In October when New York City restaurateur Danny Meyer announced he was ending tipping at all of his properties, restaurant owners in New York weren’t the only ones to cringe. Stephanie Izard, chef-owner of Girl and the Goat restaurant and Little Goat diner in Chicago, also got scared. “When one of the top restaurateurs in the world announces that he’s doing something, it has a very big effect on the entire industry,” she says. She’s afraid that if her city ends tipping, prices will inevitably go up, sometimes more than 30 percent, which she doesn’t think guests would understand. She also believes the quality of service will go down. For now, she says chefs in Chicago are just closely watching the New York experiment. “If people start doing it in Chicago, it’s almost like the industry as a whole here needs to make a decision,” she says. “On our end we’re waiting it out a little bit longer.”
But Izard, who has won a James Beard Award and Top Chef, isn’t just waiting around. In March she’s opening a Chinese-inspired restaurant, Duck Duck Goat. She is also working on a cookbook. Izard talked with us from her Chicago kitchen about her new concept, her chef B.F.F., and what she really thinks about being recognized on the street.
What can people expect from Duck Duck Goat?
From the name, you can tell it’s meant to be a fun atmosphere. It’s going to be a Chinese restaurant. We did a little traveling through China and Taiwan and we’re trying to make it rather authentic, but of course with our own tastes throughout. Instead of focusing on one region, we’re doing all sorts of stuff from various places. There will be hand-pulled noodles, lots of dumplings and other fun dim sum things.
What did you learn during your travels through China and Taiwan?
We spent a couple of weeks in each place. Most of the stuff that we get as Chinese takeout here is either Cantonese or Americanized food you wouldn’t actually find in China. So it was nice to get exposed to real Chinese food from different regions. We really loved the Sichuan province. We ate soup dumplings pretty much every single day. But Duck Duck Goat will still have a couple of American things. Crab Rangoon is my favorite thing in the world and it has nothing to do with China, but we’ll still serve it.
You keep opening restaurants in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood. What is keeping you there? Would you ever want to expand outside of Chicago or even outside of the neighborhood?
For now, selfishly it’s convenient for me to be able to get to all three restaurants easily without sitting in road-rage traffic. I live like a mile away. We’re sort of toying with the idea of expanding outside of Chicago. I figure if I’m going to have to travel I might as well travel to some other cities. I want to see what options are out there. It seems like my new plan is to kind of open up a restaurant every couple of years so there’s a little time in between to get settled.
How have you seen the Chicago dining scene change since you opened Girl and the Goat?
There’s so many restaurants now, it’s really fun to be a part of. I can hardly keep up with everything that’s opening. A lot of chefs are leaning a bit more on the casual side now. Not super casual, but Girl and the Goat style, where you can just come in for dinner and it doesn’t have to be a special occasion. It can just be for a fun night out to eat. People want great food and great service, but not necessarily in a fine dining, four-hour meal.
How has your cooking style evolved over the years?
I really kind of challenge myself to learn about different cultures and use cultural influence in fun ways on the menu. If I’m drawing a blank or putting something new on the menu, I’ll pick a country and read about its classic dishes and it helps inspire me to try something new. Opening a Chinese restaurant is very different for me—to actually pick a cuisine and stick to it for an entire menu. It’s something I’ve never done before. Some things are easier because you a strict theme to stick to, but in some ways it’s harder because I don’t want to bring in ingredients that aren’t classically in Chinese cooking.
Is that a particularly American thing? Taking lots of influences from different cultures?
Yeah, our whole culture is built around a hodgepodge of cultural backgrounds. I think it’s only natural our food styles to be the same way. If you say you have an American menu item, I wouldn’t even know what that means. Maybe hotdogs and hamburgers? But beyond that, there’s nothing that truly is American because we all came from somewhere else.
How do you stay relevant in the dining world when everyone is looking for the next new chef to talk about?
It’s tricky. I’m in the position right now where I’m lucky because I’m opening up a new restaurant, so it’s still new to talk about. But Girl and the Goat’s been open for five years now. So to keep it fresh we have to make sure we keep adding new things and not let anything get stale. New things keep our guests excited to come in and also help keep our staff excited. We also like to share fun things on social media. Pictures of different dishes, and also personal stuff like pictures of my dog. It’s nice for guests who come to the restaurants, or followers, or fans, to be able to see outside of the experience they get when they come in. I think people really like getting a little insight into chefs’ lives.
You wrote a blog over the summer about the lack of cooks in big cities. Why do you think that is?
The obvious and main reason is because there are just so many restaurants in Chicago. There are so many places to work. So we just try to make sure our work environment is fun and different and a place that people want to stay in. There were so many articles going around the shortage of cooks, we decided instead of being a part of the articles we would put a little video up and try to lure people in from other cities. We ran a little contest. It was just kind of our way of trying something different and it actually helped us. We started getting more applicants from outside the city and even from within Chicago. We’ve had a lot of success with people who we’ve met at events and they end up moving here to work. We have a pastry person from Florida who just started.
Do you think Chicago is going to get rid of tipping anytime soon?
That’s a tricky one. When one of the top restaurateurs in the world announces that he’s doing something, it has a very big effect on the entire industry. I’ve talked to other restaurateurs here and it depends somewhat on how much money your servers make. Some servers make quite a bit of money, and adding that as a salary to a restaurant… The prices will have to go up. Will your guests understand that? It kind of scares me a little, the idea of raising our prices by 30 percent or more to be able to cover that. I don’t know if guests would quite understand. I guess we’ll have to wait and see how it goes in New York. If people start doing it Chicago, it’s almost like the industry as a whole here needs to make a decision if we’re going to go that way or not.
So chefs around country are kind of watching New York and waiting before they make a decision either way?
I think so. Most people see the pros and cons to it. Obviously I want my cooks to make close to what the front of the house makes, but if you look at places in London or other places that don’t do tips in Europe, you see that you don’t get that good of service. I don’t know. On our end we’re waiting it out a little bit longer.
What event are you doing at South Beach Wine and Food Festival this year?
I’m doing a dinner with Michelle Bernstein, at her restaurant Cena by Michy. Michelle and I are good friends. We both have curly hair and big smiles. We always end up seeing each other all over the country at random events, so it will be really fun to cook together. She’s not much older than me, but she’s still someone I look up to and ask for advice about restaurants and life in general. It’s just really nice to have her as a chef friend. That’s what I love about going to festivals: You get to see chef friends outside of their restaurants. And it’s a fun way to mix and mingle with people you haven’t met before. I’ve seen other people [who have been on TV] shows be just like, uh, don’t talk to me. But I like meeting random people.
Alyson Sheppard writes about restaurants and bars for Playboy.com. Find her on Twitter: @amshep