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'Top Chef': Season 4 champ Stephanie Izard talks about competing, cooking for Tom, and what she really thinks of Lisa

June 12, 2008 |  9:44 am

Congratulations! What are you going to do with the money?

Once I get myself out of debt, I want to buy somewhere to live, you know, to put all of my new kitchen appliances! But first and foremost, I’m looking to open a new restaurant. It’ll be fun and cozy, no pretension but amazing food. It’ll be the restaurant that I’ve always wanted to go to hang out but doesn’t exist yet.

Did you have a good feeling in the finale?

I was feeling pretty good. I knew my dessert hadn’t come out that great, but I really had no idea who was going to win.

What was going through your head at the final judges table?

My heart was pounding like never before. When Padma said my name and then paused forever, I thought "Oh no! I’m like 'Project Runway,' where they send that one last person home!" Terrible. Of course, when I wound up winning, I was shocked and surprised and thrilled.

You seemed to be a nervous competitor, despite an amazing track record. What made you audition for the show?

My friend Dale was on last season and he really encouraged me to do it. I’m a little self-conscious and the idea of millions of people watching kind of scared me. But I decided to do it for the cooking part of it. I’m very competitive and the show is like getting to compete in the culinary Olympics.

Did you think you came off well on TV?

Yeah. I thought "Wow, I’m actually well-spoken most of the time!" I think I came across as the nice person, the girl next door. They definitely chose to show off my more innocent side, so yeah, I was very happy with how I was portrayed.

Who were you sorriest to see eliminated?

Dale. He’s been a friend for a long time and he’s just so talented. I was just so mad at him that day for letting his temper get the best of him. I thought he’d be in Puerto Rico with me for sure. The thing about Restaurant Wars is that it’s always interesting because whoever is executive chef is knowingly putting themselves in the line of fire. But if it was a real restaurant and you were really the chef, you would have fired Lisa, ya know? So putting so much weight on the executive chef is a little harsh, but Dale knew it going in, so…

Do you think it’s fair that the judges wipe the slate clean for each meal?

I guess so. They want it to be a challenge-to-challenge thing. That’s good for if you have a bad day, you can put your best foot forward the next day and they don‘t hold anything against you. I think whoever is the best chef is going to make it through regardless.

What was your favorite challenge?

Restaurant Wars. We were so upset when we thought we weren’t going to get to do it! There is so much more to running a restaurant than people think, from the concept, to running the front of the house to the decor to the food. You get to do it all.

Worst challenge?

Obviously I have some difficulty with those Quickfires. I think anything called a Quickfire I’d suck at. I just have so many thoughts running through my head. I do better with a little more time.

You were very rarely in the bottom three -- which judge was the harshest?

At the end of the day we’re all cooking for Tom Colicchio, no matter who else was there. He’s the toughest judge. If you read his books, you know everything gotta be cooked and seasoned perfectly. He knows his stuff.

Kept in touch with any of the contestants?

I do. I talk to Antonia very often. Lisa and I talk once in a week. I met some really great friends on the show.

What did you really think of Lisa? Did she get a fair shake on TV?

Yeah, there’s some hate going on for sure. She can be negative, yes, and they really zoomed in on that on the show. But she can also be a lot of fun too. She has a smile on her face as much as she has that sour look. At the end of the day, though, she really came through in the finale and showed everyone what she’s got.

So what was up with her asking you and Richard for congrats when Antonia was eliminated?

I was a little surprised. It was so late and I was bummed to see Antonia go. Richard and I were both surprised she brought that up. It just felt inappropriate to high-five her at that moment. But I can see how she felt.

Finally, tell me about working with Eric Ripert.

Looking back, I should have chosen Dan Barber -- he had the scallops and the pork belly, which I love. But I was starstruck and smitten and was like, duh, Eric Ripert. It was fun but weird working with him. I was showing him how to cut fish, which was awkward, but we all wanted to make sure our "sous chefs" were doing things our way. I’m sure Eric thought I was nuts.

-- Denise Martin

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