Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.
[Photo: Rob Katz, Stephanie Izard and Kevin Boehm]
The Girl & The Goat is Stephanie Izard's first restaurant after winning Top Chef season four. Anticipation and buzz were extremely high, adding to the pressure felt by Izard and her two business partners, Rob Katz and Kevin Boehm of the Boka Restaurant Group, to open a restaurant that would meet everyone's expectations. A year after opening, the restaurant remains one of the hottest spots in Chicago, where people wait weeks to get a table. Not ones to rest on their laurels (a James Beard nod for best new restaurant; a Food & Wine best new chef award for Izard; local and national critical praise), the team continues to push themselves to constantly stay on top of their game. We recently sat down with the trio to talk about the first year of Girl & The Goat.
Stephanie, why did you want to open the Goat—why this restaurant and this concept?
I think after having Scylla I wanted to open something that was more casual. The first time I was with Rob and Kevin, we were driving and they asked what I wanted to open. And I felt really stupid for a second because I didn't really know them yet, and I said, "I want to open the Drunken Goat," and that was all I had to say. But Girl & The Goat, which [obviously] ended up being the name, still gives the impression that it's going to a fun, casual place and I think now people get it and it's a place that I want to hang out at. It's fun, the food is good, people drink and have a good time. It's like a big party and we have an open kitchen so I can hang out, too.
So, how has the first year been?
RK: Hanging on by a thread [all laugh].
KB: It's been ridiculous. Everywhere you go, people say, "Man, Girl & The Goat ... I can't get in," and you just shrug your shoulders. How often in life is someone going to open a restaurant that is this busy? We all feel blessed. It's been amazing.
Other than the success you've seen how has it been from an emotional point of view or a stress perspective or drama?
SI: I've tried to block out the first few months. I would run up to [Boehm and Katz] and say [with a shrill, frantic tone], "How am I supposed to run the busiest restaurant in the city and I don't have a working walk-in cooler?" And I'd start screaming about something else that was broken ...
RK: Linda Blair! [all laugh] Opening a restaurant is one of the most stressful things anyone will ever do. And to do something that was this macro was a serious undertaking for everybody.
How was opening this place different from your other projects?
KB: There was a lot of stress on this project, we had a lot of press pre-opening. There was this target on our back and we felt it throughout the entire process that this really had to be right from every perspective.
SI: There were definitely who people wanted to see us fail.
KB: We never trained longer with front of the house staff than we did on this project. We did like 30 training sessions before we opened. Part of that was out of fear. We knew it was going to be busy from moment one, we weren't going to have a lot of control over that and we knew we had to be ready on day one because people were going to come in and review it on day three.
RK: They were coming after it, too, because [Izard] won a TV program that made her a household name. The reality was that she made it very clear that this isn't a Top Chef restaurant; this is a Stephanie Izard restaurant. We had to be very conscious to not use any of that in the branding. Everyone in the world wanted to do that. Everyone wanted to come and see a TV celebrity. That's not what the restaurant is. She's a tremendous chef who happened to be on a TV show. That's great and it certainly put a lot of eyeballs on the place.
Obviously a lot went into the thought of the design—the exposed elements, the charred wood wall—was there a conscious decision that you wanted the restaurant to smell like campfire from the wood-burning oven?
SI: [Laughs.] It's still one of those things, that's one of the biggest stresses about this place, but now it sort of adds ... when you walk into the restaurant at night it just smells really good and makes you start to salivate.
KB: I read a review the other day where someone said, "You know when you're in love with someone and you're with them and you'll smell your shirt afterward and it smells like them?" And she then said, "I have the same feeling about Girl & The Goat." [All laugh.]
How did the actual opening go?
SI: The first night my entire family was in town for a family reunion, it just happened that way, and we had them in the first night. The only real issue was when I was expediting, [sous chef] Jan [Rickerl] and I were two-man expediting and at one point I looked at him and said, "I have no idea what the fuck we're cooking, let's just put out some food. It's just my family."
KB: On night three or four, it was the only time during opening that I felt like we were going to go off the rails. Tickets were coming in so fast and you [Izard] had them stacked in your hand. It was the one time in the opening that it felt like, "OK, we're kind of teetering right now. Let's slow the door down." We held the door for like 25 minutes. It was the only point where it felt like the chaos wasn't controlled chaos.
SI: I think about it now, there will be nights I'll be standing with a stack of tickets, but I can do it now by myself. It seemed in the beginning it was never going to get easy and I was like, "This sucks." Now we have figured it out.
RK: It's the same thing every night. Every single night, we know exactly what we're going to get. One of the best things about this is that it runs on 100 percent efficiency.
SI: We say, "Every day is a Saturday."
RK: There's no difference between a Monday and a Saturday. That's probably the most amazing thing about this.
KB: Working here is a marathon.
Now that you've been open for a year, how is the Goat family doing? Is it still all love or do you want to kill each other?
RK: Well, this black eye ...
SI: Did you see how bruised my arm is from Kevin pushing me down yesterday?
KB: She was mouthing off ... nah, it's all love.
RK: And that's not a political statement. There's zero hostility. I think we all have the big picture in mind and it's been a great ride.
SI: I think the three of us working together makes sense. I do my thing in the kitchen and can rest assured that everything else is going to be fine. And we all give our input on everything but depend on each other to do our own part.
KB: She's the energizer bunny.
Not that any chef who is expediting on the line in an open kitchen wants to freak out in open view, but have you ever had to pull yourself back from freaking out because of your celebrity?
SI: More so because it's not how I like to roll as a chef, but there's been some nights where I feel that rage coming up inside and I get why chefs scream at people, but I don't scream at people. I just hold it back, but there have been nights where I'm expediting and I'll just start crying [laughs] and I'm just hoping no one comes up behind me. It's an emotional rollercoaster here.
RK: She's truly a traffic cop back there. Never again in my life will I see that many tickets. It's nothing short of astonishing how many tickets are on that line.
Does it feel like it's been a year?
RK & KB (simultaneously): It feels like it's been seven years!
SI: Some days I feel like it was just yesterday, aside from the days I blocked out. [Looks at Boehm] It's like the morning I woke up in your daughter's bed doesn't feel that long ago.
KB: She was here so late and had to be back so early and I live around the corner. She asked, "Can I just stay at your house?" So she slept in my daughter's princess bed with a canopy around it and woke up the next morning and was like, "Where the hell am I?"
SI: In the beginning, I slept in the office sometimes.
Now that you have the Goat running smoothly for all intents and purposes, any thoughts of expanding this concept?
SI: No, I just want my restaurants in Chicago, but we're going to go on the road this fall for Share Our Strength and my book tour and cook in other cities, sort of like a pop-up, so people can eat my food in other places.
EChi: So the Wandering Goat is coming back?
KB: On steroids.
So what's happening with the Little Goat?
RK: We're just working ... there's so much going on. Stephanie is remarkably busy. We have great plans for it but we're being patient and it's working itself out.
EChi: So it's more likely 2012?
RK: It's still possible to be the end of 2011 or early 2012. This place is just one year old. It's going the way we want it to go. Timing is everything. Patience is key. It's hard enough when you have everything going for you, you can't afford to misstep. If it's early 2012, that's perfect. We're better prepared now than we were six months ago to do it.
SI: In the beginning here, we didn't want the headline to be "Top Chef?" For this one, we don't want it to read, "Should have just kept Girl & The Goat."
RK: That's our competitiveness. That's our fear. If you start thinking that you're the shit, it's over. I am always driven by fear that someone it's all going to be taken away.
Did you have any idea or anticipation that this restaurant would have the level of success it has?
RK: We're underperforming by 22 percent [laughs].
KB: We all knew it was going to be a big success.
RK: To this degree? Of course not.
SI: For me, the success we've gotten, the [James Beard] nomination and that people are receiving it so well and that they get it, is exciting. I wouldn't have accepted any less than what has happened because of my competitive nature, but I just really like winning things [laughs].
KB: There's a great line in Broadcast News where William Hurt says to Albert Brooks, "What do you do when your reality exceeds your dreams?" And Albert Brooks says, "Keep it to yourself." This is one of those instances where, who would've thought the level of business, a James Beard nomination, Stephanie got Food & Wine.
Yeah, Stephanie, you got Food & Wine. You got Saveur's first review in 16 years calling you the "best new restaurant in the country," you got the Beard nomination for best new restaurant. Where do you go from there?
SI: It's funny. For some people it'd be fine that we got all of that cool stuff and say, "Now let's just roll with it." For me, I'm like, now I want more. I want other things that I'm going to do well in. It's not about the winning thing, but I don't accept anything less for myself than the best that I can do and I want to push myself hard and I have extremely high standards for myself.
RK: The bullseye gets bigger and bigger and bigger.
· Stephanie Izard Wants to Cook You Dinner at Her Home; Raise $500k for Charity [~EChi~]
· All Girl & The Goat Coverage on Eater Chicago