I might never bet on someone to become ginormously popular, but I would never bet against Top Steph.
Waiting in fame's green room is Stephanie Izard, Top Chef champion, owner of one of the hottest restaurants in a white-hot Chicago food scene (Girl & the Goat) and the newly minted author of a cookbook, Girl in the Kitchen. She arrives in Nashville next week for a book signing Oct. 19 at Turnip Truck Urban Fare — part of a foodie rock-tour of sorts that will hit 16 other cities in the coming months.
Is stardom a sure bet? Never. But consider this: How many chefs do you know that are signed with William Morris, doing dinners all over the country to raise money for charity and shopping producers for their own TV show? Those guys are usually referenced by single names: Mario. Emeril. Bobby. Ask Izard about it, and you get the sense that she's just enjoying the ride.
"I don't know what I thought," she said in a recent call from the road. "The stuff that happened definitely wasn't on my mind. I think nowadays students go to school and they think, 'I wanna graduate and be the next Bobby Flay,' or whatever it is they want to be. That wasn't in my mind at all. I just wanted to be a chef.
"None of this, I would have ever imagined in my life at all. My life is extremely bizarre. But fun. It's a giant adventure."
The adventure started when she closed Scylla, a critically admired restaurant in the city's Bucktown neighborhood, and walked over to the set of Top Chef, then filming its fourth season in Chicago. She had done time in some of Chicago's best kitchens and struck out on her own with a Mediterranean-inspired seafood restaurant almost on a dare. Scylla had a reputation for great food and inventive dishes, but Izard was attempting to run both the front of the house as well as the kitchen, and ultimately no amount of great food overcomes being stretched too thin.
Izard's season on Top Chef will be hard to duplicate. By most measures, she dominated a very talented field — including Atlanta's Richard Blais, who came back to win an all-star-laden Season 8 — racking up five wins and finishing with the best performance in the history of the show. And unlike every other winner, she was voted fan favorite, a sign that her wisecracking personality had appeal beyond the kitchen.
When she won, it left her in an enviable position. She was in demand, didn't need to rush back into a job for money, and had two years of finishing school at Scylla to know what not to do a second time around. She took almost two years to open Girl & the Goat, this time focusing on the food and leaving the rest to a set of partners.
The results have been impressive by almost any standard. G&G was a James Beard Award finalist for best new restaurant in the country. Food + Wine named Izard one of the country's best new chefs. The hometown Tribune named it the best new restaurant in a year full of excellent openings.
Predictably, television came calling. The problem for Izard, though, was there wasn't a lot of food-based television she loved. She cited Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations as a favorite, but that space was already well taken. She and her William Morris agents sifted through months of pitches before settling on a team to make a pilot.
"They have some great shows on TV already," she says, declining to name her producers. "Our goal was to find a company that makes shows we like and we think are cool and are well respected in the industry.
"January is when we're going to actually start shopping a show, getting a pilot together for the first quarter. I think it's going to be a combination of a cooking/travel/farm thing, showing people where food comes from. I just don't feel like there's any humor or sarcasm in the food world. I just want to bring a little bit of a fun personality to that side of things."
The near-constant requests for her to appear/cook/perform for various groups required her to hire an assistant. But it's also given her the platform to do the kind of road show she'd been thinking about for a couple of years.
"People always come into the restaurant and are like 'Oh, I wish you would open a restaurant in LA or Scottsdale or Portland' or whatever," she says. "And I don't really plan on opening restaurants all over the country, but I thought it would be fun to do one-night-only pop-up restaurants around the country.
"Then it occurred to me, with a book coming out, they would probably want me to go on book tour. So we thought, why not use the book tour as sort of our trial run for going on tour? And since we don't have a big traveling kitchen, I thought it would be fun to talk to some of my chef friends in different cities and see if they would want to do dinners with me. We do a lot of work with Share our Strength, so instead of doing these dinners just as dinners, why not do them to raise money for Share our Strength?" The plan is to raise $500,000 for the anti-hunger organization.
Izard won’t be cooking any dinners while she’s here, but she will be back in November to do a private event for CMT honoring their artists of the year. She got hooked up with the network through a shared manager with the Zac Brown Band, who brought out a country side Izard never knew she had.
"It's like my calling that I never knew about," she says. She says she's relishing the chance to serve a country audience dishes based on the food memories of the honorees.
As for the future, Izard says, only half-jokingly, that she's retiring in 10 years. That's a short window for stardom, but I still wouldn't bet against it.
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