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In exploring the international flavors of Chicago, FOOD & WINE Best New Chef Stephanie Izard of Girl & the Goat, Little Goat and Duck Duck Goat found her own voice.
Stephanie Izard is impulsive. Talented, ambitious and altogether impressive yes, but terribly impulsive. Ask the chef few questions about how she got from point A to point B, and you’ll quickly see that many of her turning points began with a whim: a weekend spent in the sunshine of a new city; a cook’s offhand remark that she couldn’t shake; a conversation with her husband, shared over leftovers. Izard has cultivated a mean set of instincts, and the grit to follow them to parts unknown. And in Chicago, one of the richest and most competitive restaurant markets in the country, those are traits that have served her well.
Izard was born in Chicago but her family moved to Connecticut when she was a baby, and it would take more than 20 years for her to find her way back. Her first restaurant job was at an Olive Garden, hostessing and waiting tables between classes at the University of Michigan. Eventually, she joined her sister out in Arizona where she enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu. “I found my people in culinary school. We’d go out after class and talk about food and chefs and Yan Can Cook,” she says. She worked at a restaurant in Scottsdale, and when it closed for renovations she decided to meet up with a friend in Chicago. “I’d never really experienced the city as an adult and I just loved it right away. We went to a Cubs game and wandered around street festivals outdoors. There were cute boys and nice people,” says Izard, who promptly quit her job in Arizona and asked her sister to mail her things to Illinois. “When you find a city that feels like the right fit, you just know.”
That was the first of a series of spontaneous decisions that would come to shape her life in Chicago. When a fellow cook at Dale Levitski’s French bistro La Tache told her she ought to open her own restaurant, she took the comment to heart and resigned the following week. She opened Scylla at the age of 27, relying on her community of friends and family to bring it to life—her dad built the host stand; a pal’s mom sewed the curtains. She enjoyed a successful three year run at Scylla, but it was her winning turn on season 4 of Top Chef that put Izard on the national radar. After returning to Chicago with the title, she spent a year hosting pop-up dinner parties around town, and in 2010 opened the doors to Girl & the Goat. “There was an expectation that we were going to do a fine dining restaurant, because that’s what was happening in Chicago at the time. But we came out of the gate super casual and fun,” says Izard. “It was great to see that the city was receptive to that. Now so many chefs are leaning that way.”
Maybe Chicagoans gave Girl & the Goat such a warm welcome because the restaurant was, in many ways, a distillation of what they already loved about their city. Izard channeled the ethnic fabric of Chicago into her menus, remixing flavors and ideas she discovered around town into something distinctly her own. The same Vietnamese nước chấm you’d encounter in Chicago’s Little Saigon neighborhood might season a pan-roasted halibut in Izard’s kitchen; you might catch a whiff of the same Indian garam masala that perfumes Devon Avenue swirled into a yogurt sauce here, or spot the masa and salsa verde that is ubiquitous in the Mexican community of Little Village accompanying a braise. “One of the great things about Chicago is that you can travel the world just by visiting different neighborhoods, and exploring the cultures represented there,” says Izard, who opened Girl & the Goat’s kid sister, Little Goat, in 2012.
Izard formalized her study of Chicago’s international cuisines by hosting a series of Sunday suppers in the private dining room of Little Goat. “We’d pick a country and try to learn about and prepare their food,” she says. It was one such dinner that led to her latest venture, the Chinese spot Duck Duck Goat. “My husband and I were eating the leftover fried rice and cashew chicken from our Chinese supper, and started talking about how cool it would be to open a Chinese restaurant,” says Izard. “I thought I’d just throw together a menu in a few weeks, but it turned into a much deeper dive. I went to China and Taiwan and taught myself how to make handmade noodles and 10 different kinds of dumpling wrappers.”
It’s this kind of nitty-gritty attention to detail that earned Izard a Food & Wine Best New Chef nod in 2010, and a James Beard Award in 2013. That was a watershed moment. Every city with a restaurant culture has its titans, but that’s especially true in Chicago, where for so long a small handful of chefs comprised a kind of gastronomic Mount Rushmore. Charlie Trotter, Paul Kahan and Rick Bayless were the names to know, along with Shawn McClain, who Izard once worked with at Spring, and Grant Achatz, a Trotter alum whose face was carved into the stone a bit later. Izard’s win was a quantum leap for Chicago’s culinary next of kin—cooks like Jake Bickelhaupt (42 Grams) and Curtis Duffy (Grace) who had toiled under the masters for years and were ready to make their own mark. “The Chicago restaurant scene is like a family tree. You can look at a lot of the chefs who are my age, and see the influence of the people they have worked for in their style of food,” says Izard. “That will happen to us too. In 10 years, the most talked about chefs in the city will have come through our kitchens.”
Izard’s impulsive streak has tamed a bit as she’s deepened her roots in Chicago. She's married now, and expecting a child soon. She’s responsible for a lot of livelihoods at her three restaurants, and even as she begins to toy with the idea of expanding to other cities, her civic pride keeps her tethered to the town she fell in love with on that furlough from Arizona 16 years back. But then again, she says she’s been really interested in Indian food lately. “That’s one of those cultures that I want to explore more. I was just joking around recently that maybe that would be our next restaurant,” she says. “But I’d have to spend more time checking out some Indian restaurants first. Or, you know, go to India…”