The Chicagoist will be launching later but in the meantime please enjoy our archives.

Chicagoist Grills: Stephanie Izard

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Jun 2, 2008 8:40PM

2008_06_Izard.jpgLike Hawk Harrelson with the White Sox, we've been unabashed homers for Stephanie Izard to win "Top Chef Chicago" here at Chicagoist pretty much since we heard that she was taking part in the show. Her performance thus far — winner of one quickfire challenge and four elimination challenges — combined with an ebullient personality has her poised as both the front runner and fan favorite to win the competition.

But what does Izard have planned after "Top Chef?" We know of one event that she's doing in two weeks. Before the show she simply owned and ran one of the better restaurants in the city in Scylla. Her statement when it was announced that Scylla was closing was that she wanted to travel more. Almost immediately after Scylla closed, reports around town had Izard in a "Top Chef" smock, running against the clock at Whole Foods. Will she make good on her plans to travel more? Or has her run on the program re-stoked the desire to re-plant stakes in the local dining scene?

We just finished a phone interview with Izard and have some answers.

Chicagoist: It's been reported elsewhere but I wanted to ask you again directly: was the timing between closing Scylla and taping "Top Chef" merely coincidental?

Stephanie Izard: Absolutely. I actually had Scylla on the market way back in May (of last year) and it took a while for Takashi (Yagihashi) to come in and close on the space. It just so happened that the closing happened right around the time (taping) started. But I wouldn't have closed the restaurant simply to do the show.

C: Speaking of Takashi. Have you been back since you sold the building to him?

SI: I just visited for the first time over the weekend and was amazed at what he'd done with the space. I also gave them advice on how to handle the old air conditioning unit when the weather gets warmer.

C: What did you think of the food he's serving there?

SI: I was really impressed. His dishes have a lot of clean flavors and they look so amazing on the plate.

C: Your pastry and dessert skills as the competition unfolded have impressed a lot of viewers who only remember you for the entrées you made at Scylla. Where did you learn to do that so well?

SI: I worked for a while as a pastry chef earlier in my career. At Scylla, even though I had a pastry chef, we often worked together coming up with ideas for the menu, tasting them out and making them right. I think it's all part of being a well-rounded chef. I guess I'm lucky there.

C: Are you happy with the way the show has depicted you?

SI: When I saw the first episode I had to cover my eyes; I was thinking "Why did I choose to wear that shirt?" (laughs) But now that I've had some time to look back on it and see more episodes, Ive been very happy with how I was portrayed.

C: By contrast, viewers have been waiting for weeks to watch Lisa be eliminated. How much of her portrayal on the show is genuinely her personality and how much is the result of crafty editing?

SI: I got to know Lisa fairly well during the taping and I can say that much of her "character" is the result of editing. She does have some negativity from time to time but it's nowhere near they way it's looks on the show.

C: How did you manage to negotiate the politics between her and Dale? You were probably the only one to get those two to cooperate and work together.

SI: Someone had to step up there and get the three of us on the same page, working together. I'm a firm believer that you treat people as you wish to be treated. At Scylla, I treated everyone fairly. We were all good friends there with a lot of respect and love for each other.

C: Of the three other finalists, who would you say was your main competition?

SI: Probably Richard. He has a unique way of cooking and approaching food that I find neat to be around and watch. I'd love to pick his brain.

C: Which chefs do you think should have been in the top four?

SI: Dale or Jen. My predictions for the final four were me, Richard, Antonia and Dale. Unfortunately, Dale let his issues with Lisa get the better of him. It was tough to watch because I've known him for a long time and he's a great chef. I just had the opportunity to visit San Francisco and eat at Jen's restaurant. The food was amazing; she's such a talented cook.

: You mentioned how you like to have a well-rounded culinary education. What's your philosophy behind how you cook?

SI: I'm always looking for a balance of flavors, but I'm also looking for that unique one that gives the dish a little something unexpected or extra. I'm always thinking of how to balance out, say, salt in a dish if I taste it. I'm always thinking in flavors.

C: Did that thinking about flavors all the time affect how you performed in quickfire challenges? Or was it the speed of the challenges themselves?

SI: I don't think it was the speed of the challenges. Once the quickfires would start, there were so many ideas in my head at once that it was hard to pin one down and stick with it. To take one idea and run with it was very challenging.

C: What's next for you after the finale and this plate-to-plate challenge at Le Passage?

SI: I'm looking at opening up a new restaurant. I hope to find a spot sooner rather than later. in fact, I'm going out this afternoon to scout locations.

C: Is there a particular neighborhood you'd like to set up shop?

SI: I'd like to be closer to downtown this time around. I'd like to be open for both lunch and dinner, as well as have some convention business walk through the doors.