The Girl With the Golden Touch

Chicago’s Stephanie Izard has mastered goat.
You might call Stephanie Izard's popular Chicago restaurant, Girl and the Goat, a valentine to that humble animal, which is a staple worldwide but an alternative meat in the U.S. On Valentine's Day, in fact, Izard has served skewered goat hearts in a grape-and-pepperoncini relish. And a goat belly dish (including a fennel puree, bourbon butter and vanilla bean) is sometimes ordered as a dessert.

It's all part of a long love affair with cooking for someone who was creating dishes and recipes while other girls were playing with dolls and riding bicycles. But Izard took a nontraditional route to celebrity-chef status, getting a degree in sociology at the University of Michigan before going to culinary school in Arizona.

She opened her first restaurant at age 27 then landed a slot on the fourth season of "Top Chef." Not only was Izard the first and only woman to win the contest, but she also received the coveted "Fan Favorite" title. And it's no wonder. She's personable, engaging, passionate. And with Girl and the Goat, she's hit a nerve in foodie-friendly Chicago that still leaves 'em lining up at the door.

Appetite for Life : What was the most important thing you learned from winning "Top Chef"?

Stephanie Izard: The whole experience was awesome. I got to meet cool people and got into the TV world, realized how much I enjoy it. Being on the show presents different opportunities. Everyone takes those and does what they will with it. I realized once I got off the show I was going to open [another] restaurant and prove what I could do, rather than doing events, that sort of thing. I wanted to get back into the restaurant world. I love doing what I'm doing.

Chicago's Stephanie Izard has mastered goat

What do you make of the fact that you were the first and only woman to win?

I get asked about the female chef thing so much. I guess I always just try to be a good chef rather than a good female chef. It comes down to the wire [on "Top Chef"]. Lots of people come close. I'm not sure why there hasn't been another woman winner yet, but I'm sure there will be. It's cool to get emails from young women. If I can inspire more young women, that would be awesome.

Did anything about your first restaurant, Scylla, inform your opening of Girl and the Goat?

It was a smaller restaurant, 60 seats. Did everything myself: the managing, the hiring, running the kitchen. Learned how to do all the books myself. It was trial by error. Was proud of the fact that I was able to get a restaurant open and running and that it was well received. But the building I was in was falling apart. I wanted to focus on the food and not on fixing the roof. I decided to move on, not look at it as a failure. I decided the next time I opened a restaurant, I'd do it with partners, so they could take care of all of that other stuff.

What do you think is the secret to Girl and the Goat's success?

Out in the dining room the other night, one of the guests said, "This is the most fun place we've ever been." We're not the first place to do shared plates, but people think that's fun. Our servers chat with the guests. And they don't take it too seriously. The food is good. It brings people back. But the servers going around dancing and singing and having a good time is contagious. Like you're at a party. It makes the experience really comfortable. The [success of Girl and the Goat] is a combination of all sorts of these things.

Are you obsessed with goat?

I didn't cook goat and maybe ate it once before we opened.Chicago's Stephanie Izard has mastered goat

But because of my last name ["izard" is also a name for a goatlike animal found in the mountains of Europe], we thought we maybe should put goat on the menu. We found a local goat farmer to supply the meat and it took off from there. Pretty much anything you can do with a pig you can do with a goat. Now we love goat! It's the biggest meat eaten in the world. [It accounts for 70 percent of red meat consumed worldwide.] The U.S. is a little behind. At the Girl and the Goat we serve it many ways. … The goal is to let the flavor come through.

You're close to opening another restaurant — practically next door, right?

We're opening Little Goat [in November]. … There are a couple places in the neighborhood to get breakfast, but not another place where you can get breakfast, lunch and dinner. Thought that would be cool. You need a place on a Sunday afternoon where you can go to eat.

Rumor has it it's chicken next … and fast food?

We've hired someone to get a chicken processing plant going in Illinois. Right now there's not enough capacity to process enough local chicken to meet demand. We want to open a simple fast-food place. We will serve five dishes — globally influenced fast food. I really enjoy chicken, but I get grossed out about where it comes from. The beta location will be in Chicago, but if it works out we'll go into other areas.