Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Third Coast Dish: Steph Speaks

Top Chef 4 winner and new bona-fide celebrity chef Stephanie Izard finds a few minutes to fill us in on her new found fame.

Over here at Third Coast Toast, I've been supporting Team Stephanie from just about day one of this season of Top Chef. She proved herself to be a formidable competitor early on, snagging the very first elimination challenge win and picking up three more in her steady march to the Top Chef throne. There were times when we got nervous (peanut butter and tomatoes! yikes!), but in Chicago, our steadfast faith never wavered.

After receiving the title of Top Chef in last week's finale, Steph's been busy jet setting around the US for a whirlwind photo shoots, appearances, and interviews. Luckily, she found a few minutes to chat with me today via phone about her new found stardom, her trip to Asia, and the plans for her new restaurant.

Third Coast Toast: Hi Steph, thanks for taking the time to chat today. First off, congratulations on an awesome performance this season. How does it feel to be the first female Top Chef?

Steph: It's very exciting. It was a long, sort of difficult thing but in the end it all worked out - I'm super excited.

TCT: You definitely seemed very excited at the finale party last week. Was it hard to keep the secret all that time?

S: It was... in the end I just sort of played it like a little game. It was kind of fun to have a secret and not tell my parents. You know, it's like "I know something you don't know" and, just watching them stress out for the last week was kind of entertaining.

TCT: As the first female top chef, what's your perspective - do you think it's still harder for women to make it as a chef these days?

S: I mean, I don't think so. I think as long as you carry yourself as, you know, just a strong person and a strong chef throughout your career... of course there's gonna be guys that think that just because you're a female that maybe you can't do something. You just have to sort of do your best and be the best chef you can be, and not worry about not being a male.

TCT: How does it feel to be a celebrity chef now - to come from being famous in the Chicago food scene to being famous all over the world? Is it weird?

S: It's very weird. You know, of course everywhere I go in Chicago there's people all around congratulating me, which is amazing, but... yeah, it's everywhere, and it's so interesting to me to see how widespread the show was and how many people watched it... so it's crazy. This whole "famous" thing is sort of weird.

TCT: Cool. So there were a lot of different "characters" on the show this season - some were portrayed as likeable and some not so much, but everyone was definitely really talented. How much do you think personality, or "character" matters versus talent in the real chef world?

S: I think you should always focus on the food, and if you're the type of personality where it's gonna get in the way of making good food then that's definitely a detriment. But there's a lot of really great chefs out there that really aren't very nice at all. So I guess it just depends on what kind of relationships you want to have with your staff, and with people in the industry.

TCT: You mentioned in an interview with Chicagoist that a lot of being a great chef is being able to put together unexpected flavor combinations that work - you were really good about that this season, especially with the braised pistachios and the lamb in the last challenge. What is a great, unexpected flavor combination that you've had or discovered recently?

S: You know, I wouldn't say there's anything I've discovered recently... I'm always just playing around and making new things, but... trying to use fruit in a lot of your savory cooking is a fun thing to do. There's always beautiful fruit especially in the spring and summer and just, you know, playing around with it and trying to involve it in some of your savory dishes rather than just saving it for dessert is a lot of fun.

TCT: This season, what guest judge were you most excited to cook for, and were there any faces from the Chicago scene that you were surprised not to see?

S: I was probably most excited to cook for Anthony Bourdain - I've just been a long time fan, I love No Reservations, and... he's just so intelligent and well spoken, and I was just excited to see him there. I think a lot of people were surprised that Charlie Trotter wasn't there and maybe Grant [Achatz], but I don't think Top Chef is Charlie Trotter's thing. I think that they did find some great chefs from Chicago to participate, and it was a lot of fun to see some of the people I've been working with throughout the years.

TCT: I hear that you're scouting locations for a new restaurant in Chicago. Have you found any winners yet?

S: Not yet, I'm just starting early on in the process and I've seen some beautiful spaces, but I really want to put some thought into what neighborhood I want to be in. I think that's just so important that I want to sort of take my time and find the perfect space.

TCT: Do you have a concept or a specific cuisine in mind yet?

S: It's going to be globally influenced as far as the flavors go, keeping in with my style, but I want to have a restaurant that is the kind of place I want to go. Just really casual, no pretension, but it's all about just good food and wine and beer, and you know, hanging out with your friends and having a good time.

TCT: As you plan a menu, how important do you think it is to challenge diners versus serving flavors that they know and love?

S: I think that there's gotta be a delicate balance. If you have too many things on your menu that are kind of weird or bizarre you might scare away a few people, but I think there's a way to work in some unique flavors and some unique proteins and different items, that you can get people to sort of try something maybe that they haven't tried before. But definitely, it's always nice to have a few things on the menu might not be so scary, to encourage people from all over to come in.

TCT: I also heard that you're planning to keep it affordable. Can you tell me a little more about that?

S: Yeah, you know, there's some great restaurants in the city that are just super expensive, and I treat myself every once in a while to Avenues or you know, I want to try L2O, but I want people to come in on Tuesday nights just because they don't feel like cooking. It doesn't have to be a birthday or an anniversary or something special. I think that a lot of times you just want to have great food and hang out with your friends and you don't want to drop like $75 a person so, yeah, I definitely just want to keep it a little more affordable so it's just sort of a place you can go when you're just in the mood to go out.

TCT: Cool. So in between the Chicago taping and the finale taping, you took a trip to southeast Asia. Where did you go and what kind of inspiration did you find there?

S: I went to Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, which was amazing. I would say mostly, the food in Vietnam was very inspirational. They just have a way with flavors that really matches my style, where there's always a little bit of a salty and sweet and spicy, sort of hitting every part of your palate. It's just great that when you're over there, even the street food is amazingly seasoned, and it was just a lot of fun to see the different cultures.

TCT: Who do you think you're going to keep in touch with from the show? Is there anyone that's going to go in on the restaurant with you? I know Dale from last season is pulling in CJ and Sara for his restaurant...

S: I'll definitely keep in touch - I still talk to most everybody, but I couldn't see any of us really partnering up for a restaurant. I think that two chefs trying to work at a place just butt heads a little bit and I think that we're all just really strong and want to all go our own paths and do really well on our own.

TCT: When do you anticipate your restaurant opening?

S: I'm gonna shoot for late next spring or early summer - I'd like to do it within a year, so it might seem a little bit rushed, but I want to give people a place to come eat my food, so, we'll see if I can do that quickly.

TCT: Ok, one last question: I have brown curly hair just like you - it was kind of straight at the party last week - but yours always looks so great on the show... what product to you use?

S: Finesse mousse all the way. I go through like a can a week. It's all about the mousse.

TCT: Ok, well that's all I've got. Thanks for taking the time.

S: Thanks, take care!

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