Stephanie Izard Dishes on CMT Artists of the Year

Celebrity Chef Discusses Home-Cooked Meals, Side Dishes and Old Favorites

Now here’s a cool dinner party guest list — Jason Aldean, Kenny Chesney, Lady Antebellum, Brad Paisley and Taylor Swift. And yes, those were the honorees at the CMT Artists of the Year special, which airs Tuesday (Dec. 13). And hopefully everyone arrived hungry, as celebrity chef Stephanie Izard presented a delicious and inventive menu of spiced shrimp on barbecue pork, beef short rib and butternut malasadas with brown butter apples.

“I never would have thought this opportunity would have come up,” says Izard, who found stardom by winning Top Chef, the only woman to ever do so. “I get excited when other artists come into the restaurant because I think that cooking is an art as well. It’s sort of me getting to show them my art, while I get to listen to amazing music and meet really cool people.”

Izard visited Nashville in the fall to sign copies of her new cookbook, Girl in the Kitchen. Although she’s the owner of the acclaimed Girl & the Goat restaurant in Chicago, Izard chatted with about preparing meals at home, cooking at the last minute and occasionally indulging in a box of macaroni and cheese.

CMT: You tested all of these recipes from your cookbook at home. If somebody had walked into your place about halfway through that process, what would they have seen?

Izard: (laughs) We ended up bringing in Metro shelving where we could put a bunch of pots and pans because my apartment is just so small. That way we had some different choices. I had gotten a second refrigerator before this whole process started, for another event, but because you’re testing each recipe so many times, I kind of had to fill it. It was nice to have, I must say. And my neighbors … I can’t tell. It was a love-hate relationship. Sometimes they loved smelling all the food. And sometimes they were like, “Seriously, my dog will not stop barking.”

You write in your book about cooking with visual cues. What’s an example of that?

Often when you’re in culinary school or in a kitchen or restaurant setting, someone says, “How long do I cook that?” And you say, “Until it’s done.” (laughs) Say you’re cooking a piece of fish. Wait until it starts caramelizing around the edge and then you know it’s safe to flip it over. There are certain things we know and take for granted, so we wanted to put those in the book so people could use those at home. It’s often about touch and visual.

Also, you talk about “making the whole mouth happy.” Can you tell me more about that?

Yeah, it’s all about balance in a dish. Often I’ll eat foods and I’ll think, “If this just had a little bit of acid, it would make my whole mouth happy.” You want to have a little bit of sweet, a little bit of savory, a little bit of spice. And it’s about textures, too. If there’s something soft, you want something crunchy. The different parts of your palate are spread throughout your mouth, so that’s what I mean about making your whole mouth happy. Let your mouth enjoy each bite.

Like you, I love side items. Do you often like to try a new side dish to go along with one of your old favorite recipes?

Yeah, it’s the fun part. I had a woman asking me the other day about a dinner party and she wanted me to create a menu. I said, “How about you go through the book and take four of the different side dishes and give the recipes to your friends, and have them bring those?” That’s because potluck is the way to go when you have friends over for dinner.

I’m all about family style. At my restaurant, it’s all family style. If you want to do a big roast or do a big whole fish, put a bunch of sides around it, so people can mix and match. Just have fun. I think eating is all about having fun with your friends, so why should you be the only one stressing out? (laughs)

Speaking of old favorites, I like the story in the cookbook about buying a box of macaroni and cheese — and getting recognized from Top Chef.

Yeah, I wasn’t feeling well and I was wearing my pajamas. My hair was bad and I probably didn’t smell very good because I had been sick for a couple of days. I decided to wander over to the 7-Eleven next to my house to get dinner. And really there aren’t that many options for dinner because I didn’t want one of the hot dogs spinning on the thing. So I grabbed a box of mac and cheese and as soon as I picked it up, I looked at someone and it was like, “Oh my God, you’re Stephanie from Top Chef!” And I said, “Yes, I am. And yes, I’m having mac and cheese for dinner. I am sick.”

Back in the beginning, when little incidences like that happened, it kind of freaked me out. I was like, “I just want to be incognito!” But now I’m like, if people see me eating mac and cheese, then they know that once in a while I do that. And if they see me looking sweaty at the gym, then they know I’m a normal person. It’s all good.

You describe yourself as a last-minute planner. What’s the advantage to cooking like that?

I’ve always been a huge procrastinator. In college, if I had a 10-page paper due, I’d write it that morning, spell-check it and hand it in. I change my mind a lot, so by not planning ahead, I’m not going to stress out that an ingredient is suddenly not available — because I haven’t decided the menu yet anyway. (laughs) I think that’s a better way. It’s nice to have an idea ahead of time, but to be flexible.

Can you overthink a delicious meal?

I think so. Not to sound cheesy, but I think cooking is something that’s supposed to come from your heart. For me, I just go walk around the store and, say, grab a piece of fish. And then I go look around and see what looks good. I’ll start grabbing things. I think if you plan too much ahead, then you freak out when it’s like, “Oh my God, the blueberries are not here!” That’s OK, get some strawberries. It’s not the end of the world.

View photos of her book signing.
Craig Shelburne has been writing for since 2002. He is also a producer for CMT Edge, Concrete Country and Live @ CMT.