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Thursday, Sept. 15, 2011 09:24 pm

Meet this year’s Hope School Celebrity Chef

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Chicago chef Stephanie Izard

When Stephanie Izard, this year’s Hope School Celebrity Chef, became Bravo TV’s 2008 Top Chef – the first and, after nine seasons, still the only woman to do so – Chicago’s food world was buzzing.

Would Izard return to Chicago? If she did, what kind of restaurant would she have? Formal or casual? Small/intimate or big/bustling? (That she would open a restaurant was never in doubt; it’s pretty much a given for Top Chef winners.) Izard is an Evanston native, but spent most of her childhood in Connecticut. Her culinary education and first professional cooking gigs were in the Southwest, but in 2001 she’d returned to the Chicago area, working in highly regarded restaurants before beginning filming the Top Chef competition.

One of the biggest buzzes surrounding Izard’s plans was how she’d make them a reality. The Top Chef grand prize was $100,000 to “kick-start your culinary career.” That amount has since been doubled, but it’s still far short of what’s needed to open a restaurant. Would Izard court private investors? Go it alone, something especially difficult in today’s economic climate?

In the spring of 2009, earlier than many Chicago insiders, I found out via a phone call:

“You’ll never guess who’s sitting two tables away from me,” half-whispered my daughter Ashley, then living in Chicago’s Lincoln Park. “I’m in the coffee shop on the first floor of my apartment building. Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz are talking to Stephanie Izard!!”

Oh…. Just knowing that Izard was working with the BOKA Group (a combination of the owners’ last names) provided most of the answers. Her restaurant would be stylish, for sure. It would have a relaxed, casual ambience, however sophisticated the food was. Whether large or small, the restaurant would be bustling. The service would be impeccable: friendly and informative without being either condescending or servile. And every element would be designed to showcase Izard’s food, and her particular style.

“Ask any young chef in town, “Who would you like to work for? And chances are that chef would name Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz, the men behind the hottest restaurant group in Chicago.”

–Chicago Magazine, May 2011

Boehm is a Springfield native whose first full-scale restaurant was Indigo. “Springfield was a great place to learn the restaurant business,” he says. For the last decade, he and Katz, have opened five hugely successful Chicago restaurants, including Izard’s The Girl and The Goat, which opened in the summer of 2010. Boehm (who’s been on the Hope School board since 2008) says that they always intended to have multiple restaurants: “Every time we open one, the game changes a little bit; that keeps it fun. I think you have to do one restaurant at a time, so your company can adjust each time a new restaurant is added.”

 The BOKA Group is often described as being “chef-driven.” For Boehm and Katz, that means their chefs are culinary partners, not employees. “The focus of each restaurant is the chef, plain and simple,” Boehm says. “Our goal is to make them the star. Their brilliance assures that their restaurants are crafted individually and run with integrity. The identity of each place begins with them, and continues with the great hospitality that BOKA Group is known for.”

That philosophy meshed perfectly with Izard’s goals. “Stephanie had a concept and wanted to partner with someone who could allow her to just concentrate on the culinary aspects,” Boehm told me. “The negotiation was actually quite short. Sometimes you just know when things are a good fit. This was one of those times.”

The BOKA Group has been extraordinarily successful in anticipating restaurant changes and trends. What does Boehm anticipate in the future?

“The “three-star” restaurant has changed drastically in the last five years,” Boehm says. “The busiest restaurants in America right now involve great chefs in casual environments. This trend will not change anytime soon. I don’t plan on having a restaurant with tablecloths anytime in the near future!”

As for the BOKA Group: “We’ll open Balena in December, and then a ‘chef-driven diner’ with Stephanie Izard called “Little Goat,” in March,” says Boehm. “It’s hard to predict exactly what’s going to happen past that. But Little Goat will be my 12th restaurant in 20 years, and I think BOKA Group probably will have at least 10 more in our future.”

I recently had a chance to observe and taste Izard’s creativity firsthand at a BOKA-sponsored Quick Fire Challenge event (independent of the reality show). For those not familiar with Top Chef, QuickFire Challenges open each episode, preliminaries to the elimination rounds. QuickFires are, well, quick. Sometimes things such as blindfolded contestants taste-identifying items. More often contestants make dishes with bizarre ingredients, such as things available in a convenience store.

This was BOKA’s second Quickfire. The first had been a contest between Paul Virant (Hope School’s 2009 Celebrity Chef) and Chris Pandel (the winner), whose restaurant, The Bristol, is a personal favorite. He’s teaming up with the BOKA Group for the above-mentioned Balena.

As with BOKA’s first QuickFire, a hundred lucky folks garnered tickets for free tastings, judging rights, and complimentary drinks. There was a central protein ingredient, as well as long table of covered items. For Izard and Pandel, the protein was locally raised flank steak. They flipped a coin for first choice before unveiling the 14 covered items, ranging from the wacky: Hershey’s syrup, Tubes of Hungry Jack Biscuits, Rice Krispies, and Dr. Pepper, to a plethora of vegetables, pickled green beans, pickled ginger and goat liver.

Stationed next to Izard’s cooking area, I had a great view. She’d chosen pickled green beans, okra, nori (seaweed sheets used for sushi) and a watermelon. Pandel grabbed the Dr. Pepper, goat liver, and tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant. Both gave a pass on the Hershey’s syrup and canned biscuits (which ultimately exploded in the heat).

Pandel marinated his flank steaks in the Dr. Pepper and began grilling the vegetables and goat liver. His sous chef hand-kneaded dough to be rolled paper-thin and grilled.

Izard was focused, but relaxed. She began grilling okra and onions and melting large quantities of butter, to which she added soy sauce and other seasonings. She discarded the pale watermelon flesh, then minced the crisp rind. She composed a fresh sauce of parsley, rosemary and oil; then added some of the discarded pink watermelon for liquidity. She diced the okra, beans and onions, then tossed them with a bit of the dressing. Pouring a generous slug of the seasoned butter into a large skillet, she added Rice Krispies and shredded nori, then tossed until the cereal was browned and extra-crispy. Throughout the entire hour her sous Rachel meticulously, endlessly, trimmed and minced flank steaks.

“What do you think Stephanie’s doing?” Boehm leaned over to ask me. “I thought she was going to stuff the flanks and grill them, but now I have no idea,” I replied.

Pandel’s flatbread was delicious, gorgeously topped with grilled vegetables and sliced steak. But the winner was Izard’s riff on classic Ethiopian steak tartare. Tasty and visually stunning, it consisted of a plate diagonally brushed with the green sauce, a dollop of tartare on one side, a tiny spoonful of the okra/pickled green bean salad on the other, and a scattering of watermelon rind. The topping of Rice Krispy/nori crunchies was fantastic, something I’ll be imitating.

An hour later, sitting at The Girl and The Goat’s bar, I discovered further proof of Izard’s culinary wizardry. Everything was fantastic; I was torn between wishing that my husband was with me to experience how good they were, and being glad I didn’t have to share. And I wished I could have tried more of the menu’s inventive dishes.

This year’s Hope School Celebrity Chef Benefit takes place Sept. 17 at 6 p.m. at Erin’s Pavillion at Southwind Park. Tickets range from $150 to $250. For reservations call Julie Baker at 280-0441 or visit www.thehopeinstitute.us.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com

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