Fresh off a grueling five-week competition that saw both high and low moments for each competitor, Chef Stephanie Izard has bested her fellow challengers and has earned the right to advance to next week’s Iron Chef Gauntlet finale, where she’ll compete in the gauntlet. This three-tiered face-off will see her pitted against no fewer than three famed Iron Chefs — Bobby Flay, Masaharu Morimoto and Michael Symon — all for the chance to claim that coveted title for herself.
We checked in with Chef Izard moments after she learned of her victory over Chef Sarah Grueneberg in the Secret Ingredient Showdown and chatted about what awaits her next week. Read on below for an exclusive interview.
Congratulations! You’re officially headed to the Gauntlet. How are you feeling?
Stephanie Izard: Good. I’m relieved. … Now I’m just already in the zone. What are three dishes that I have not made thus far that I can bust out?
Let’s go back to the moment that Alton revealed the scores from the Secret Ingredient Showdown. What was going through your mind?
SI: I’m so excited. What’s tricky about Iron Chef is they tell you the scores, and me being as hard on myself as I am, I’m like, “29?” But I think that Sarah and I both struggled a bit with the eggs today, especially coming off an earlier challenge of doing eggs. It was like eggs, eggs all day long. But I’m excited that the judges liked my okonomiyaki, because it’s one of my favorite things. We serve it for brunch at my diner, so that just made me so excited. And, obviously, the whole thing is very exciting. We’ll see what happens next time.
What as your strategy been these last five weeks?
SI: My strategy has been to try to highlight my style of cooking, which is using a lot of different techniques from different cultures, lots of layers of flavor. But the trick is — especially with the Chairman’s Challenges — when there’s a word you have to pay attention to, you have to mold your cooking a bit to fit the challenge. But I think it’s been most important to listen to what Alton has to say, for his challenges especially, and make what Alton likes. He likes really pretty plates, he likes a little bit of heat. He definitely tells you things, and you have to just pay attention.
As you look ahead to the gauntlet, do you think you’ll change your approach to how you compete against the Iron Chefs?
SI: I think that in the last two challenges, in the Secret Ingredient Showdowns, the two Iron Chefs — Cat Cora and Alex Guarnaschelli — have both made comments about being Iron Chef worthy, and both in reference to items that I’ve kind of pushed myself a little further. So I think I need to definitely not keep things simple and just freaking go for it. I mean, worst case scenario, I sort of won [already], and I wouldn’t become an Iron Chef. But it’s definitely not the time to play it safe, and that’s not what an Iron Chef does.
For your third dish — a yuzu-lemon curd — you melded your style of Asian-inspired cooking with an all-American lemon meringue pie. How did you happen upon that balance of cuisines?
SI: I wanted to do a dessert, and I think it’s really cool how eggs can react with citrus and make a curd. It’s just something that is cool, and meringues are cool. What makes eggs so interesting is the scientific side of them and what they can do, so I thought it would be cool to show that off in a dessert. And there’s just lots of citrus in the kitchen. So, a nod to lemon-meringue pie, but, of course, with a little bit of yuzu.
You won the very first Chairman’s Challenge back in the day with the “wild” alter in week one. How do you feel like you’ve grown in these past five weeks to get to here?
SI: The “wild” challenge seems like years ago. I can’t believe that was only five weeks ago. I feel like I’ve grown in the sense that I’ve gotten a little more confident, and I’ve pushed myself to try new things. I think in the beginning — I guess actually the duck tartare [from that challenge] was something new. But I think I’ve built a little confidence in challenges and realized I’m going to be here and be me. Just do me.