U-M grad 'Top Chef' winner draws crowd to downtown library
Stephanie Izard — a University of Michigan grad (1998) who won season 4 of the cooking reality show “Top Chef” — made a book tour stop at the Ann Arbor downtown library on Monday night to promote her new book, “Girl in the Kitchen: How a Top Chef Cooks, Thinks, Shops, Eats and Drinks.”
Izard, who was born in Chicago and raised in Connecticut, now owns a restaurant in Chicago called Girl and the Goat, and plans to also open a bakery/breakfast and lunch spot there this spring.
But her first job in a kitchen was at U-M’s Mary Markley Hall. She (dispassionately) studied sociology at U-M, and upon graduating, she decided, at her father’s suggestion, to attend culinary school.
On Monday night, more than 100 people gathered to hear Izard talk for a little more than an hour about cooking, her restaurant, her time in Ann Arbor, and “Top Chef.” Here are some memorable quotes from that talk.
On not being the most disciplined college student: “When I had a paper due, if it was at about 10:30, I’d wake up at 5, turn on my little desk lamp, so I wouldn’t wake (my roommate) up, and write my paper. I'd just turn it in and hope for the best.
On the first time she created a dish: “We went down to EPCOT Center (at Disneyworld) when I was 8 years old. You can eat in all these different countries there, and we actually had lunch in France. We had these crepes that had a little bit of ham and cheese inside, with a mushroom bÃ©chamel sauce. We went back to Connecticut, and I read some cookbooks and figured out how to make crepes, and ended up re-creating the dish, pretty much. My mom says it tasted just like it. I don’t really believe her, really. But that’s when I started cooking.”
Portrait of a chef as a young girl: “(My sister and I and our friends) used to play restaurant when we were growing up. One duo would set up the restaurant. We’d actually print menus, we’d decorate, we’d use my mom’s good china and her silver — who does this? — and then the other friends would get to be the guests. It would be a full-on menu, appetizers, salads, soups, but the only thing you could actually get was the chicken cordon bleu, because we had the frozen ones in the freezer, and I think my mom was like, ‘You’re only allowed to use the toaster oven when I’m not home.’ So I think it’s something that was always in my blood. We just got really into it. And my mom never cooked things that were very — we didn’t have macaroni and cheese and meatloaf and things like that very often growing up. We had tempura or roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.”
On a chef’s training and education: “The first day of (culinary) school, I walked in, and I definitely thought — and I think that this happens quite a bit with culinary students these days, that they think you just go to culinary school, and suddenly you graduate and you’re a chef. But the truth is, you actually go to culinary school, and our teacher told us the first day, he’s like, you’re going to graduate here, and you’re going to make salads for $6.50 an hour. I was just so happy to be surrounded by other people that just wanted to talk about food. Other people that, that’s just what they love to do. I didn’t feel like an outcast.”
On the early stages of the “Top Chef” process: “They bring you out to L.A., and you are locked into a room in a hotel. There’s probably about 30 people at this point, and you’re each in your room, and you’re not allowed to leave for a few days. It’s just sort of an introduction to the crazy life of being on ‘Top Chef.’ And I was like, ‘Well, can I go work out?’ They had somebody come to my room, take me to the workout center and watch me run on the treadmill. I ordered takeout to my room, room service, they brought it up, and I went to put it out in the hallway, I was wearing my pajamas, didn’t have my contacts in, walked out of the room, I’m sure everybody’s done this before, where you go out in the hallway and you lock yourself out. I was scared to go downstairs because I didn’t want to not get on the show because I disobeyed and went outside of my room. So I just went running down the hall not able to see very well. Luckily some guy had his room open, and I asked if I could use his phone and was able to get back to my room. I guess Dale Talde went downstairs in his underwear, because the same thing happened to him. So at least I stayed on my floor. But they have you — they take you out of your room, and every time somebody else is walking by, they have you turn and face the wall, and they just have you do all this weird stuff, where you get a little insight into, ‘Wow, this is going to be weird, isn’t it?’”
On the atmosphere at Girl and the Goat: “We have a big open kitchen, so everybody can see all of our cooks at work. We like sing and dance in the kitchen. You can see in the back laughing and singing and having fun while they’re cooking. People that come in say it makes the experience even better. I don’t know if it really makes the food taste better, but I like to believe if somebody’s having fun cooking and loves what they do, then the food is going to taste a bit better, because they actually care what’s going on the plate.”
On naming her restaurant: “My name is Izard in French, which is actually a goat that lives in the Pyrenees Mountains. I just found this out 5 or 6 years ago. My friend, when I told him we were planning to open a restaurant called the Drunken Goat, did this painting for me, and it’s of a girl and a goat walking around little dancing beer bottles on the bottom. So after looking at that painting for a while, we decided, ‘Why not call it Girl and the Goat?’”
On how long the deliberation on “Top Chef” actually takes during filming: “Usually, they bring us all back to the stew room, which is actually just 4 walls without a ceiling that they just make look like a back room. It’s really funny. It’s like, really? Even the back room isn’t real? They put a fake time clock to make it look like you’re in a back room someplace. Anyway, secrets I should not tell you. But you’re actually back there for a few hours. So they’ll come and you hang out for about 45 minutes before Padma comes in and gets the winners first. Then you’re standing, waiting to go into the set for another 20 minutes while they check your mics again and all that sort of stuff. And you go in, and they have little marks for you, so you have to walk in twice, make sure you stand in your little mark on the floor. And then you stand there, and you’re staring at them, and you don’t want to make eye contact with Padma. You just try to look back and forth, and they’re scanning cameras for another 10 minutes to get different facial expressions, to make it all serious. And the part with the winners they only talk to us for 15 or 20 minutes. Then we go back and they have us call in the bottom ones, which is the worst. I only had to do that twice, but it’s the absolute worst experience. They bring you in, and they’re telling them how much they stink for about an hour and a half. In the finale in Puerto Rico, we were actually in the back room for 5 hours.
On one of her favorite foods in Ann Arbor: “Pizza House chapati. You can’t get chapati anywhere else in the world outside of Ann Arbor, and I don’t understand. Don’t take for granted the fact that you have these supersize salads inside a giant pita while you’re in school here. That was my Sunday thing. After a fun night out on Saturday night, we’d just get a giant chipati and all sit around and watch movies.”