Soaked in syrupy lemon dressing, Chef Stephanie Izard’s eggplant is an eye-opening revelation. Eye-opening because it is a dessert; a revelation because it is the perfect acidic counterpoint to other elements on my plate: pork-fat doughnuts, ham streusel, caramelized figs, and a honey yogurt. Soft, crunchy, fatty, sweet, salty, and tart—it is an embodiment of Izard’s “make your whole mouth happy” philosophy.

The meals she prepares under that banner have garnered her and Girl and the Goat—the Chicago restaurant she opened in 2010—national acclaim.

Izard was a celebrity already, having won season four of Bravo’s wildly popular Top Chef, but it’s her work since, as chef and co-owner at the Goat, that have catapulted her to true stardom. Capturing rave reviews from the Chicago Tribune and Saveur magazine as well as a prestigious James Beard nomination, she was named a Food and Wine Best New Chef in 2011.

“If you could see me when I was on stage getting my award for that in New York, I had a gigantic perma-grin the entire time,” she recalls.

That’s hardly surprising: Izard’s a veritable ball of energy, talking fast, laughing a lot, and infusing every inch of her sizeable restaurant with every ounce of her sizeable persona. “I just wanted to take what I love about dining—which is hanging out with friends, usually quite a few drinks—and that’s why this place has a party vibe. Big fun with lots of energy.”

The space fosters that attitude with ample seating and high ceilings that echo with hundreds of voices, and a soundtrack that ranges from Johnny Cash to the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Regina Spektor. The bar is packed with tourists and regulars alike, and the atmosphere spawns conversation from the moment the front door opens.

Seated at the far end of that very bar, I was quickly befriended by a 40-something professional Chicagoan awaiting some friends. Within 45 minutes, I was sharing my cauliflower with pickled peppers and mint—portions at Girl and the Goat are naturally designed for sharing with friends both old and new—and she was sharing her goat chorizo flatbread.

The shareable, approachable food is just as driven by Izard’s demeanor as the palpable friendliness imbued throughout the dining room. Signature dishes like roasted pig face, a dramatically more interesting variation on traditional head cheese, elevate comfort food and ostensibly simple ingredients to haute cuisine, without even a hint of the snobbery that sometimes pervades the restaurant world.

Her commitment to that depth of understanding extends to every aspect of the restaurant, which includes having an in-house baker and butcher. She’s explored an interest in beer (the lone piece of art in the restaurant features a girl, a goat, and dancing beer bottles) by visiting Indiana’s Three Floyds Brewing and by actually making beer with Chicago-based Goose Island. “I’ve gotten to brew beer a couple times. I don’t think it’s anything I could do by myself, but it’s really cool to know more about it. And we make our own wine in Walla Walla (Washington). We make our own cheese. I just kind of want to learn how to do everything.”

Izard’s curiosity about food began early at her childhood home in Connecticut, where her parents enjoyed a wide range of cuisine. She earned a sociology degree from LSA in 1998, and if there were any hint at her future, it lay in evenings out with friends. “We would go through and order all these different beers, and I remember [learning] about it and thinking, ‘this is cool.’”

After graduation, she enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu in Arizona, where she learned the skills that later took her to several acclaimed Chicago establishments before opening her first restaurant, Scylla, in 2006. Despite rave reviews, she opted to close in 2008, not long after which she joined Top Chef. The prize money helped pave the way to her current endeavor.

From day one, Izard has insisted on staff sharing her excitement for their ingredients, drinks, and food.

“We interviewed over 1,000 people,” she says, “and we’ve interviewed people who worked at some of the best restaurants in the city, and I’m like ‘yeah, you’re a great server, but still, you’re not getting it. You need to have the enthusiasm, and you need to want to make someone feel comfortable as soon as they walk in the door.’”

Izard’s a master at lending that sense of comfort to her patrons: Sitting at the bar, looking toward the kitchen, I could see fans approaching her to say hi or take pictures, which often end up on the restaurant’s website. She’s become widely known for being one of the most sociable “celebrity chefs” in the country, someone who hasn’t changed as a result of her fame.

“Even if I’m sick at the store and a fan comes up, I’m still going to talk to them. [Some chefs] get annoyed by people . . . but someone coming up to you and saying they love you? I mean, that’s pretty nice. Be happy about it.”  

That connection with her devotees achieved new heights last summer when Izard launched a fundraiser for Share Our Strength, an organization fighting childhood hunger: “We’re doing these benefit dinners called Supper at Steph’s where I invite eight strangers into my house and cook dinner for them, and my staff said, ‘Seriously, Stephanie, what if they look through your underwear drawer?’ And I’m like, well, they’ll look through my underwear drawer. I don’t care.”

She’s laughing as a cook brings her a spoon covered in ginger dressing destined for the crunchy raw kohlrabi salad. “As long as I’m not in the bathroom, they’re supposed to bring me a taste.”

“I think that my cooks genuinely enjoy coming to work. Of course, they’re often hungover and tired and don’t really want to get here in the morning. But we have fun. We sing and dance all day. Having someone yell at me doesn’t make me want to work harder for them, it makes me want to have them not be around anymore.”

That’s not idle talk. The restaurant’s open kitchen allows patrons to peer inside. “You can see all the cooks smiling and enjoying each other’s company, which I just think is so important. If you’re putting out food that’s supposed to have all this love in it and you’re pissed off, it’s probably not going to taste as good.”

Her cooks must have an awful lot of love, because the lengthy menu is delicious from top to bottom. In her inimitable style, she doesn’t overthink it. “If I try too hard to make new menu items—like, all right, I must make a new fish dish this week, then it never works. So for me, it’s waiting to see if something just hits and something clicks. Like if I walk in the cooler and see some vegetable next to another one, and I’m like, ‘Yeah!’” That revelation explains her cross-cultural influences—for example, Izard’s crudo, an Italian-inspired raw fish dish, puts buttery Pacific hiramasa under bits of pork belly, Peruvian chiles, and caperberries.

That culinary creativity is showcased in Girl in the Kitchen, a book of recipes from her home kitchen released last October. She toured all winter to support the cookbook, while simultaneously planning her version of a classic diner, which she’s calling The Little Goat. She’s constantly busy, but she admits that’s how she likes it. “I’ve always been really driven and want to be as successful as possible. And I’m hoping to retire in 10 years, so I’ve got a lot to do.”

Girl and the Goat’s dining room (above) is rustic but contemporary, featuring chunky wood tables, an oak bar with antique fixtures, and iron detailing reclaimed from early 20th century grills. Dishes such as kalbi-style beef ribs with corn coblettes and charred okra (below left) are served among the charred cedar walls of a building more than a century old. The lone artwork (below right) is Quang and Loc Hong’s colorful, if slightly psychedelic, painting of a girl, a goat, and dancing beer bottles.
Photos: Huge Galdones