Exclusive: Chatting with the Newly Crowned Iron Chef Stephanie Izard
There’s reason to celebrate in kitchens everywhere tonight: For the first time since 2012, a new Iron Chef has joined the Chairman’s esteemed ranks. Stephanie Izard, a chef and restaurateur based in Chicago, defeated not only six challengers to earn the right to run the gauntlet but also a trio of Iron Chefs — Bobby Flay, Michael Symon and Masaharu Morimoto — following a series of three epic battles on Iron Chef Gauntlet.
Each of these showdowns featured a different Secret Ingredient, and it was up to her to decide with which Iron Chef she wanted to do battle as each altar was revealed. It took only the first heat to realize that she wasn’t going to make this mission easy on herself, as she chose to face off against undisputed pepper king and Southwestern-cooking master Iron Chef Flay in Battle Pepper. From there, she challenged Iron Chef Symon to Battle Cheese and Iron Chef Morimoto, a seafood guru, to Battle Tilefish. And though she fell to Iron Chef Flay in the first heat, she ultimately out-cooked Iron Chefs Symon and Morimoto to best their combined score by three precious points.
We were on set with Chef Izard became Iron Chef Izard and caught up with her moments after her momentous victory. Read on below to get her take on where she went wrong in Battle Pepper, and find out why she told us, “I made the challenges as hard as possible for myself.”
Congratulations, Iron Chef! Take us back to the moments before Alton announced the results. You see an empty fourth podium, one that you could potentially take your place on as an Iron Chef. What was going through your mind?
Stephanie Izard: I had a feeling that Iron Chef Flay had beat me by a couple points, and I had a feeling that I had beat Symon by, hopefully, more than a couple points. … Morimoto made a soup and I made a soup, and in my mind, I was thinking, “I wonder which — even just coming down to which soup would you want to eat more.” I feel like the Iron Chefs are like: “All right, all right. You can be in our club.”
What does it mean to you to be in that club?
SI: It’s awesome. … The chefs that are Iron Chefs, I respect them wholeheartedly. They’re amazing, and they’re well-respected throughout the culinary world, and they are known for making great food. So, it’s being welcomed into a club of people that showcases that in a different way. Being an Iron Chef, it’s a really cool thing to be a part of. Iron Chef Izard here.
You besting Iron Chef Symon in the second heat carries significance beyond the gauntlet. The last time you battled him, in Battle Bread, he beat you, right?
SI: This is true. When I battled Symon in Kitchen Stadium, he beat us by a couple points, and only because I think he had some Iron Chef tricks up his sleeve. When you’re cooking with your sous chefs, especially those that come from your restaurant, you want them to be so happy, and we were all so bummed after that. Me beating him this time is what made me get that position on the podium, and one of the sous chefs that was there with me then still works with me and one has moved on, but I’m excited to see them and just be like, “Look guys — redemption.”
Tell me about your strategy in assigning the Secret Ingredients, ultimately giving everybody their dream ingredient.
SI: Seeing peppers first, I don’t know who would have done badly with peppers, but I figured I might as well just give each Iron Chef what they are best known for, because I feel like that makes the Iron Chefs respect my decision on that. And why take the easy way out? It’s better to go for it full-steam.
With which of the three Secret Ingredient did you feel the most comfortable?
SI: I felt comfortable with all the ingredients. The thing I wish I could go back and make a couple of last-minute changes to would be the pepper battle, because if I had left a couple things off that dish, then I think I would have won. One of the sauces on there — I call it sauce green, because we make so many different salsa verdes in our restaurants — it’s one of my favorite things, but it was so lost, because there was so much going on. So, I totally get the judges on that, but I thought that using the peppers in the pancake was really cool, making a taco out of it. There were so many great flavors going on that I wish I had left out a couple of things, which is something that I always have to slap myself for, because I sometimes go overkill on ingredients. That’s the one that I would want to go back and re-do.
You made Alton nervous as you struggled with blue cheese ice cream in the second battle. What was your process for salvaging that?
SI: I get into the battle, and I’m like: “Okay, got this. My ice creams keep coming out perfect, how great.” I’m dumping everything in, and I don’t put enough sugar in. I taste it, and I think it’s okay, but once it freezes, the flavor profile totally changes, so I go to test some of it, and it’s not sweet at all. It’s not meant to be super sweet, but it was not sweet at all. I was trying to figure out how I could fix it at that point, so I took it out, added sugar and tried to put it back in, but it wouldn’t go back in, because it was too thick. I had to thin it out and go to the other ice cream machine, because it was lodging the first one. I was like: “Well, crap. This whole entire thing is based on this ice cream.” That was terrible.
Looking back on the last six weeks, what element of this whole thing were you least expecting?
SI: Not that I didn’t think the other challengers were great chefs before, but seeing what everybody pulled out was really cool. As each challenge went on, it was really cool to see what everybody else made, and also what I pulled out too. I’m like, “Oh, I think I will make that again.” Chef Grueneberg has been a friend for a while, and I’ve eaten her food, but she went way beyond what I even expected. I know she makes delicious food, but she really pulled out some badass things and shows she knows so much more than just Italian. Chef Dady I’ve known for years, and I didn’t realize how diverse his food was either, and he made a lot of Asian stuff, which, I was like “Yeah!” because that’s one of my favorite things. As the competition went further along, seeing what all the other chefs really were doing was really cool.
Aside from Sunday’s momentous victory, what was one of your highlights from the last couple weeks?
SI: I think the chicken battle was my highlight. I was really excited that the judges liked the chicken feet, because I love chicken feet and it’s hard to get people to order them at our dim sum brunch. And the chicken thigh dish is one of my favorite things that we do a version of at the restaurants. But then the chicken liver ice cream — I was laughing when I came up with that idea and laughing when I started making it. And Chefs Dady and Grueneberg were watching, and they’re like” “Are you making ice cream out of those chicken livers? Ugh.” And it was really tasty, so it all worked, but that was one of those — when I was successful at that I was like: “Ah, phew.”
You’ve competed in culinary competitions before. How does the gauntlet compare in terms of difficulty and your expectations?
SI: It’s funny. This morning I was thinking it’s been almost exactly 10 years since I won Top Chef. It’s been about 10 years, and when I look back to all the things I made on that show, that would never have survived even half of a round against these challengers. So, I think it’s definitely really stiff competition during this, and Alton’s no joke. He knows more about food that I do. He’s talking about the science of what I’m making, and I’m listening so I can learn, like: “Oh, is that what the starches are doing? Hmm. Good to know.” I think the bar was set very high, which is great. If you’re going to do a competition on TV, you want it to be not what can you make with this chip out of this bag, but rather here’s some real ingredients that you can be proud of making something with. What can you do with them? And it gives you the opportunity to put your best foot forward.
What’s your family and staff going to say upon learning you’re an Iron Chef?
SI: Hopefully my staff will be really proud and excited. It’s funny, once you get to the point of having three restaurants, your cooks — I feel like sometimes they’re like, “Oh, she’s never here,” because I’m at another restaurant, and I just had a baby, so I definitely don’t work the 80 hours that I used to. I stick with 50 or 60 hour weeks, which is still plenty. But I want my cooks to be like, “Oh, I’m so proud, even more proud that I work with her,” and I think all my sous chefs will be super pumped. We call it the Iron Goat — we do Iron Goat challenges with our cooks all the time at the restaurants, and we’re really fortunate to be able to take a couple hours off before service during the day and have them come in, get a bunch of cool ingredients for them, and we do challenges. I buy them really nice knives if they win or something like that, and I sent a couple on culinary trips.
What do you want viewers to remember about what you did here and how you became an Iron Chef?
SI: I think I want them to take away we made this a really fair competition, and I think all of the chefs that were here have so much respect for each other that we didn’t take the cutthroat route that it could have gone. Everybody just wanted — you cooked well or you didn’t cook well, and now you go do this other cooking. And that I took the fair road, but also didn’t take the easy road. I think I made the challenges as hard as possible for myself really just to prove to myself that I could do it.