When Top Chef: Chicago premiered in March, Bravo asked viewers, "What will happen first: a female President or a female Top Chef?" Well, the latter definitely won out. Stephanie Izard took one for the ladies (and her Chicago hometown) Wednesday night when she was named the fourth winner — and first female champ — of Top Chef. The 31-year-old not only overcame frontrunner Richard Blais and a strong final showing from resident "villain" Lisa Fernandes for the bragging rights, but her ever-present nerves as well. With a cool $100,000 in her pocket and restaurant plans already in the works, Stephanie reflects on her big win to OK!.
Congratulations! What was it like when you were announced the winner?
It was a little crazy! When Padma [Lakshmi] said my name [and there was a long pause], I was just standing there like, "Oh no! Sometimes they tell someone that they need to pack their knives and go." [laughs] My heart had never been beating faster. Even last night, just watching it again, it started beating a little bit closer to that fast, but it was just about to jump out of my chest. It was definitely a very stressful moment.
What does it feel like to be the first female Top Chef?
It’s very exciting. As I’ve been saying, I never look at myself as either a female or a male chef; I’m just a good chef. But it’s great to show that there are really strong women out there and the fact that me, Lisa and Antonia [Lofaso] obviously all gave a really good showing, hopefully will open people’s eyes a little bit that women are just as strong in the kitchen. Maybe it’s just bad timing with having children and getting married and all those things, but obviously we have some pretty good palates out there.
It was a long Judges’ Table. How stressful was it waiting in the stew room?
We were definitely in the stew room for a while and it’s a little tough to get comfortable and fall asleep, especially with all that going on, and just a hard floor to lay down on. It was definitely long and it was just so hard to tell what happened because we all had some good things that we did and we all had some mistakes. It was really hard to figure out what the judges were talking about.
What did you think of Richard telling the judges that he "choked"?
I have total respect for him and I think he was just being honest about how he felt. Whether it was the smartest thing to do at Judges’ Table, at the end of the day, it probably didn’t make all that much of a difference. They were all shocked, but he was just being honest, and that’s how Richard is.
Do you think he should’ve taken that time to defend himself and make a case for why he should be Top Chef?
I think when they said, "Is there anything else you’d like to say?", all that was going through Richard’s head at that moment — after listening to everything that they had to say about our dishes — was that he wasn’t completely happy with his dishes. He wasn’t about to try to sell himself for something that wasn’t true and it was something he took to heart.
You got first choice of celebrity sous chefs. Why did you pick Eric Ripert?
I saw Eric Ripert there and I had actually just been flipping through one of his books like the day I was about to go to the airport to leave, so he was just on my mind. As soon as I saw him, I was like, "Oh, sweet! Eric Ripert!" Part of me was like, "Why didn’t I pick Dan Barber?" He had scallops and foie gras, you know, stuff that I love, so maybe a little bit of the starstruck-ness caught me off guard and I was just like, "Eric Ripert!"
You got to boss him around and you made a joke about how he "knew" how to filet fish. Did he really get offended?
[laughs] I was pointing out to cut off the bloodline and things that obviously Eric Ripert knows. He’s like a master of fish. At the end of the day, it’s like, no matter who we’re working with, I just wanted to make sure it was done the way I was thinking about and done to my style. Obviously Eric Ripert is amazing and I’m sure he can cook circles around me, but at that moment, it was my meal, so I just wanted to do it my way.
Was it hard planning all four courses? You guys never have that much time.
Yeah, it was sort of crazy. We just kind of ran into the kitchen and started cooking and I think that, at least for me and it seemed like for Richard as well, we sort of started prepping the first day without actually knowing what we were going to be doing with these things that we’re making. I just started making sauces and figured I’ll cook today and tonight I’ll think about what I’ve made and what I want to make tomorrow, which is pretty much the way I cook from day to day.
How affected were you by the lack of a sous chef the next day?
I think we pretty much all figured that [was going to happen]. That morning, we all saw each other and we were like, "There’s no way the sous chefs are coming back." But when I made my prep list, I did two prep lists — one was if Eric Ripert was there and one was if he was not.
Pretty much everyone was floored by your third course with the braised pistachios, blackberries and olives. Have you made that dish before?
I haven’t. I think it was representative of my style for sure, like having sweetness from the blackberries and the saltiness from the olives. And I tend to use a lot of nuts! There were these nuts there, so it was representative of my style, but it was not a dish I had done before.
Did you deliberately decide to make a dish you hadn’t made before instead of doing something you’ve perfected?
I don’t really have any dishes that I’ve perfected time and time again. I’m always sort of coming up with new things. I definitely have a style where you can tell Stephanie made that, but if you came to my restaurant, you would never see the same thing from season to season.
There’s been a lot of controversy about Lisa, from her attitude to her long stay on the show. Richard said last night he didn’t think she belonged in the final. Did you feel the same way?
I would say through the regular season, it was definitely a surprise that Lisa made it as far as she did. But in the end, she really brought her A game to the finale. She did a very good job last night. She’s great. I think over the last few months that we had between [filming in Chicago and filming the finale in Puerto Rico], she obviously had been cooking and she definitely showed her strengths.
She said in the stew room that she thought you took the first and third courses and she took the second and fourth. Do you agree with her?
I remember talking about that and so many thoughts were going through my head that it was really hard to have a conversation. I was like, "Uh huh." I think that, obviously, I do think I took the third course and she definitely took the dessert course. After that, it was definitely close on everything.
You made a poundcake for dessert that didn’t go over too well. Did you ever think about making something that didn’t require a baking element since it’s so exact?
The issues with that weren’t with the cake itself. I just sort of starting second-guessing myself and thought I need to make lots of different components — you know, make it way too complicated than what were my original intentions. I had practiced some other things before I left — things with rice — and I wish I had gone in another direction, but I’m sure I’ll just lose sleep over it for years to come! [laughs] At the end of the day, the rest of the meal was just going to have to pull through.
Last week, you handled the left-out pork belly incident really well. Dale [Talde] said you were really pissed, but you didn’t seem to show it. How upset were you?
Of course I was a little upset. I knew Dale didn’t do it on purpose and I figured we’d do something else. But of course, in the moment, it’s like, "Alright, well, I’m going to go home because he left the pork belly out!" [laughs] But honestly, between me and Dale, we had a whole pig to work with, and I knew we’d be able to pull something out.
Throughout the season, a lot has been made about your nerves and lack of confidence. How reassuring was this win for you?
It was huge! My lack of confidence, I think, comes from always just striving for perfection, so I’m never going to stop doing that. But at least I can try to work on that so I can stop second-guessing myself and doubting. I don’t know where that comes from, but I wish it wasn’t there! But at the same time, it always pushes me to do better, so it has its good and bad.
What was your favorite challenge?
My favorite challenge was definitely Restaurant Wars. We were kind of bummed Dale left, to tell you the truth, but it definitely just shows there’s more to being a chef — you need to be able to do front and back of the house. It was fun to be able to show that I have those qualities. I did make two dishes. I was running around like a mad woman!
Well, I didn’t do too well on some of those Quickfires! I finally won one last week, but I just have way too many thoughts running around my head at any given moment, so when I only have like 20 minutes to try to figure it out, it’s just too much for me.
What has the fan support been like in Chicago?
It’s been amazing! Everywhere I go, people are just shouting out my name and I couldn’t be happier.
What’s next for you? What do you have planned with the money?
I’m working on opening another restaurant [in Chicago], so I’m definitely putting some of the money towards that. And maybe a little more traveling and paying off credit card bills and all those sort of things, but definitely the number one goal now is to open another restaurant.
By Joyce Eng