous-chefs, Dave Gollan, were out in the suburbs cooking a charity dinner. Riding back to the city in a hired car, they chased the workday with a bottle of wine and some homemade pineapple vodka. That went down smoothly, so they ventured to The Bluebird in Bucktown for a few beers. Sometime in the night, they took a cab to a Taco Bell. Of course, the morning after, neither Izard nor Gollan remembered the Taco Bell visit. It took finding a receipt—and $9.47 in change in Izard’s pocket—to shake loose the memory.

And though it is buried in the recesses of inebriation, the Taco Bell trip is strangely relevant. Which Izard finds funny. That’s part of her charm. She can whip up a four-course meal for the most discerning audiences, as she did on season 4 of the hit TV show Top Chef, or she can wolf down a gordita and a beer and have the gall to call it research.

The gordita is research. Or was intended to be. For the uninitiated, a gordita—actually, Taco Bell’s Cheesy Gordita Crunch—is a taco with two outer layers: a soft flatbread and a hard taco shell. It’s the play between the crunchy and the chewy that Izard wants to incorporate into a dish for Girl & the Goat. In her version, she fries up pizza dough so that it is crisp, yet soft on the inside. She imagines that the fried dough will serve as a scoop for brandade, a blend of fish, cream, and potatoes that has the consistency of a dip. Her mother, Sue, used to fry up dough like that, and it’s one of Izard’s favorite foods from her childhood.

As for the rest of the dishes, she has loose ideas: a flatbread topped with shredded goat, house-made sausages, sustainable seafood dishes. Four months before the restaurant’s May opening date, if you ask Izard what the menu will be, she laughs and says, “There’s going to be one.” But even she’s not sure yet exactly what will be on it.

I’ve been hanging out with Izard for three weeks now, and I haven’t seen her cook a thing. Nor would I taste a bite until later at a private dinner with 100 other guests. She promises that she and her sous-chefs have been experimenting with sausage making and meat curing. But during the time I’ve been with her, that has been on hold as she picks her pottery, approves her logo, and sorts through the millions of tiny details that surround any major restaurant opening. The opening is a big one, particularly given the lousy economy: Izard’s business partners, Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz, are spending $1.5 million to convert an old manufacturing facility at 809 West Randolph Street (near Halsted) into a fully functioning restaurant.

On its face, it sounds like a shrewd investment. Izard won a reality show watched by millions and refused to stop there. By thinking of herself as a brand, she has extended her 15 minutes of fame some two years and counting. That she’ll star in her own TV show one day isn’t a question of if, it’s a question of when.

But is Girl & the Goat a huge gamble? Izard ran a self-funded restaurant for nearly three years, then closed it after she got too stressed out. The concept isn’t novel, either: It’s a shared-plates gastropub, the kind of thing that Chicago—and even the West Loop—has seen before.

The truth is, the most hyped restaurant opening that Chicago has experienced in a while is probably both a calculated capitalization on a budding brand and a roll of the dice.

* * *

The Twitter feed pops up at 5:54 in the morning: “pretty sure the few people i saw recognize me at the gym this morn at 5:30am were like WTF, is she coming from the bar?” Izard hasn’t been sleeping well, so she’s been getting up even earlier than usual. (Usual being 6:30 a.m. three days a week to work out with a masters swim team and a personal trainer.) There’s a lot on her mind. An upcoming dinner for 100. Flying to Las Vegas to film an instructional video for the Top Chef producers. Leading a cooking demonstration in Yosemite National Park. Traveling to New York to film an appearance on Wake Up with Al, as in Al Roker, and to discuss a TV pilot. Her schedule has turned so hectic that, in late January, her business partners were trying to “ground” her, suggesting strongly that she stay in Chicago to focus on her restaurant menu and her forthcoming cookbook—yet another project she has in the works.

Thanks to her Twitter feed, Izard’s fans know exactly what she’s up to. They know that she has been having a hard time finding a place to have her curly mass of hair cut. They hear that she might need Glade PlugIns, as the smell of meat cooking in her home test kitchen in Bucktown has been getting out of control. Of course, there’s plenty she doesn’t write about—for example, how it’s becoming a drag to be in her 30s and single. And she keeps the updates pretty PG—in person, Izard likes to cuss.

To read her Twitter feed is to get to know her: a fun-loving, beer-swilling chef with a knack for self-deprecation and a habit of relying on her impulses to make decisions. She decided to attend the University of Michigan on a whim after visiting the stadium and hearing the fight song. After college, she didn’t want to return to Stamford, Connecticut, where she grew up. Instead, she headed to culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Scottsdale, Arizona. She worked for Christopher Gross at Christophe’s Fermier Brasserie (“He was a screamer,” she says) before suddenly moving to Chicago, persuaded by one rowdy weekend visit with friends.

Izard had only worked at a few Chicago restaurants—Vong, Spring, and La Tache—before she decided to go out on her own. She was engineering the nightly seafood special at La Tache when a line cook suggested it. Emboldened, she quit a week later, determined to sink a small trust that her grandfather had left her into the project. “I was totally crazy,” she says. “No way I could do that again. I was on a weird adrenaline rush.”

Her father built the host stand, and the mother of her boyfriend at the time sewed the curtains and banquette covers. Though it had only 60 seats, Scylla charmed local critics and soon attracted national acclaim. In 2007, Bon Appetit named the scrappy spot one of the ten best small restaurants in the country.

Izard, meanwhile, had exhausted herself to the point where she was experiencing strange fainting spells. “I was paying all the bills, writing all the checks, doing payroll, all that sort of stuff. I would get there in the morning and call back the reservations, and I worked a station, so I cooked every day. It was too much.” Two and a half years after Scylla opened, Izard gathered her staff of 20 and told them that the restaurant had six more weeks of operation.

They threw a big party, which Izard and her friends still refer to as the Best Party Ever. They danced until 6 a.m., then Izard walked away.

* * *

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.”

* * *

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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