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Throughout Top Chef's fourth season, Stephanie Izard quietly established herself as a leading contender for the prize through refined cooking, strong leadership, an ability to adapt to a wide range of challenges, and an easygoing personality that's rare in a reality competition show. In the season-four finale, which premièred June 11 on Bravo, she beat the two remaining finalists, Richard Blais and Lisa Fernandes, to become the series' first female winner. Previously, she was the executive chef and owner of the now-shuttered Chicago restaurant Scylla, which specialized in seafood with a Mediterranean bent. She's currently scouting the city for a new restaurant space. The morning after the Top Chef finale aired, Izard spoke to The A.V. Club about her culinary and social strategies, the difficulty with desserts, and the differences between onscreen and offscreen at Top Chef.
The A.V. Club: How did you come to get involved in the show?
Stephanie Izard: I've been a longtime fan of the show, and my friend Dale Levitsky was on last season, and he had such a great experience. When [the producers] were looking for people in Chicago, he called me up and asked, "Do you want me to recommend you? Is that something you want to do?" He was definitely instrumental in pushing forth on that.
AVC: As a fan of the show, what sort of strategy did you have going in?
SI: Basically, I wanted to go in and concentrate on the food, and not worry about all the arguing and things that were going to be going on. And I wanted to just try to be myself, which I think I pretty much did. I didn't want to spend the time or the energy talking negatively about other people, because what's the point of that? Just be there to cook for myself and really enjoy the experience and meeting the other people and all of that.
AVC: Were you concerned that that would make you an unappealing reality-show contestant? Being nice and steering clear of drama doesn't necessarily make for great television.
SI: I guess that's true. But at the end of the day, I'm not looking to be a reality star. I'm looking to be a good chef. If I wanted to be all crazy and stuff, I guess I could have tried out for The Real World or something like that.
AVC: Did you have a pretty good sense right away about how your skill-set measured up to the competition?
SI: I think winning the first challenge definitely gave me the advantage of right away feeling pretty confident about my skills. But the first day walking in and talking to people about what they did, it just seemed like they'd found a really talented group of people. Most of them were executive chefs that had owned restaurants, and definitely I figured there'd be some stiff competition.
AVC: In the finale, you said that winning the Top Chef title meant more to you than the $100,000 prize. Why is that?
SI: I just always strive I'm very competitive. I have a secret mission to be an Olympic champion, and I guess this is as close as I'm going to get. [Laughs.] I wanted to go in and win and prove to myself that I could do it. Of course the $100,000 is great: Everybody has credit-card debts to pay off and all that. But that's not what it was about for me. It was about going in and winning. I just, you know I like to win things. [Laughs.]
AVC: What do you feel like this title is going to mean for you? Do you have a sense of what the result of it might be, especially as you're looking into opening another restaurant?
SI: I think it'll definitely help me with finding investors, who can see that I'm talented and have what it takes to run a restaurant. As far as Chicago goes, there's so much support right now that I'm pretty sure the first couple months at least are going to be pretty jam-packed, once I get a place opened.
AVC: For the final contest on the show, you lost your sous-chefs after a day's prep, and you all seemed crammed into a very small kitchen. Did those circumstances make it harder for you to do your best work?
SI: Yeah, it was definitely a tough challenge. But going into it, I kind of figured they were gonna pull our sous-chefs, because it wouldn't be right to give us that kind of help for the whole day. So going into it, I made two prep lists, one with Eric [Ripert, of Le Bernardin fame] and one without. Everything we did on Top Chef was a high-pressure situation, so luckily we had sort of learned to deal with that, which probably helped a lot.
AVC: Did it seem to you that Richard was maybe less prepared for that? He seemed a little off his game. How do you account for his flame-out in the finale?
SI: I don't know. I would assume that Richard came to Puerto Rico prepared. Maybe he had too many thoughts going on in his head and wasn't able to sort of get his focus. But I'm sure he spent a lot of time getting ready for Puerto Rico, and I'm sure he got there ready to go. At the end of the day, who knows what happened?
AVC: Does that happen when you're a chef? Do you just have one of those days sometimes, and this one just happened to fall at a particularly bad time for him?
SI: Possibly. I'm sure he could have done better, but we never really know. Of course chefs do have bad days from time to time, and it's very unfortunate if that's what happened to Richard.
AVC: You had some months leading up to the finale. Did you have a pretty solid game-plan in place, or were you just going to kind of roll with it once you got there and saw what you were presented with?
SI: The way I cook is, you'll see me wandering around the grocery store aimlessly, just looking for what looks good. I always just sort of roll with it. You want to use the best produce that's available, and we had no idea what proteins we were going to have, or what we were going to be given. I think going in with too much of a game plan and finding some things weren't available would totally throw me off. I did a lot of cooking before I left, and had dinner parties and gave myself challenges all the time. So I prepared that way, but I definitely didn't have a set menu or anything like that.
AVC: Did you factor in the proteins when you made your sous-chef decision, or were you really intent on going for Ripert regardless?
SI: [Laughs.] Looking back on it, I probably wouldn't have chosen Chef Ripert if I just did it based on the proteins, because there were scallops and pork belly and all these other things out there. I think I was just slightly starstruck, and I was like, "Ooh, how exciting, someone I've always wanted to meet and work with." I'm sure that affected my decision.
AVC: Did he do a pretty good job of cutting that fish for you?
SI: [Laughs.] Yeah. I actually went back the next day and trimmed them down because they were a little big for the bowl they gave us. I felt bad standing over his shoulder, but it's like of course Eric Ripert knows how to clean fish, but is he gonna cut it the exact way I that want it, you know? I think all of us just wanted it to be our meal and our dishes, and even though we're working with great chefs, they have their own styles and we have ours.
AVC: For the finale, the chefs were allowed to bring in materials that weren't available during the course of the show, like Richard with his liquid nitrogen. Did you take advantage of that?
SI: I didn't bring anything crazy. I brought things like my favorite olives, which I used on the lamb dish, or capers, or things that I actually use in my everyday cooking. I don't use crazy things like liquid nitrogen. I just brought a lot of my favorite ingredients that I thought might not be available when we got there.
AVC: What are your thoughts on molecular gastronomy? Are there areas like that in cooking that interest you, that you'd like to explore more in the future?
SI: There are some things I've definitely played around with after reading about them. There is definitely a place for a lot of those kinds of techniques. There are a couple of chefs in Chicago that have obviously shown there's a way to do it well. It just doesn't really fit with my style. I like to stick to a little more classic. People were making really great food for a really long time before those techniques came along.
AVC: It was a little surprising to see you have so much trouble with the dessert, considering how well your desserts went over in "Restaurant Wars" and "Wedding Wars." What happened? Were you just not anticipating being asked to cook dessert?
SI: The flavor was great on the cake itself, and I had a sauce ready. But in making the dessert, I just sort of second-guessed myself and started making some weird filling, and adding all these components that were just completely unnecessary. I think if I'd kept it a little more straightforward, it could have been a really tasty dessert. Yeah, I don't really know what happened there.
AVC: Why is dessert such a nagging issue for chefs on the show? Is it a discipline that restaurant chefs just aren't accustomed to handling?
SI: I think a lot of chefs can definitely think about great flavor combinations and stuff, but then they'll pass it along to their pastry chef to actually do it in the end. Pastries, you actually do using recipes, and it's got a little more of a science to it. It's something that a lot of times, chefs aren't really involved in coming up with throughout their career, so it makes it a little more challenging.
AVC: As a Chicagoan, did you feel the show represented this city's culinary world well?
SI: I do. They showed Green City Market, and doing the pizza challenge and the Bears, going to the tailgating. They definitely showed Chicago very well. We got to see different neighborhoods and things like that. It's hard to really represent the whole culinary world, because we have such a great scene going on here, but I think this will definitely help open people's eyes to what a great food city we have.
AVC: There were a lot of complaints on our boards from Chicago foodies: "Why isn't Hot Doug's on there?" "Why isn't Charlie Trotter's on there?" "Why did they go to Whole Foods instead of local markets?" Did you ever think, "Why are we here instead of there?"
SI: Yeah, a little bit. As far as Charlie Trotter's goes, I'm guessing that Charlie Trotter didn't want to be on Top Chef. [Laughs.] He's probably a little too cool for school with that one. But they tried their best to represent Chicago, and there are things people think about Chicago—maybe they think about Pizzeria Uno because that's the first one, though the actual really good pizza in Chicago is from smaller places. Once you've lived in Chicago for a while, you find the neat little things that they didn't really show on the show, but I think they did a pretty good job.
AVC: Do you feel like your point of view as a chef was well-represented on the show, or were there too many group challenges?
SI: I think a little of both. I think that under the pressure and the circumstances, I don't know if the food I made on the show was the same as I would make it at my restaurant. And when you're doing the group challenges, it is very hard to make sure that your voice gets heard, and that the dish comes out as something you would want it to be. But part of the whole challenge of the show is really having to make sure that your voice is heard. Part of being a good chef is being able to work well with others and make things work under different circumstances.
AVC: You're currently scouting out restaurant space in Chicago. What sort of space are you looking for?
SI: I'd like to find a space a little closer to downtown, so people can come in for lunch. But I still want it to have a cozy neighborhood feel. So I'm hoping there's a space out there that will be able to do both of those things.
AVC: What kind of food can diners expect to see on the menu?
SI: It's definitely going to be representative of my style. There will be a lot of seafood, definitely a lot of pork products because I seem to like those, and some fun flavor combinations going on. It's almost like I take comfort-style foods and just bring them that one step further. It's going to be a lot of tasty food.
AVC: Do you plan on incorporating any of the dishes from the challenges on your menu? That lamb dish from the finale, for example, seemed to be quite a hit. Is that something you would consider duplicating?
SI: Yeah, I think the lamb dish is representative of my style in general. So I don't know whether the exact dish would be on there or not, but that was one of the highlights of the show for sure.
AVC: When you're presented with a limited time to think about what to make—which happens in the quick-fires for sure, but also to an extent on the elimination challenges—how often do you fall back on tried-and-true recipes and methods, and how often were you throwing caution to the wind and creating on the fly?
SI: Almost all the time, I was creating on the fly. That's just how I cook in general, and I don't have a lot of set recipes that I fall back on. Definitely components that I've done before, using vinaigrettes and some different flavors that I like to use together. I would say that it was all just new things that I was having fun playing with.
AVC: The show is ostensibly judged on how well you perform on a given challenge. Do you feel overall performance should ever be a factor in the judging, particularly in the finale?
SI: I have thought about that. Really, if your overall performance was good, then that's what got you to the finale. Whichever way they decide to do it. It is a little strange, at the end, not to take your overall performance into consideration, and have the whole thing just resting on that one meal. But like I said, if you did have a strong overall performance, then you're probably going to do pretty well in the finale, or on any given challenge.
AVC: Lisa did put in a very strong showing in the finale. If she had outcooked you and Richard on that challenge, would it have been fair for her to win the title, considering that you won more challenges throughout the whole scope of the show?
SI: I would have been a little bit disappointed, but I guess that's just how they've decided to do the show. I'm sure people would have been a little put off by that, but at the same time, whoever really brought their game to Puerto Rico was who was going to end up winning.
AVC: Around the time "Wedding Wars" aired, NPR ran a story about how reality shows like Top Chef use sleep deprivation as a means of creating drama. Was this tactic used often in your season, and to what effect?
SI: I'm sure that [episode] would definitely be the best representation of that. By the time we were actually serving the food, people were definitely a little grumpy. I'm sure that it causes drama. It's hard to keep your composure when you haven't slept in about 40 hours. Maybe they were doing that to get a little more drama out of us, or to make everything more challenging. Who knows?
AVC: Did it feel wearying to you? For us, the show unfolds slowly over 14 weeks, but it's compressed and fast for you. Was it exhausting and mentally draining to be on the show?
SI: It was. It was just like a roller coaster. It was five weeks of waking up every morning and not knowing what's going to happen, and being nervous. It was just a roller coaster of emotions, and also a very tight schedule. I think I slept for two days straight when I got back. [Laughs.]
AVC: Looking at the way the show constructs characters, did you feel like the chefs were adequately represented, or did some of them come off much differently than they seemed to you off-camera?
SI: I think everybody was pretty realistic. Some of the people you know, Lisa, her negativity was more magnified than maybe it is in life, but I think I definitely can see all the characteristics that were shown on TV in people in real life when I've been hanging out with them.
AVC: How miserable were the stew-room sessions throughout the season? Were they as tense as they appeared, or were people mostly bored, waiting for the ax to fall?
SI: It always depended on what was happening to you at that moment. If you were on the chopping block, I'm sure the stew room was pretty miserable. But a lot of times, we were having a good time in there, just having cocktails and playing with the Gladware. [Laughs.] Making up games to pass the time. Hopefully they'll show some outtakes of that, because we had some pretty fun times in there.
AVC: There was always some annoyance among the competitors when a good chef like Dale or Antonia was sent home a little too early. Why is that? When you're trying to win a competition, it's generally best to have the toughest competitors out of the way, but that didn't seem the case here.
SI: I think that even though we were all there to compete, it wasn't one of those things where we were trying to get the best chefs out of there. I think that we just feel more for the people that really represented themselves well and were doing great work, and had to go home a little early. I think in the end, we really just wanted each other to do a good job. It was hard to see anybody go, but especially people we thought were going to be around until the last challenge.
AVC: What did you learn about yourself from watching the show?
SI: I'm pretty happy with most of it, but I definitely learned that one of the things I need to work on is to stop doubting myself and second-guessing things. I think I'll definitely be able to improve on that. Otherwise, I was pretty happy with everything.