Salad Ties And Breadsticks: Star Chef Started At The Olive Garden Stephanie Izard is the chef behind Chicago's award-winning Girl and the Goat restaurant — and the first woman to win on Bravo's Top Chef. But her food career began in the land of unlimited salad.

Salad Ties And Breadsticks: Star Chef Started At The Olive Garden

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

Time now the latest installment of our series My Big Break, about career triumphs, big and small. Stephanie Izard is the rockstar chef behind Chicago's award-winning Girl and the Goat. So it's kind of unbelievable where she got started.

STEPHANIE IZARD: From the pasta we make to lasagna we bake, we're all wishing you a happy birthday. We hope you remember this fun event for forever...

I got my first job at the Olive Garden.

RATH: Yeah, the Olive Garden. That birthday song - seared into her memory.

IZARD: Happy, happy day. Happy birthday. I started off as a hostess and you get to wear - get to or have to, it depends how you want to look at it - but you wear a salad tie. So they actually took that salad that everybody gets at the Olive Garden and it put on a tie that you get to wear at the host stand. And people would wait for - at the host stand, people would wait for an hour-and-a-half or two hours for a table. People were really excited for the never-ending salad bowl and the never-ending breadsticks.

RATH: And that reignited her childhood passion for food. She left behind the endless salad and made her way to culinary school and then to Chicago.

IZARD: I knew it was a good food city. And I was working at this place called La Tache and one of the cooks was like, hey, Stephanie, you should open your own restaurant. I was like, oh, OK. Not really thinking about things too much, I just quit my job. About a year later, I opened my own restaurant. I bought a building and it was very hands on. Like, my dad built the host stand. My sister and dad and mom, like, made all these menus where they sanded them down. And my mom's like, my arthritis hurts. I was like, just keep going. So they really were helpful in getting everything open. At the time just, you know, just kind of went for it and figured everything out as we went.

Back then it was more like 16 to 18 hour days, especially when you're managing and doing all the hiring. I was calling all the people in the morning. I was, like, the morning opening host, as well as working a station and expediting during service. There was just a couple episodes where I was, like, fainting at work and just having - I think I was just exhausting myself by doing everything that I was doing. So I just kind of decided that I wanted to sell it and go do some traveling and go do some more learning and then get back into the restaurant industry.

And I had just sold the restaurant. I was turning over the keys in about two weeks, and "Top Chef" called. I went in, did an interview. The folks that were out seeking talent came into my restaurant for dinner that night. And I wasn't allowed to tell my staff who they were. I'm like, oh, these are my new friends from LA that I just met. Let's bring them to the bar - wine and dined them and just schmoozed a bit. And then they call and invited me out to LA where they put you in a hotel room. And then you do a little interview with a psychologist to make sure you're crazy enough to be entertaining, but not too crazy, because there's knives everywhere. And then they put you in the middle of a room and start shooting questions at you to kind of watch you sweat and see how you handle the pressure. So for the people that are going through the process, you're just kind of wondering, like, what in the heck did I just get myself into.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TOP CHEF")

IZARD: My arm's about to fall off. Everybody's yelling and my, like, adrenaline is pumping.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Keep going baby. You're killing them.

(CHEERING)

IZARD: My time on "Top Chef," which I think I blocked some of it out of memory because I just want to. The ones where I didn't do so well, I just kind of - I just crossed those off.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TOP CHEF")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: One of you is about to win the title of top chef.

IZARD: By the time they were going to announce the winners, we had finished competing, I think, at 11 o'clock at night or 10-something. And it was about 5:30 in the morning. So we all went out there. You could hear the birds chirping, and we're all about to fall asleep.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TOP CHEF")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Stephanie.

IZARD: She pauses for a good three minutes. And you're just standing there like, oh, this is so awkward.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TOP CHEF")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You are top chef.

IZARD: What? Really?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Congratulations.

IZARD: Definitely "Top Chef" I would say is my big break, as much as I used to always want to say it was not.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TOP CHEF")

IZARD: I won top chef. Holy (expletive). Really?

But if you look back at your whole career and, you know, what are some of the moments that's giving you opportunities, I think whether you win or however you do on the show, you can take it for so many opportunities that come your way, whether it's opportunities to work with brands or opportunities to open restaurants or have lovely radio chats like we're having. So I can't wait to see, you know, what else is going to happen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: Stephanie Izard, the chef behind Chicago's Girl and the Goat and Little Goat. She was also the first woman to win "Top Chef." You don't have to be an Olive Garden host to have a big break or lovely radio conversations. Send us your story - mybigbreak@npr.org.

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