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 that's anything but sedate.
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 in 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 Chicago-based 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 in the woods and the times they turned their living room into a restaurant, putting the coffee table on blocks for the bar and setting numerous card tables for the imaginary "patrons." "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 hit show approached her about being on it. She wooed the audience with her good nature, easy smile and girl-next-door appeal. She floored the judges with bold, unlikely flavors -- her final dish combined mushrooms, pistachios and blackberries -- and locked out the competition, becoming the first -- and still the only -- woman ever to win "Top Chef."
"It really brought her into her own," Stacey says. "The show gave her a chance to be in the spotlight and she fit right in."
After "Top Chef," she 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's 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."