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Chef Stephanie Izard on Expansion and Top Chef Duels

Today, Eater is covering the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen live from the Eater Lounge at the Limelight Hotel. Right now: chef Stephanie Izard
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[Photo: Eater]

What's new at your restaurants?
Everything's great. Girl and the Goat, we're coming up on our four-year anniversary, it's in a couple of weeks, July 9. And then Little Goat, I keep saying it's about a year, but it's a year and seven months, so we're almost coming up on two years there and everything is starting to smooth out. And, not announcing it yet, but working on probably another project. But that'll come out in a few months.

Can you tell a little bit more about your idea for it?
I can't yet. We want to make it kind of a big thing, but in a little while I'm ready to try something else new. It's still in Chicago.

So it's also been just over a year since your James Beard Best Chef: Great Lakes win. Have you seen an uptick in your business and different customers come in since winning that award?
Yeah, it's interesting. Top Chef brings in customers that follow Top Chef. And then with something like Food & Wine Best New Chefs, it's a different group. There's some that follow both, which is great. And then there's some people that are really true to following food and wine and looking for the best chefs and James Beard Awards and things like that.

We've always been lucky to have a combination of guests that come in. Right now Chicago is having so many chefs and restaurants mentioned in the national press that people come to Chicago to just eat for four or five days. I'm like "What are you guys doing? Are you going on this tour or that tour?" And they're just like, "No, we're just eating around." It's great.

How are you feeling about the Beards coming to Chicago?
It's amazing. Last night, we had an event at the restaurant and a woman that works directly with [Chicago mayor] Rahm Emanuel was there. And I was thanking her because Rahm pretty much called Susan [Ungaro] and was like, "Can we have it here?" And just really pushed for our chefs to be able to have it in Chicago. So I think it's amazing. And we all got together for a press conference and little party after it was announced. Everybody's just super excited. And I don't know that we need to feel validation, but it's kind of like "Yeah, Chicago's on the map."

Are you hosting an after-party?
We're talking about it. We're lucky enough to be in the West Loop where everything is kind of booming right now. And Grant Achatz and Paul Kahan are there, so what we've been doing is kind of talking to each other to see what we can do to do some sort of giant West Loop party situation. We just want to push that it's the neighborhood to be in in Chicago.

Speaking of Grant, his business partner Nick [Kokonas] mentioned you in his manifesto on the ticketing system. And I'm curious if the ticketing system is something that you would consider.
I think that it's really cool and we do it for various events. And I like using it for certain events, but I think we'll probably just stick with the normal reservation system.

As your company has grown, I wanted to get some intel on your stats. Do you know how many people work for you?
Yeah, between the two restaurants, I have about 315 probably. That's just for Girl and the Goat and Little Goat. My partners have more restaurants. I don't know what the total number is for all the restaurants, I think it's close to 1,000. But for our two restaurants, it's around 315.

Do you know all their names?
I probably know a little over 200. There's still just a lot of turnover, particularly with the hostesses. Like I might come back on a Monday and there's a new hostess at one of the restaurants. And I'll go up and meet them. It's a little tricky, more so with the servers. But, of course, with the cooks I interact with them on a day-to-day basis so it's much easier to actually get to know them. And yesterday we just had some new servers in training and we sat down with them and we go around the room and say a little bit about yourself. So when I see you I'm not just like, "Hey Nick, what's up?" But I'm saying "Hey Nick, how's your dog?"

As you've been growing, how would you define your management strategy? Three hundred is a lot of people.
It is a lot of people. I think it's trying to keep it as personal as possible and trying to get to know them as much as I can. I have a number of managers that I work with. Each restaurant has four to five sous chefs as well as four to five front of house managers, so we have a nice structured team. But it's being able to work directly with everyone and reminding everybody on the staff that they can come and talk to me directly whenever they want to. I'm really trying to push that, because I want to know as much as I can about what's going on.

Who knows what will happen with the third restaurant, I might have to try to not know as much about the little things. But I'm going to try my best to continue that way. And we just try to have fun. For me, it's making sure that if maybe I'm having one of those days where something grumpy happened that I don't let that come into work either. And we try to sing and dance around a lot.

What's your strategy for staying focused on both locations, and thinking about moving into a third?
Right now I'm lucky because they are both right across the street from each other. I work at both every day, I run back and forth all the time. It's like playing a game of Frogger and no one's gotten hit yet, so that's good. When you're carrying food, it's a little more awkward. But I'm like all right, I've got a manager meeting here, and then pre-shift meeting here, and then cook pre-shift here, and then tasting here. I taste around 60 dishes a day, and that's good, keeps me fed. And it's just kind of trying to run around as much as possible. Yeah, definitely keeps me entertained all day.

You're doing Top Chef Duels?
I was definitely like, "Do I want to go back and do this?" I obviously can't tell you what happened, but I got to go against Kristen [Kish]. She and I actually didn't know each other that well aside from seeing her and being like "Hey, congratulations." But now she's somebody that I text all the time and is one of my friends. We have a Star Wars room at our house and she's going to come stay with us. So she's logged in to stay in the Star Wars room next time she's in Chicago.

Can you tell me more about the Star Wars room? Because that sounds like a really great place.
My husband and I just moved into a house about three months ago. And I have a bunch of Star Wars stuff because I've always loved Yoda, so we decided to just put it all in one room. And now we have Star Wars sheets. You gotta have a theme to your guest bedroom so people want to come, and maybe they'll bring Star Wars things when they stay there. So I told Kristen she's gotta go find something for the room.

Did she tell you what she's bringing?
It's gotta be a surprise, but Yoda's my favorite, so hopefully something Yoda.

How did they convince you to go back? What was the selling point for you going back into the Top Chef kitchen?
I think I was excited to hear about some of the other people that were going back. Also that there were going to be some of the Top Chef Masters that I'm friends with, like Takashi [Yagihashi] and Art Smith, and it just seemed like a fun group of people. There were many great things that I took away from the experience on the original Top Chef, but all the people that I met, I don't get to hang out with them as much as I would like to. So it was a good excuse to hang out with everybody again.

So the question we have been asking everybody as our final Eater question: what is the craziest opportunity that you've said no to?
I need to think about this for a second. I don't know if it's crazy, but cool things I passed on, like getting to go cook in Bangkok and Thailand. I wasn't able to do it because of scheduling, but just getting the opportunity to go cook in random countries seems cool and crazy. I don't know, it would be much crazier if they asked me to go up in a space ship or something.

I guess one opportunity I actually said yes to was for a company where I had to use their electronic device for two weeks. And it was so awkward because I couldn't figure out how to use it. And I had to tweet from that phone, so I had to have someone show me how to tweet again for just like two weeks. I think that taught me to say no to anything that's just not me.

· All Stephanie Izard Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Aspen 2014 Coverage on Eater [-E-]

Limelight Hotel

355 S Monarch St, Aspen, CO 81611

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