The Girl Makes Good

Stephanie Izard has traveled a path from winner of “Top Chef” to a notable Chicago restaurateur.
By Micheline Maynard


Read time: 6 minutes

Stephanie Izard has traveled a path from winner of “Top Chef” to a notable Chicago restaurateur.

Stephanie Izard, ’98, remembers decompressing with fellow “Top Chef ” contestant Spike Mendelsohn in 2008 after a particularly grueling taping session of the reality series. The pair had survived the competition up until that point and were among the final six. But the Chicago chef was concerned that producers were painting Mendelsohn, a confident culinary hot shot, as a jerk. That was to be expected, Mendelsohn told her, because everyone was playing a character.

“Who am I?” Izard asked Mendelsohn. He paused and responded, “You’re the winner.”

Mendelsohn was prophetic. Izard went on to win season four, becoming the first woman to be named Top Chef. After co-host Padma Lakshmi announced her victory, Izard made her own prediction: “My life is about to change. It’s going to be absolutely insane.”

And how. One restaurant might be proof the judges were right, but since “Top Chef,” Izard has opened three in Chicago’s Fulton Market district, west of the Loop. Her first, Girl & the Goat, was a hit from the moment it served its first meal in 2010, earning Izard the coveted James Beard Award as Best Chef: Great Lakes in 2013. She wrote a cookbook, “Girl in the Kitchen” (Chronicle Books, 2011), and oversaw the creation of her next restaurant, Little Goat, an upscale diner in 2013. That same year, she married Gary Valentine, a Chicago craft beer expert.

Spring 2016 turned out to be momentous in a different way. On May 26, she gave birth to her son, Ernie (named in honor of Chicago Cubs great Ernie Banks). The previous month, she opened her newest place, Duck Duck Goat (pictured here), an Asian-inspired noodle and dumpling bar. The proliferation of “goat” names derives from the “izard,” another name for a chamois or goat antelope.

Anyone else might keel over from exhaustion, but Izard was bright eyed and fast talking during a conversation at Little Goat three weeks after Ernie’s birth. While checking texts and chatting with staff, she kept an eye on the swiftly growing lunch crowd.

Kevin Pang, the Chicago-based journalist and filmmaker who spent 11 years at the Chicago Tribune, said Izard’s restaurants are “the kind hotel concierges recommend—fine dining, but not too precious or unapproachable, with perpetual long lines that play to the idea it’s a tough ticket.” He adds, “There’s no doubt in my mind more people around the country know about Girl & the Goat than they do Alinea,” the Michelin three-star restaurant.

Izard was born in Evanston, ILL., but grew up in Stamford, Conn., making frequent trips back home to see her relatives. Her love of the region fueled her desire to attend a Midwest college rather than a school back East. Her grades were OK, she said, but her parents doubted she had a record strong enough for acceptance into Michigan. A campus tour eliminated any other possibilities, though. “As soon as I saw the Big House, I knew it,” said Izard.

She learned “The Victors” and sang it for months, until her family asked her to stop. When an early admission letter arrived, she quickly accepted.

Izard plunged into campus life, living first in Mary Markley Hall, where she decorated her side of the room with Led Zeppelin and Grateful Dead posters. She pledged the Delta Zeta sorority, but lived in the house for only a year before moving to an apartment behind Mitch’s, the now-defunct South University sports bar. She frequently hung out there, at Rick’s American Café, and at Dominick’s. And she attended every Michigan football game during her four years on campus.

When it came to choosing a major, Izard initially hoped to earn an undergraduate business degree, but her grades were below the business school’s threshold. She then considered getting a degree in general studies, only to have her father ask, “Can you pick a real major?” Izard joked that sociology won out because classes were held on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

She also worked in the Markley dining room, where one of her tasks was to stop students from taking food to their rooms. In her junior and senior years, she was a hostess at the Olive Garden restaurant near Briarwood Mall. Wearing a tie with a salad print, she made salads for customers according to a restaurant chart and learned how a corporate chain operated. “Everybody should work in retail or a restaurant,” Izard said.

Along with working, Izard regularly cooked for her friends, and as soon as she graduated from U-M, she took steps toward her ultimate culinary career: she moved to Phoenix and enrolled in the Scottsdale Culinary Institute (now called Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts). The work was hard and instructors demanded that students learn the basics, like the proper way to handle a chef ’s knife. If they cut themselves more than three times, they had to wear a white glove, Izard recalled. But she didn’t miss a single class and was on time every day. She had found her calling.

After a few brief jobs in Phoenix, Izard headed back to Chicago to work for a restaurant owned by famed chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. In 2004, at just 27, Izard opened her first place, Scylla. She took out a small business loan to buy a building in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood and cashed in $100,000 in Tribune Company stock gifted to her over the years by her grandfather, former chairman of the publishing firm. Scylla, which focused on seafood, captured the attention of the city’s food community. It also earned Izard her first national attention when Bon Appétit magazine named it one of the Ten Best Small Restaurants in the U.S.

“She already had foodie street cred before blowing up on television,” said Pang.

Despite receiving acclaim, the economy was softening, and her stock sale had resulted in a tax hit. She sold the restaurant in 2007 and turned her attention to “Top Chef.” Not only did her television victory nab a $100,000 prize, it also led her to her business partners, Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz of Chicago’s well-respected BOKA Restaurant Group. They have since backed each of her restaurants.

Izard knew the pressure was on for Girl & the Goat to be a success. “This restaurant needs to be awesome,” she recalled thinking. She didn’t need to worry. Young Chicagoans, especially, packed the West Loop restaurant as soon as it opened in 2010. They watched Izard in her open kitchen, cooking “tail to snout” dishes that included goat, as well as other offerings new to diners at the time, such as roasted Brussels sprouts.

With business strong at her three places, Izard is beginning to think about opening restaurants in other parts of the country, possibly including Ann Arbor. She’s pondering a way back into television, following in the footsteps of her role model, Chicago chef Rick Bayless, MA’75, who has a collection of restaurants, a range of food products, and the popular PBS show “Mexico—One Plate at a Time.”

But Izard, who turns 40 in October, has an end game in mind. After bringing baby Ernie over to the table for a visit, she confides the reason behind her determination. “I kind of want to do this now, because I have early retirement in my head.”

Stephanie’s Rules for Succeeding on Reality TV

When Stephanie Izard won “Top Chef” in 2008, it was one of the only competitive food shows on television. She has some tips for people who are considering whether to follow in her footsteps.
Go in determined to enjoy the experience, not for what you’ll get out of it. Izard said she went on “Top Chef” aiming to have fun, rather than come out the winner.

Understand that you’ll be playing a character. If you don’t have your own identity, producers will create one for you. Izard felt she was best off simply being a nice Midwestern girl.

Focus on surviving the early rounds, not on your ultimate prize. Elimination too soon can hurt your business as much as later wins can boost it.

Don’t be lured into drama. Fighting and conniving might get you screen time, but it can overshadow your talent.
Do your best work. Izard was one of the top four contestants on 11 of her 14 episodes and won two Quickfire Challenges, in which chefs have only minutes to prepare a dish.

Be active on social media. Contestants need Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and most likely Snapchat accounts.

Micheline Maynard is the senior editor of NPR’s “Here & Now,” the daily news program heard by 4 million listeners.

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