Last week, Stephanie Izard made it into the top spot of Top Chef 4. She had taken us through a see-saw performance, frequently making dishes that diners loved, but then also having struggles. She didn’t win a Quickfire until the second-to-last episode, narrowly escaped elimination at times, and was even the chef who came in last in the palate test.
But it’s possibly because of exactly that kind of scrappy up and down that a lot of viewers were rooting for Stephanie to emerge as Top Chef. With a creative and innovative dish that surprised the judges with its successful flavor combination, Stephanie seemed to surprise herself with being named the first female Top Chef.
Stephanie took some time to speak with us about that element of surprise – both in her cooking and in the competition – her culinary background and just how, exactly, one goes about braising a pistachio. Read on for the MP3 audio and for a full transcript of the interview.
This is Leslie with BuddyTV and I’m talking with Stephanie, the winner of season 4 of Top Chef. Hi Stephanie, this is Leslie from BuddyTV, thank you so much for talking with me.
Sure, hi Leslie, how are you?
Good, how are you doing?
I’m good, thanks.
Congratulations on winning season 4 of Top Chef.
One of the things that a lot of our readers noticed is that you always seemed really surprised when you won challenges and we were just kind of wondering what that was about?
I don’t know, I definitely don’t have that sort of cockiness about me. I’m always striving for perfection, so I always can sort of see little things wrong with things that I create. I don’t know, I guess I just never really necessarily expect to win and I just get really excited when I do.
What were you thinking after that last meal? I know one of your dishes it seemed like you felt really confident about, but were you thinking that you were going to win? Did you still have a lot of self doubt at that point?
I definitely still had a lot of doubt. When we were at judges table, it just seemed sort of like it was anyone’s game. They had positive and negative things to say about everyone, and though I think a lot of my dishes were very positive the whole dessert fiasco sort of threw me for a loop. When Padma said my name I really had no idea what she was about to say, I thought she might say pack your knives and go. That’s why I look so terrified, I think.
Top Chef chefs are not necessarily the most successful with desserts throughout the four seasons that we’ve seen, but you had really demonstrated throughout the season that you could pull that off, and so what do you think happened with that final dish? Was it really just what you had referenced, that you kind of got caught up in second guessing yourself?
Yeah. If I had just left it simple, in the end I was like, oh no, this isn’t good enough, I’d better make some banana cream or make a ricotta filling and make all these extra things that were the parts they didn’t like. I think if I kept it simple and not got all caught up in that it would have been much better received. But yeah, at least throughout the season I showed that I am a little more well rounded, I can do desserts, it’s just I think I’ll steer away from the ricotta pound cake.
The one dish from that meal that really seemed to impress the judges most was the dish with the braised pistachios. I had a few questions about that, first of all how do you braise a pistachio? What’s that process?
It’s really, really easy. I usually buy salted, shelled pistachios at Whole Foods or at another store and put them in a pot, cover them with chicken stock or even the chicken broth that you can get at the store, bring it up to a simmer, and just sort of simmer them for a little while until they get just a nice, tender texture, not to the point of being mushy. It’s so easy but they just take on a whole other flavor profile and they have a great texture.
You used them in a dish that had a lot of elements that the judges felt a little apprehensive about before they actually tasted it, and then it was clear that you had come up with a very well balanced dish. I was wondering what your process was for coming up with that recipe?
I think that dish really represented my style very well, I think a lot of my dishes have flavors that people are like, “Uh, really, Stephanie?” I think in my head, I’m like, all right so I’ve got mushrooms, those are earthy, I’m going to use blackberries, those are a little bit sweet, I need to balance it out with something salty, so I’ll use olives. Maybe something a little nutty. I just try to have a bunch of different flavors going on that really compliment each other, but I just sort of think about the flavors in my head.
Was that a combination that you had worked out prior to that challenge or was it something that you thought of on the fly?
That particular dish I thought of on the fly. I definitely do use a lot of fruit and olives together because I think the sweet and that briny saltiness of the olives just really works well together. I think nuts in general just add a really good flavor point to a dish. If you like at my menu at my old restaurant or when I open my new one there will definitely be a lot of nut and fruit and olive combos, I’m sure. I just think it works well together.
That’s kind of amazing, for someone that says that they second guess themselves that you would be willing to take such a risk in the final challenge, to put such unusual flavors together. I mean it turned out so well, but it’s just kind of amazing. That’s not really a question, just I was surprised.
That’s just totally my style, is having like those random flavors. It was perfect just to see Tom Colicchio sort of be like, “What? What?” and then really love it in the end was awesome.
That must have been very gratifying, because Tom seems like he’s a tough customer.
Yeah, he’s a harsh critic.
Is that what you would sort of say is a defining factor about you as a chef? I was thinking that a lot of people kind of saw you as a bit of a wild card, I think mainly because sometimes we didn’t know how to define what your culinary style is. Like it’s easy to look at Lisa Fernandes and say okay, she does Asian, Richard Blais kind of does this high concept new American type stuff, but it was harder to pin you down and kind of put a label on what you do. Do you have a label for yourself or something that is kind of an easy shorthand to explain your style of cooking?
I agree, it is very hard to describe myself cooking in a couple words. I’ve been trying to come up with it because it’s a question that people ask and when I’m trying to promote myself it would be nice to be able to explain it easy. I guess I just want to excite your whole mouth at once, I want to hit all the different flavor points. I guess I just want to have sort of surprising flavors that’s just really going to make, I guess just having an element of surprise in my dishes.
You mentioned in the show that your mom was kind of a gourmet mom and I was wondering kind of what your background was in food and cooking? We didn’t hear much about your early story as we did with some of the other chefs so I was just wondering how did you get exposed to it and how did you decide that that was what you wanted to go into in the first place?
I did grow up in a family where my mom always had gourmet clubs and would cook food from all around the world all the time. We never had meatloaf and hot dogs for dinner, it was always like tempura or, I don’t know, just all sorts of things. I was lucky in that sense. When I was like eight years old I started cooking with my mom and once I got a little bit older I sort of started taking over cooking dinner and always really enjoyed it. I ended up going off to college, I went to University of Michigan and thought I should go to business school. I called my dad one day and I was like, I don’t know what to do as a major, Dad, I’m not really digging anything. And he was like, well why don’t you like culinary school, you’ve always been great at cooking. I did that, and I definitely as soon as I started school just felt like I had found my place.
What made you decide to go on Top Chef? What was the deciding factor for you?
I’d always been a fan of the show and my cooks always were like Stephanie, you totally would win that, you should go on. I was a little bit hesitant but Dale Levitski from last season, he’s a really good friend of mine, he actually sort of gave me that little nudge. He just told me it was basically the experience of a lifetime, which is sort of their little catchphrase with us, which it was. It’s like no other experience you can have.
What have you taken away from the show with regard to your relationship with the other chefs, do you keep in touch with folks? I know you were friends with Dale Talde already, but what about some of the other chefs?
Of course Dale and Valerie were long time friends before and then I keep in touch with most everybody. I talk to Antonia like every other day, talk to Lisa probably once a week. Probably going to go see Spike up at his new restaurant and I did some traveling and basically ate at all of the contestant’s restaurants after the show finished airing. I just want to sort of go see people and eat their food at their restaurants. We all are really close, we just sort of bonded right away. We’re thrown in a house together for five weeks and you really get to know people.
What are your plans now?
I am looking to open another restaurant in Chicago. It’s still very, very early on in the planning but everybody wants to know where they can come eat my food and I’m definitely ready to get back in the business. Hopefully within a year I’ll be able to get something open.
Well we will definitely keep an eye out for that, I know a lot of people would love to try your food. I know a lot of people are also really excited to see you win, you’re a fan favorite it seems like from our site at least. Congratulations again and thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us.
Thank you, take care, have a good day.
You too, bye bye.
– Interview conducted by Leslie Seaton, BuddyTV Staff Columnist
(Image courtesy of Bravo)