Top Chef's Stephanie Izard Has Great Career Advice For Twenty-Somethings

Photo: Nick Tininenko/Getty Images.
Long before Stephanie Izard won Top Chef or helmed a growing culinary empire, she was a waitress at the Olive Garden. As unlikely as it might sound, working at the home of endless breadsticks during college was what what set her on her career path. Since then, Izard hasn't slowed down — and that includes taking her restaurant on the road.
Earlier this summer, Izard hosted a pop-up of Duck Duck Goat her "reasonably authentic" Chinese restaurant, at the American Express Platinum House at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. Refinery29 was able to sit down with her to talk career advice, kitchen style, and the importance of Cheez-Its.
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Starting Out
Izard didn't have culinary aspirations in college, but working at Olive Garden changed that. While she can still sing the Olive Garden birthday song, the true lesson she learned there was that restaurants are her kind of place — and restaurant people are her kind of people. From there, she went to culinary school and landed in Chicago, where she became a sous chef at a French restaurant. After another chef remarked that she should consider opening her own restaurant, a light bulb went off and, within a week, she had quit her job. A year later, her first restaurant, Scylla, was opened. Izard was only 27.
Top Chef
While Scylla made Izard a culinary force to be reckoned with in Chicago, it wasn't until she went on to compete in the fourth season of Top Chef that her career really began to take off. In addition to being the only competitor to ever win fan favorite and the title, she was the first woman Top Chef. And while she'd prefer to be thought of as a great chef instead of a great female chef, she knows that being a pioneer in a male-dominated industry is important, too. "If I can inspire other women to go into the kitchen that's great," she says.
As for what advice she has for young women looking to start something on their own? Izard keeps it simple: "Go for it," she says. "I think people think about things too much, and are just a little bit nervous... back then, when I was 27, I never really thought anything through. I just went for it."
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The Girl & The Many Goats
While Scylla shuttered before her Top Chef success, Izard soon launched the first in what would be a family of goat-themed restaurants. The Girl And The Goat opened in 2010 to much anticipation, and Izard has since opened two more: The Little Goat and Duck Duck Goat. Her animal inspiration is close to home: her last name comes from the French word for a type of mountain goat.
Steering a growing restaurant group certainly keeps Izard busy — when asked what she does to relax, she laughs and asks "What does that mean?" But she also says the restaurants' continued success has a lot to do with the people she surrounds herself with. She is quick to note she's been "fortunate" to have great staff, but she also works to keep the work environment positive in her kitchens. The 300 person team is even pitching in on raising her son, one-year-old Ernie. "We like to have fun," she says. And that has just as much to do with employee retention as the final product. "If the cooks aren't smiling... I feel like you can taste it in the food," she explains.
The Simple Things — Sort Of
When Izard needs inspiration, she reads up on a specific country's culinary history, getting inspiration for her own cooking. That lead to one of her recent endeavors, a line of spices and sauces called This Little Goat, each one inspired by a destination for the wandering animal.
Though, she doesn't restrict her dining to global fusion and fancy cuisine. In fact, one of her favorite foods is Cheez-Its — so much so, that they were served at her wedding... as a part of the cake. The dessert was made from peanut butter, strawberries, chocolate, and Cheez-Its, but she and her husband actually weren't able to try any before the guests gobbled it up. So, in honor of their anniversary a year later, they made it again, this time sharing it with restaurant guests in the form of cupcakes. It sounds weird, but, if it comes with Izard's endorsement, we expect it tastes delicious.
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