The Journey to the Gauntlet: Chatting with Challenger Stephanie Izard from Iron Chef Gauntlet

Get to know Chef Stephanie Izard, a challenger competing on Iron Chef Gauntlet.

Photo by: Eddy Chen, Eddy Chen

Eddy Chen, Eddy Chen

This. Is. It. The fight to become an Iron Chef is unlike any other culinary competition, with the demands for precision, expertise, intuition and downright excellence the most rigorous in the business. On Iron Chef Gauntlet, seven of the country's most-elite chefs will come together to prove that their skills are the sharpest — but ultimately just one will earn the right to the run the gauntlet for the chance to join the ranks of the great Iron Chefs.

Before the competition begins on Sunday, April 16 at 9|8c, we're giving you, Iron Chef fans, the first introductions to the crop of challengers ready to do battle. Today we'd like you to meet Stephanie Izard, a chef from Chicago. Read on below to get to know her style in the kitchen, and be sure to come back to FN Dish all week long as we present a new contender every day this week.

What's your style of cuisine, and do you have a signature dish?

Stephanie Izard: I wouldn’t say I have a signature dish, because I just make a lot of different things and I think my favorites kind of change, but I like to cook foods from all over the world and just keep trying to learn more and more about different flavors. So a lot of focus on Asian cuisines, I would say, whether it’s Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Chinese. But I try to dabble in some other areas too.

What's your proudest culinary achievement to date?

SI: Food & Wine Best New Chef. When I got that I couldn’t even breathe, and I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone around me when they called. And Dana, who makes the calls, she was like, "You didn’t sound very excited." I’m like, "There were people around me." I couldn’t even explain how excited I was. That was something that was always a goal of mine.

What's your strongest skill in the kitchen, be it something technical or mental?

SI: I definitely don’t have mental skills in the kitchen. I think putting the right balance of acid and seasoning. I’m really good at balancing flavors.

Why do you have what it takes to be an Iron Chef? What makes you worthy of joining such esteemed ranks?

SI: I think that because I cook so many different things, I have an array of things I can do, and I’m extremely competitive. So, when I’m given ingredients, I take the competitive nature and I take all the different things that I like to challenge myself to learn how to do. That’s a good winning combination.

What makes you unique in terms of your culinary expertise or your approach to food?

SI: I think our approach in our restaurants, of course it’s about the food, but it’s about the front of the house and the atmosphere and everything kind of fitting together just really making you feel warm and welcome and comfortable. And challenging you a little bit, and always getting people to try new things, but it’s very approachable at the same time.

What do you think fans at home might not realize about what it takes to cook at such a high level?

SI: I think a lot of times, especially with TV now, people look at being a chef as being a sort of glorified thing, which is awesome, but there are so many people at my restaurants who make it happen. Yes, I work most every day, but the reason I can be sitting here now is because I have such amazing chefs and sous chefs that work for me, and when people come in, they’re like, Oh Stephanie didn’t cook this?" Well, I mean, way back when I did that, but I think people don’t even realize how many hands it takes to get a restaurant to where it is.

Tell us about a day in your life. What are some of your primary responsibilities and roles?

SI: I have the three restaurants, and then also I have a book and we’re launching a magazine. So, my days are checking on all the restaurants, managing all of my sous chefs, working on new dishes, working on specials — we have blue plate specials every day at the diner, so I still work on those — and really just coordinating and making sure everything’s happening okay at all the restaurants, trying to run around. And then aside from that, making time for the projects outside of the restaurants. We have a catering company now too, so we focus a lot on marketing and things like that. So you wear lots of hats.

How did you prepare for this competition?

SI: I don’t know how you really can prepare for this. Honestly, I took a couple of my dumpling and noodle recipes and memorized the grams, which I was surprised I had the brain capacity to do on the airplane, and I don’t know if other people did the same thing. But there’s definitely some things that I make that have to be very specific in the amounts of measurements, so I tried to memorize those. And then I’m just trying to remain calm and hope that everything that I can do at the restaurants can filter into the competition.

If you had the chance to battle one Iron Chef, who would you choose and why?

SI: I guess Michael Symon, since I lost to him on Iron Chef America. It was very close. We made a soufflé. That’s crap. Just kidding. And he’s fun. I think that Michael Symon’s someone that now I’m friends with. I think it would be a fun, friendly battle.

What would be a Secret Ingredient that you'd dread finding on the altar, and why?

SI: I mean, just with the time constraints, if they give us each our own whole animal, I feel like that might make me a little bit nervous.

Is there any dish or ingredient that you don't care for or will not eat?

SI: No, I pretty much like to eat everything.

Beyond a knife and a tasting spoon, what’s one of your favorite kitchen tools?

SI: I’m pretty simple, but one of the things that I brought with me that I needed was my little Chinese rolling pin. It’s a little marble rolling pin that’s nice, and it stays cold, so it’s good for the dough. It’s very heavy, so it’s easy to push down on the dumplings, and it’s small — little hands making dumplings. It's so simple, but it works.

What's your favorite ingredient to work with these days? Anything new you're obsessing over right now?

SI: Fish sauce is my favorite ingredient, and you can tell when you come to my restaurants that we get in pallets of fish sauce.

What do you like to cook on your days off?

SI: It’s a little chilly in Chicago right now, but we love using the grill. For Christmas we actually took a couple ducks from Duck, Duck Goat and did grilled Peking duck. So when we moved into our house, the first thing we did was build a grill in the backyard. It’s a gas-wood combo. That’s my favorite.

Who do you consider to be your culinary mentor?

SI: That’s a question that comes up a lot, as it should, but I didn’t work for one chef for a really long time and have a mentor in that way, so I think there’s lots. From cookbooks, I think Mario Batali was one of my first mentors, just from reading his stuff. I worked for Shawn McClain, who’s in Vegas now. ... I think I’ve learned little bits and things from so many people.

What's the first dish you think an aspiring Iron Chef should master?

SI: They always say just making a nice omelet.

What do you think is the most-underrated ingredient or dish these days?

SI: That’s a hard one. Oh my husband is always like, "You should just make French bread pizza. Just do it. Make French bread pizza." That sounds really good.

Besides cooking, what do you like to do?

SI: I swim before work — I’m on a swim team — so that’s how I stay normal. I haven’t done it in a few days, so I don’t feel normal. And we have a baby, so that’s what life is all about right now, spending time with our baby.

Any guilty food pleasures you'd like to reveal?

SI: Oh, I eat all sorts of crap. We always have Cheez-Its around the house. I actually took them away for a little while, but they’re back and I’m pretty sure that Ernie, my baby, is going to be a Cheez-It lover as well.

Is there anything you want to say to introduce yourself to new audiences?

SI: Hi, I’m Stephanie Izard. If folks happen to come to Chicago, come to Duck, Duck Goat. It’s really fun, and we have this cool little take-out window that’s street food, which I think is my favorite menu of stuff. And there’s not information released yet, but we’re launching a magazine this year, so just keep an ear out for that.

Tune in to the premiere of Iron Chef Gauntlet on Sunday, April 16 at 9|8c.

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