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'Top Chef' Stephanie Izard turns TV win into big break

In the beginning there was Scylla, a cozy, quiet neighborhood restaurant where Stephanie Izard turned out reliable Mediterranean seafood in a living room atmosphere. Her dad made the hostess stand. Her then-boyfriend's mom made the drapes. She bought the house with a loan and some money from her late grandfather.

"We didn't work with a designer and things like that," says the 34-year-old Chicago chef. "We just did it ourselves."

Fast-forward to Girl and the Goat, Izard's West Loop restaurant that rocks charred wood walls and a nonstop party.

Izard has abandoned the politesse of bouillabaisse and seared diver scallops for Fergus-Henderson-meets-Zak Pelaccio dishes such as goat belly confit and pan-fried duck tongue with pickled watermelon rind. And no offense to Grandpa, but the Goat's backers are Chicago's most prominent restaurateurs, with three of the four chefs on the roster — including Izard — named best new chef by Food and Wine magazine.

In the year since it opened, Girl and the Goat already has been nominated for a James Beard award and won accolades from critics across the country.

"Girl and the Goat is her coming out party," says Heather Shouse, a food writer and Izard's co-author on her new cookbook, Girl in the Kitchen. "It's really in-your-face, full-frontal, aggressive food. It's really fun, it's really loud, it has a lot of personality."

Just like Izard.

But it wasn't always that way. Shy as a child, Izard would tag along with older sister Stacey, who remembers being the ring leader for their adventures. "I was louder and outgoing, and she was kind of with me," says Stacey Izard.

Then came Bravo's Top Chef.

Shortly after Izard sold Scylla in 2007, out of sheer exhaustion, producers from the show approached her about being on it. She wooed the audience with her good nature and girl-next-door appeal. She floored the judges with bold, unlikely flavors and locked out the competition, becoming the only woman ever to win.

After Top Chef, Izard could have let her 15 minutes of fame evaporate into the pop-culture landscape. Instead, she embraced her inner extrovert, turning her victory into Chicago's hottest restaurant, with a sister joint — Little Goat — set to open in the spring. She has parlayed her celebrity into cookbook success and a chance to raise money for hungry children, conversations about a television show, and a possible line of cookware.

"I'm just a really driven person," Izard says. "Going on Top Chef presented a lot of doors and you can choose to open them or not."

But even when doors are closed, Izard simply busts through them. Much of her dizzying success has come from embracing the unexpected and taking large, terrifying risks. Ten years ago, she spent the weekend with friends in Chicago, then called home to Scottsdale, Ariz., on Monday morning to have her stuff shipped to her. She opened Scylla almost on a dare, quitting her job at what then was a top Chicago bistro.

"I don't think about things too much," she says. "I just go for them. I'm just on this fun ride right now."

Today Izard is among the many local chefs experimenting with whole animal dishes. For Valentine's Day, Izard served skewered lamb heart with spiced figs. And one of the best-loved dishes on her menu is "wood oven roasted pig face" served with a fried egg.

"You only live once," she says. "You might as well try to do as much cool stuff as you can."

'Top Chef' Stephanie Izard turns TV win into big break 11/15/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 15, 2011 3:30am]
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