Stephanie Izard On Her New Hit Restaurant Girl & The Goat LA - Exclusive Interview

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If there was a competitive cooking hall of fame (which there absolutely should be), Stephanie Izard would be on the fast track for enshrinement. Not only did Izard become the first female contestant to win "Top Chef" when she took home the season four crown in 2008, she's also a certified Iron Chef, earning the rarified distinction after defeating a who's who of kitchen titans on "Iron Chef Gauntlet." In fact, she's the only person ever to hold both coveted cooking competition titles.

Izard's smorgasbord of achievements beyond television are equally impressive. The Evanston-native (and die-hard Cubs fan) is the executive chef and owner of four restaurants in Chicago including Cabra Cevicheria, Little Goat, Duck Duck Goat, and the flagship Girl & the Goat which earned her a 2013 James Beard award for "Best Chef: Great Lakes" and a best new chef shout out from Food & Wine in 2011. After three long years, Izard finally opened the Los Angeles spinoff of Girl & the Goat earlier this summer and it's absolutely been worth the wait — the restaurant is earning plenty of praise not to mention it's one of the toughest reservations in town.

She's also the owner of the This Little Goat line of products, the recently launched Sugargoat bakery operation; and the nationwide meal kit service Girl & the Goat by Stephanie Izard;  author of two books, "Girl in the Kitchen" and "Gather & Graze;" and a mom to 5-year-old son Ernie.

During an exclusive interview with Mashed, Izard reflected on her cooking career, discussing her incredible journey from "Top Chef" champion to head of a culinary empire.

Stephanie Izard reflects on the extended journey to opening of Girl & the Goat in Los Angeles

First of all, congrats on the success of Girl & the Goat in Los Angeles.

Oh, thank you. I appreciate it.

What has it been like dealing with the restaurant build-out during the pandemic? Was there ever a moment when you thought this isn't going to happen?

It definitely pushed everything back quite a bit. The restaurant was sitting here built since a year ago. Instead of trying to get it open while it was open and closed in LA, we waited until everything was back to 100 percent, which now of course, things are getting a little wonky again. Yeah, it was just a waiting game, just making sure that we waited until things opened up and that it made sense to be able to get staff and have it be a safe environment and that people would be excited to go out. The timing worked out and we decided to open it in July. It was right around the first day of the Girl & the Goat in Chicago, so it was a little bit serendipitous it worked out.

You've only been open for a few weeks, but are you recognizing any differences between Chicago and Los Angeles dining sensibilities?

I think it's interesting. I think someone from Chicago, it may be in some people's minds, they're like, "Oh yeah, LA health conscious, this, that." And yes, people already know it's beautiful and sunshiny. There's a lot of health-conscious things just like in any city, but people here are really excited. We're selling a ton of our bread and our goat liver mousse and our duck tartare, a lot of our meats and things that are a little bit different. They're generally excited. I think it's very similar to folks that are coming to eat in Chicago where they'd come in and they're excited to try something a little bit different.

How seasonal produce inspires the menu at Girl & the Goat LA

Do you have a favorite item on the LA menu?

Something so simple, we have a tomato and basically plum salad right now. If you go to the farmers' market here, there are so many varieties of amazing plums, which I've always tried to find the perfect nice, tart, hard plums to put in savory dishes. It's so simple... tomatoes and stone fruit with a crispy quinoa. And a little bit of the remnants for making our chili oil is on it too. It's different spices and sesame seeds and such. And it's just this sort of crunchy, bright, shiny, summery salad and something so simple. Everybody in the world would has tomato salad on their menu right now, it's summer — but taking that and making it a little bit different and having fun textures and really good flavor.

You have access to so much fantastic California produce now. Do you have a new food discovery, something that you weren't really familiar with or never really cooked with, but you're excited to work with now?

I wouldn't say necessarily anything that I haven't used before, but it's amazing to go and get stuff. In Chicago, we rarely are able to even put plums on the menu because I can't find the perfect ones. Right now, the grapes out here are really awesome. We do have one farm in Chicago that we're able to get grapes from, but going here and just seeing a dozen different varieties of grapes at the farmer's market... We have them on the menu in a chicken dish that we just put out two days ago, in a Sichuan chili sauce with chicken and a vanilla bean yogurt underneath. We have a grape starter that we just put on and I'm working with grapes to put on the dessert menu. I'm just getting really grape happy.

Is there a particular type of grape that you're gravitating towards?

We just put them on, we got these awesome finger grapes. They look green grapes, the shape of your pinky finger, I guess. You would think they'd just be like regular green grapes, but the ones that we were able to get at the market are just super acidic and just the right amount of sweetness. They're perfect for a savory dish.

Why Girl & the Goat's famed Pig Face will remain a Chicago exclusive

One dish that has been a huge success in Chicago is the Pig Face. The diehards want to know when will it make an appearance in LA?

It won't. It's a Chicago dish because we worked with a farmer in Chicago that has 80 pig heads a week for us because he sells a lot of the other parts of the animal to other chefs. We were supporting that farm and using the whole animal when that dish went on. That's the story of why it came to be. We don't have a farmer working here that has 80 pig heads a week.

As we get to know our farmers, I'm sure there'll be dishes that come on the menu here. There are certain stories about different things that we found at different farms and that's our goal. Yeah, there are things on the menu that you can't get in Chicago and vice versa and that keeps them differentiated.

Whether it's Mexican, Thai, Persian, Korean, there are plenty of global touchstones in Los Angeles. Have you been inspired by any of those foods and cultures and has that been reflected on what you're cooking at Girl & the Goat?

Yeah. We've always had a lot of flavors from those cultures all over the world on our menus just from my travels. You can definitely see it on the menu if you come in right now. There's a bunch of different parts of the world and places that I've been. It's awesome to just be around [different] ethnicities and I'm excited to just go out and eat more things. It's just the flavors that I gravitate towards and what I want to eat and that's why they're reflected on our menu so much.

Yeah. I'm just excited ... I haven't gotten to eat out very much. I've just been working every day. But I'm so close to Little Tokyo and Chinatown and just to go spend some time just walking around and eating, I'm excited about that.

A number of Top Chef alums like Brooke Williamson and Mei Lin operate restaurants in Los Angeles. Did you get any advice from them as far as what to expect in LA?

Yeah. Actually, those guys and just other chef friends that I have out here, Brooke and Antonia [Lofaso], they were on "Top Chef," then also Ori [Menashe] from Bavel and Bestia right across the street... I definitely, over the past couple years, was just reaching out to chef friends, just asking a ton of questions from, "Hey, where do you get your linens from," to, "Hey, how do you get stuff from the farmer's market?" Things are just a little different out here. It's definitely been great coming and just knowing I already had a bunch of chefs that I could lean on and ask a lot of questions. Jon [Shook] and Vinny [Dotolo] were super helpful in finding some things. It's been awesome to get help from the community of chefs.

Stephanie Izard reflects on working with Eric Ripert and doing battle with Morimoto

Speaking of Brooke and Mei, how do you feel about being the first woman to take the "Top Chef" title? Do you have any thoughts on why only two women, you and Kristen Kish, won in the show's first 10 seasons, but for the last eight seasons, half the winners have been women?

I think it's always an ever-changing thing of there being more and more women in the industry and coming up as chefs. Hopefully that goes along with it, being that more women are rising up and running restaurants and things like that around the country. They just seem to have found some really amazing women to be on the show.

Over time, when you look at the array of people that have been on the show in all the seasons, in the first 10 seasons, there were still a lot of amazing women included in that lineup. It's always anyone's game. It's whoever has some their best days making some of their best dishes and who fumbled a little bit at a certain challenge.

You had plenty of highlights on Top Chef and Iron Chef Gauntlet. You got to cook with Eric Ripert. You beat Bobby Flay. Beyond winning both competitions, what are the moments that stand out from those experiences?

Oh yeah, cooking with Eric Ripert. I always joke about this too, I had asked him to cut fish. We were doing a dish and I was like, "Can you clean this fish for me?" then I went over and I was like, "No, can you..." and I was showing him how I wanted him how I wanted him to clean the fish. It was just really funny, especially at the time. I think I was like getting scared of working with someone like Chef Ripert because he's just super amazing.

Yeah, I think it's just over the years getting to go on those shows, getting to cook alongside chefs that I've always looked up to and I continue to look up to, and now I get to see them at events and just text them and you're doing things with them. You feel a little bit more of a peer while still always looking up to so many people in the industry.

Did you have a favorite chef to compete against?

I would say the scariest chef to compete against was [Masaharu] Morimoto. That was my final "Iron Chef Gauntlet" challenge. I had this challenge against him, and I knew it was coming up and I couldn't sleep the night before. He's just a bad*ss and very precise, and does really awesome things. I think that was the scariest chef that I had to cook against.

Stephanie Izard discusses the importance of her Top Chef family

Can you talk a little bit about the "Top Chef" family? I was going through your Instagram and there were so many alums from the show that have been stopping by the Girl & the Goat. Is there a text chain you guys have? How do you guys stay in touch?

I think that once you've done "Top Chef" it's almost like you're in this weird little fraternity of people, of chefs, that have just gotten to know each other through that. The chef community in general is really cool where you go to a city and you probably have a chef friend there and you can go to their restaurant and visit and things like that. But the "Top Chef" community is an even more close-knit group where we all went through this crazy thing that you cannot understand unless you actually went through it.

I think it just brings us a little closer. I think that's one of the biggest parts of having been on "Top Chef" is any city you go to you're probably going to have someone that was on "Top Chef" that you can go say "hi" to. Even if it's someone that you weren't in competition with. The folks that have come by to visit me here are all good friends. Anytime you see somebody that's been on the show, you instantly have that connection.

Do the winners have a secret handshake?

Well, I can't tell you. Then it wouldn't be a secret anymore.

How Stephanie Izard has adjusted to being a celebrity chef

What do you think of the term celebrity chef?

If I'm referring to anything where I'm just talking about something that I'm doing where it fits in the realm of being part of my job, I always do little hand quote, the air quotes; I'm like, "I guess because I'm a 'celebrity chef.'" It's interesting. I think it's great that between Food Network and Bravo and all the other food shows now on Netflix and everything, it just gets people talking about food more in general.

I remember one day I was walking to the airport and I walked by a couple of different groups of people having just conversations about food and I was just thinking to myself how it was awesome how it's just become so mainstream for people to talk and think about it as much as we do in the chef community.

So, celebrity chef, it's cool. It's awesome that there's so many different chefs that get recognized, but there's so many amazing chefs that maybe don't necessarily have a huge Instagram following and all the things they're doing are cool things. It's just awesome to have people talking about food more and wanting to go to restaurants and support the restaurants in different cities.

You were part of the first wave of Top Chef winners. Did you anticipate how vital continuing to be on television and doing all these food events would be for your career?

Definitely not. When I [won], I actually woke up that morning and I looked at my Facebook and it was blowing up. This was years ago before Instagram even was a thing. I was like, "Oh my god, what's going on?" and I turned off my Facebook. I understand that now people go onto the show and they get somebody that's going to help them run all of their social media before they even go on the show. It's just so different than it was 10 years ago.

Yeah, sometimes I look at it and like, "Oh, it's a whole other job," but it's a fun part of the job. It's just trying to balance that and doing work in the kitchen, which right now, I'm standing here spinning ice cream while we're talking, so doing that besides doing the other stuff.

I think most chefs, from what I see, we love getting to do the events and getting to do a lot of charity events where we can still cook and help raise money and to see other chefs out at these other things. I think we all find that part to be really fun. It's kind of like a fun perk for all of the hard work that it takes is day to day operating a restaurant.

What's your best advice for would-be chef competitors?

I jokingly say that my motto was like, "Just don't make anything gross, then you're not going to kicked off." No, I think it's just going and just be yourself. Cooking is very personal, and if you try to change the food to impress the judges and what you think their expectations are, then that's where it's not going to go well. It should just represent your cooking style and what you're excited about and what you love to do. That's the best way to go into it.

Stephanie Izard reveals her best ice cream hack

Can you tell me a little bit about the ice cream you're making? Do you have a different approach to how you make ice cream?

Yeah. For one of our desserts, we call it the Popcorn Situation. It's kind of thinking about popcorn three different ways: buttered popcorn, cheese popcorn, and caramel popcorn. There's a little caramel corn garnish on top of caramel corn ice cream. There's a butter and cheesecake — it's like a butter cake that has cheese in it, much more cheese in it, and then strawberry jam on the bottom. It's our most popular dessert at the moment here. The popcorn ice cream is awesome.

What we started doing with our ice cream bases is we make the base, we infuse the flavor, and then right before it's spinning, we add in a little bit of our house-made caramel and it helps with the texture, but also adds this really awesome layer of flavor.

I made an oyster sauce ice cream here which is really fun. We do a sesame cookies and cream one. No matter what flavor it is that we're doing, we add just a little bit of caramel to help with the texture and just add a little bit more depth of flavor.

Stephanie Izard provides a Crunches explainer

You have the This Little Goat product line with sauces, spices, and Crunches. How would you define a Crunch, and where did the idea for those come from?

If you were to come to eat at Girl & the Goat in LA, or Girl & the Goat in Chicago, or any of my restaurants, I guess, you'll notice that texture is a huge part of all the dishes and it's such an important element to me, just as much as adding the acid and the spice, the savory and the sweet. It's the crunch.

We started using a lot of these mixes where we puff black rice and then we add different spices to it, and add some different fun additions to it. I actually have a sweet one in front of me that we don't sell yet, but I would love to, it's like the dessert version of the crunch, but just being able to have that at home where you're going to put it on top of... Our whole line, we say, goes on anything.

From the crunch to the sauces to the spices, they can just go on anything and just enhance your cooking at home or just your snacking. When I get off work, if I have a bowl of salad, I always even put my own Crunchies on them at home because it makes it more fun. When your mouth gets to experience that texture at the same time as the flavor, it's just a whole different eating experience.

Stephanie Izard discusses introducing food to kids

I know you're so busy with the restaurants and your other business endeavors. What do you like to do in your free time?

I have a 5-year-old, Ernie. This morning, I just went on a hike with him and went for a quick time and I came in a little later than usual. It's all about just finding fun adventures to do with him. Being out with a 5-year-old is the best way to get your mind off of any stresses and to see the world from a much more, I don't know, a first time look. We went hiking this morning and he saw this beetle and it was the most exciting thing in the morning. We looked at him for like 15 minutes, whereas I probably would have just walked by it before.

What's the best way to expand kids' culinary horizons and keep them away from fast food?

Yeah. I'm not going to pretend that Ernie is any different than any other kid. He isn't the best eater, but he's up for trying new things, especially if he gets his hands into it. I try — especially during quarantine, it was perfect because I was home so much — so I tried to get him using his hands in the kitchen. We were making scallion pancakes together and making different dough things. There's a reason why it's called Play-Doh, it's really fun to play with dough, even food dough.

I think the more that you can get your kids to participate a little bit... Ernie comes in and looks at our butcher and asks, "What is that?" I was like, "Well, that's duck breast," and he's like, "Where does it come from," and he's like, "Oh, from a duck?" I was like, "Yeah." Just letting him learn about food I think gets him more excited to try some things and some things not. He's only 5, but he'll say, "Hey, I'll love that when I'm 7." I'm like, "All right, I'll hold you to that. "

The future of Girl & the Goat and Stephanie Izard's Cubs fandom

Are there any other Girl & the Goat outlets on the horizon?

I don't think so. I have one more project that will be coming up here in Los Angeles. There might be some other things and I work some other brands like Sugargoat, which is the bakery brand that I launched last November that we might do a little bit more with, but nothing super finalized yet. Having two Girl & the Goats I think is enough. It's such a personal restaurant to me and I definitely put myself into the menus and into everything that happens to them that I think it's a hard  balance to have two and have all these restaurants. I think, for me, more would probably just dilute it and take away from me being able to give it my own touches.

Can you tell me more about the LA project?

I can't, unfortunately. Yeah, there's something coming up. We'll probably be talking about it sometime in September, but it's another fun thing that we've done before that we're bringing out here that we're excited about.

Are you going to be in the kitchen at Girl & the Goat LA for the foreseeable future?

I am. Towards the end of the month, I start jumping back going back and forth to Chicago. Then I have some upcoming events. I got back to being me when I'm here and I might just be out on the road, but yeah, I'll pretty much be here every day for the next couple of weeks, then I'll be in and out.

Final question, now that the 2016 World Series Cubs have been completely dismantled, are you considering becoming a Dodgers fan?

No. I don't think that I would abandon my fan-ness right away. I said even, watching the Dodgers here, it's a fun team to watch so I think I can cheer for both, but hopefully the Cubs will find a way to get a cool team again. I think there's a lot of sad people in Chicago.

Keep up with Stephanie Izard by visiting her website and following her on Instagram