Stephanie Izard doesn’t sit still for long. After winning season four of Bravo’s “Top Chef” (and being dubbed “Fan Favorite”), she opened Girl and the Goat, the adventurous eats destination in Chicago’s West Loop that has earned her a James Beard Award for Best Chef: Great Lakes. Next up was all-day breakfast spot Little Goat Diner in 2012, and in 2016 came Duck Duck Goat, where her clever takes on dim sum reign. Two months after that opening, she and her husband, Gary Valentine, a beer consultant, had even more news — they’d become first-time parents to a son, Ernie.
“That’s the thing about opening a restaurant when you’re seven months pregnant,” says Izard. “I was so stressed about getting everything done that I completely forgot how uncomfortable it was.”
Today, she maintains that life-on-the-go attitude as a full-time mom and chef but is quicker to pump the brakes when need be — which is usually for breakfast.
“We either cook breakfast all together at home and hang out for a couple of hours, or we come to Little Goat,” she says. “Breakfast and the mornings are really important to us.”
Here, Izard discusses the myths of momhood, the perks of delegating wisely, and why pancakes — and dance routines — save the day.
Make It Better: Even eight years after its opening, Girl and the Goat is still one of the toughest tables to land in the city. Did you ever anticipate it becoming as big as it has?
Stephanie Izard: I don’t think so. I’m not one to think ahead, honestly. I know people do the whole five-year and 10-year goals thing, but I mostly just think about getting through the week and making each day better. I’m pleasantly surprised that it continues to be as busy and fun as it always has been. I was just at Daniel in New York, which has been open for 25 years, and I was like, “Do I want to be open for 25 years?” It’s a little scary to think too far in advance, so for now, we’ll keep doing what we’re doing.
Within eight years you’ve opened three restaurants and had a baby. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned in the process?
When asked about doing it all, some women might be honest when they say, “Oh yeah, everybody can do it, it’s so great.” But truthfully, it’s hard. I’m sad when I’m unable to spend as much time as I’d like to with Ernie, and I’m sad when I’m unable to give 100 percent to my restaurants. It’s about looking at every day and trying to find a balance. But I know that 20 years from now I’m more likely to say, “Wow, I wish I had spent more time with Ernie,” than I am to say, “Wow, I wish I had spent more time working.”
I’ve also learned that being a parent is different for everyone, and that every parent has a different way of figuring it out. If I look around too much and start comparing my “mom-ness” to other moms who work from home or from nine to five, I start to feel like I’m doing something wrong — but we’ve found our own routine that makes sense. You have to remember it’s different for everyone.
What is your routine?
I try to go to the gym before he wakes up, which doesn’t always work. We’ll have breakfast, and I take him to soccer on Wednesdays and swimming on Thursdays. I can spend a few hours with him and still get to work by 9:30 a.m. and get home most days at 8 p.m. to put him to bed, just so I can be the last person he sees before he goes to sleep.
What’s your favorite part about breakfast together?
Ernie does a dance when he gets the pancakes at Little Goat. It’s become quite the routine. He’s always standing up in the booth, and as soon as the server is coming over with them, his eyes light up and he starts dancing back and forth with this huge smile on his face. After we eat, we give him one of the plates and he’ll walk it over to the station and basically bus his own table — it’s really cute.
Has delegating tasks to your team always been easy for you, or has becoming a parent changed that?
When I opened a second restaurant, the first step was to learn how to trust and delegate more. I was seven months pregnant when I opened Duck Duck Goat, and because I knew I’d be on leave for a few weeks once we opened, I set things up more efficiently. I had to make sure that there was someone else who could make the dumpling wrappers like I did, so they could solve problems when I wasn’t there. To get things situated in a way that I wasn’t as crucial to the process was a much smarter way of opening a restaurant.
What has been the most challenging aspect of the balancing act?
Everything. Just this morning I got back from a work trip — I have to go on a lot of work trips, too, which can make things really challenging — and yesterday, the babysitter texted me saying there was nothing to eat in the house. So I was like, “OK — I guess he can have the frozen pizza and fruit.” When you’re a chef and don’t have a child, you look in the fridge and there’s usually nothing there except maybe beer and ranch dressing. When you have a kid, you have to turn into a better adult.
What are you always well-stocked on now?
Eggs. Ernie’s favorite thing is scrambled eggs. He can eat three eggs for breakfast, and he’s not even 2.
Has becoming a parent changed your approach as a chef and an employer — especially when considering other employees who are parents themselves?
It becomes a bigger part of the conversation. A bunch of my line cooks have children, and that becomes our target talking point every day. We don’t necessarily talk about work first, we talk about our kids. We also try to think of ways to incorporate everyone, like making our gatherings more family friendly so that employees can bring their kids, too.
What is your very favorite way to disconnect these days?
The only time it really happens is when I go to swim practice in the mornings. When I’m underwater, no one can text me. At swimming, everyone talks about swimming — not about restaurants or my normal day-to-day. It’s my head-clearing part of the day.
Does having your own child change your perspective on dining out with kids?
One hundred percent. When we opened Little Goat, I didn’t even think about having a kids’ menu. We ended up doing it, but it didn’t occur to me until after I had Ernie, when we started coming in to eat at 7 a.m. and realized we were the only restaurant in the neighborhood open that early. Parents can’t always wait until 9 a.m. to give their kids breakfast. As soon as I had Ernie, we installed changing tables [in the restrooms] at all of the restaurants. We didn’t have them before, and I thought to myself, “I feel so terrible — where did parents used to do this?”
I still get a little bit of anxiety when taking him out to eat, but as an owner and fellow diner, now when I see babies making a little noise, I no longer feel even remotely annoyed. It’s more like, “Yeah, that’s just what happens.”
Where’s your favorite place to dine in Chicago with the entire family?
Ernie loves going to Piece Pizza. He has the same light-up look on his face with the pizza as he does with the pancakes.
So, pizza and pancakes. What about goat?
He comes to tastings at Girl and the Goat sometimes, when we put up all of the dishes before service to make sure they’re ready to go. He’s tried the goat, and he really likes the duck tongues. At Duck Duck Goat, he’s all about the crab rangoon and pork steamed buns. He’s definitely a good eater.
Girl and the Cookbook
Izard’s second title, “Gather & Graze,” made its big debut on April 10. Featuring collaborations with writer Rachel Holtzman, food stylist Johanna Lowe, and photographer Huge Galdones, it promises “120 recipes for tasty good times,” including Banh Mi Burgers, Roasted Shishito Peppers with Sesame Miso and Parmesan, and Sticky Sweet Potato Cake with Blueberry-Tomatillo Jam. One word: YUM.
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Nicole Schnitzler is a freelance writer who covers food, drink, travel, and lifestyle. When she is not planning her next adventure, she can be found commuting between bakeries, yoga classes, live music shows, and libraries in her hometown of Chicago. She is most comfortable with a pen in one hand and a fork in the other. Nicole is also the founder of Doors Open Dishes, an initiative committed to keeping the doors open to the group homes and workshops of individuals with special needs by partnering with chefs and restaurants across the city. Follow her on Twitter (@Write_To_Eat) or on Instagram (@WriteToEat).