Top Chef Wine Challenge
To win the hard-fought fourth season of Bravo’s hit reality cooking show, Top Chef, Stephanie Izard expertly handled almost every challenge the judges threw at her. She transformed a taco into an haute fruit crumble, topped with fried wontons, butchered a whole pig, made appetizers based on a gorilla’s diet and prepared a wedding cake for 250 guests. In the process, she impressed people like star chef Anthony Bourdain. “That’s what’s fascinating about the show,” says Bourdain, who judged a few of the episodes. “You see talented cooks reach the limit of their abilities, and then go beyond it…or not.”
Stephanie claims there’s a fairly straightforward way to master these myriad culinary skills: Open your own restaurant, and do everything yourself. She was 27 when she launched the well-received Scylla in Chicago, where she took reservations and waited on tables, as well as serving dishes like grilled octopus with prosciutto and lemon-pistachio vinaigrette.
At Scylla, Stephanie also became serious about wine. She’d been keeping a notebook of memorable bottles she’d drunk since she started cooking, but at her restaurant she wrote the list, met with importers and studied food-and-wine pairings. To accompany Scylla’s boldly flavored dishes, Stephanie created an international list of artisanal producers, with Sauvignon Blancs from California, New Zealand and Chile, and red wines from Oregon and Greece.
As a result, when F&W dared her to create three very different recipes to pair with a single wine varietal—Gewürztraminer—Stephanie thought it was the easiest challenge she’d seen in months. “I like Gewürz; I drink it all the time,” she says, noting the wide range of styles from well-balanced (her favorite) to sweet and fruity (which she finds harder to serve with food). “I’ve come a long way since the boxed wines I drank in college,” she says.
Her taste in wine might not always have been great, but Stephanie has been food-savvy since she was a child. In her Stamford, Connecticut, household, the more unconventional a dish was, the better. “My mom didn’t do hot dogs and meat loaf; she made globally influenced food, like tempura,” says Stephanie. Suppers at her house were planned ahead of time and posted on the fridge. “At the beginning of each week, my family would write our menus. My friends would come over and decide what night they wanted to eat over. Yorkshire pudding night was always popular,” she recalls.
After majoring in sociology at the University of Michigan, Stephanie found that she was more influenced by her part-time job as a server at the local Olive Garden than by school and enrolled in the Scottsdale Culinary Institute in Arizona. She graduated, went to visit friends in Chicago and never left. During a stint there at Jean-George Vongerichten’s Vong, she got her first real exposure to Asian flavors. (“I’ve worked with a lot of cooks who are good with Asian influences. But obviously, Jean-Georges is better with them than most,” says Stephanie.) She next cooked at Shawn McClain’s Spring restaurant before moving to the acclaimed La Tache, where she worked with Dale Levitski (who would become a star of Top Chef’s Season 3).
One day at La Tache, one of the line cooks told Stephanie that she was good enough to open her own place. “I must have been on an adrenaline high, because that’s all it took: I quit that job, bought a building and opened Scylla,” Stephanie recounts. The restaurant was successful, but after three years, exhausted and miserable, Stephanie closed it. A few months later, Top Chef called her to audition for its fourth season; Levitski had recommended her.
For the F&W wine challenge, Stephanie chose dishes that reflect everything from her love for seafood and pork to her Med-American cooking style to her travels through Vietnam. She pan-roasted thick duck breasts and topped them with a luscious miso-almond butter; she loves the spiciness of Gewürztraminer with earthy miso. She seared fillets of halibut with a sweet-savory ground-pork-and-peanut sauce (“my Asian ragù”) that pairs well with the white wine’s fruitiness. She also took one of her favorite ingredients, sea scallops, browned them in butter, then served them with colorful rainbow chard spiked with sautéed bacon—the bacon and the butter balance the richness of the wine. Each dish, delicious on its own, was also terrific with Gewürztraminer.
Stephanie’s focus now is on the restaurant she’s planning to open in Chicago next spring. It will be a casual place that she’s loosely calling a gastropub (it’s a concept that works well for her; she won Top Chef’s Restaurant Wars challenge by creating a gastropub). The kitchen will be wide open, and she’s hoping to have her Top Chef friends be guest cooks on the line. The wine list she is already working on will emphasize unusual bottlings that cost less than $30. And Stephanie will also feature an extensive selection of what she says is her new passion: beer.