Chef Stephanie Izard always knew she had a knack for business. Although the business school hopeful ended up in culinary school instead, Izard has turned her fearlessness and business acumen into three highly successful restaurants, a Top Chef win, and a handful of awards.
A staunch believer of working hard and taking risks, the executive chef and co-owner of The Girl and the Goat, The Little Goat Diner, and Duck Duck Goat took the time to interview for the March Issue of Entrepreneurial Chef Magazine.
She spoke with us about ignoring the potential for failure, the importance of learning how to manage a restaurant first-hand, and hiring the right people, and building her empire.
Below is the snapshot of the incredible journey and advice she shared.
In 2007, Izard was cooking and managing almost all the aspects of Scylla. “I kind of wore all the hats [at Scylla],” Izard told us, “and I was calling back and confirming the reservations one morning, and I was on the phone with someone and in the middle of the phone call, I fainted. And I got up and my first instinct was, ‘okay, gotta call these people back,’ so I called them back and fainted again.”
When Izard made it to the hospital, the diagnosis was that she was exhausted and running herself into the ground. She realized how she had spread herself so thin that her health had significantly suffered. “That was the day I called my realtor and told her I need to put this place on the market and take a little break,” Izard said.
That’s not to say the decision was an easy one.
“It was one of those decisions where I asked myself, ‘is this a failure or is this a good decision?’” Izard said, “but if I had held on to that restaurant, I wouldn’t have been able to go on Top Chef. But, also, I would have held on to that restaurant, and not taken the opportunity to work with my current partners.”
Izard gave us some great insight: “what seemed like a negative at the time turned out into a super, super positive.”
Shortly thereafter, Izard appeared on Season 4 of Top Chef, and became the first woman to win the show. On the Top Chef Season 4 Reunion Special, Izard also won the “Fan Favorite” award, becoming the only Top Chef winner to also win that award. The show launched Izard to celebrity status, enabling her to spend the next two years cooking, speaking, and traveling all over the country.
During this time, Izard was also preparing to open another restaurant. Izard partnered with BOKA Restaurant Group co-owners Robert Katz and Kevin Boehm for her next venture.
In 2010, it all came together with the launch of The Girl and the Goat. Located in Chicago’s West Loop, the 130-seat space offers an intriguing menu with global influences, local craft beer, and nose-to-tail cooking. The restaurant was met with acclaim; Saveur dubbed it “America’s Best New Restaurant” and it was nominated for the James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant in 2011.
A month after opening The Girl and the Goat, Izard would joke amongst her staff that she wished she could open a small café that would serve breakfast and lunch and bake bread for both locations. Less than a year later, Izard, Katz, and Boehm opened The Little Goat Diner.
“Going from one to two restaurants, then two to three restaurants is totally different,” Izard said. “Opening a second is the hardest,” Izard continued, “because you’re trying to still do everything you did at the first, so you’re not delegating your roles at the first place while opening the second place; you’re trying to do both, which doesn’t really work.”
Yet, that didn’t dissuade Izard from opening a third restaurant, Duck Duck Goat, in 2016 with her BOKA Restaurant Group partners. The idea was born from one of Izard’s Sunday Suppers event at The Little Goat, most of which are centered around a theme.
Initially based on Chinese take-out items like cashew chicken and fried rice, Izard realized that her take on the favorites was better than the take-out she usually ordered. When she ran the idea by her partners, “they were super excited,” Izard recalled, “because they thought a Chinese restaurant was the one thing we were missing in the neighborhood we’re in.” As usual, Duck Duck Goat has yet to disappoint, opening to gushing reviews. “Everyone,” Chicago Magazine’s Jeff Ruby wrote, “wants a piece of Duck Duck Goat.”
While Izard’s talent is undeniable, she points to the people working at her restaurants as being key contributors to each location’s success.
“The staff has gone through changes, but we find really awesome people,” Izard told us, “we take a lot of time with training. I like to think the food is really good, but one of the most important things is having people working for you that put all of themselves into the restaurant as if it’s their own.”
As for finding the right people, Izard told us that she takes her time with the process. In fact, Izard places such a high premium on her employees that she doesn’t let her front end managers hire bartenders or servers without meeting them first.
“It’s better to hold out for awesome people than hire bodies,” Izard said, “it’s important to find people that really fit into the restaurant that you have.” One way she does this is by asking candidates to tell her about themselves. “I think it’s important to focus on what that person will do in relation to the restaurant,” Izard said, “but I like to find out a little more about them, to have a conversation and get to know them a bit.”
Given the trajectory of Izard’s career, it’s no surprise that she advocates taking some risks. “For me, working hard and taking some risks has gotten me to where I am, and it’s obviously good to analyze risks,” Izard said, “but sometimes you have to take a leap of faith and just go for it.”
She also advises that young entrepreneurs to “find a few people whose careers you think are amazing, and take a few things that you think are great and combine them with your own goals.” It’s a creative way to form new ideas and entrepreneurial paths, something that Izard clearly excels at.
To get the full interview, and more just like it, grab a free trial of this issue of Entrepreneurial Chef Magazine. Available on iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon. You’re guaranteed to pick up ideas, inspiration & actionable advice!
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