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Stephanie Izard wins 'Top Chef,' becomes show's first female champ


By Christopher Rocchio, 06/12/2008 

Stephanie Izard became Top Chef's first-ever female winner when she took home the Top Chef: Chicago title during last night's fourth-season finale broadcast on Bravo.

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"It's real exciting being the first female to win Top Chef," said Stephanie after her victory was revealed.  "I'm so glad that I was able to pull through.  Finding out that after all this hard work and maybe doubting it a little bit, this is just a reaffirmation.  This is what I'm meant to do in life."

The 31-year-old chef from Stamford, CT who currently resides in Chicago, IL claimed Top Chef: Chicago's grand-prize package of $100,000 in seed money to help open a restaurant; a feature in Food & Wine magazine; a showcase at the Annual Food & Wine Classic in Aspen; and a "gourmet dream vacation" in the French Alps.

Stephanie defeated Lisa Fernandes, a 27-year-old chef from Toronto, Canada who currently resides in New York City, and Richard Blais, a 35-year-old chef and culinary designer from Uniondale, NY who currently resides in Atlanta, GA, during last night's finale broadcast.

"I was just hoping.  In my mind, I was like, 'There a really good shot I could take this.'  Then she said Stephanie's name and I was like, 'F**k!,'" said Lisa after the winner was revealed.  "This whole journey's been awesome.  I'm proud of the dishes I've done, and this is what I want to do.  This is what I'm always going to do."

"It's just disappointment," added Richard.  "Losing at the last second sucks.  That's why it's tough too, because you put your whole heart into it and then it doesn't work out.  One thing that's good about this is to kind of refocus, just keep doing what I love to do.  The future's bright for sure."

Top Chef: Chicago's finale began in San Juan, Puerto Rico following conclusion of the previous Judges' Table, which had ended with the elimination of Antonia Lofaso.

"There has never been a female Top Chef winner, so hopefully I will be the first one," said Stephanie.

The three remaining finalists met Top Chef judge and restaurateur Tom Colicchio and host Padma Lakshmi for their final challenge, and they were introduced to professional chefs April Bloomfield, Dan Barber and Eric Ripert.  Tom explained that for the final challenge, each contestant would prepare a traditional four-course meal consisting of fish, poultry, meat and dessert dishes.

The three aforementioned professional chefs would be serving as sous chefs for the challenge.  Since Richard and Stephanie both had four fourth-season elimination challenge victories to their credit, they drew knives to see who would pick which sous chef they wanted.  Stephanie won and chose Eric, Richard picked Dan and Lisa got April.

The contestants would have three hours that day and four hours the following day before they'd have to serve their four-course meals head-to-head to nine dinner guests at a black-tie event.

All the chefs got to work and Lisa explained she wanted her courses to reflect her Thailand and Vietnamese cooking style, which she said she is naturally good at and wanted to showcase.  Richard planned to use his Top Chef journey as the concept for his courses, with a mix of classic training and molecular gastronomy.  Stephanie wanted to highlight her style, which she said was a well-balanced mix of different flavor combinations.

Richard quickly impressed April, Dan and Erik as he pulled out liquid nitrogen and gave an impromptu demonstration in molecular gastronomy.

"I think I just showed Eric Ripert something that he hasn't seen before," said Richard with slight amazement.  "That's f**king cool."

Lisa and April got along really well and conversation flowed easily between the two, which surprised Stephanie since Lisa hadn't gotten along with any of the fourth-season contestants.  The first day of work on their final courses then came to a close.

The next morning the three finalists arrived in the kitchen and were met by Tom, who revealed that they'd be without their sous chefs for the final four hours of preparation -- a move that obviously made the day a lot more difficult for the finalists.

Lisa was preparing grilled prawns, Tom Kha Gai soup and dumplings, Wagyu beef and black Thai rice pudding; Richard was preparing scallops, Guinea hen, foie gras and eggs, pork belly and banana "scallop" and bacon ice cream; while Stephanie was preparing seared red snapper, quail with lobster ravioli and quail eggs, lamb medallions and ricotta pound cake.

"All in all, all three menus sound great," commented Tom.  "We're looking forward to a great meal."

With only a few hours remaining the contestants began to put the finishing touches on their dishes, however Stephanie was having doubts about her dessert because she had only made it once before.

"Stephanie's biggest weakness is the doubt that she puts on herself sometimes," said Lisa.  "It's like, 'Stop doubting yourself!  Be confident!'"

It was time for the chefs to present their meals.  Joining Padma, Tom and fellow regular Top Chef judges -- Food & Wine magazine editor Gail Simmons and former Queer Eye food and wine expert Ted Allen -- for the dinner were April, Dan and Eric, as well as Delirio chef/owner Alfredo Ayala and Tim Zagat.

The chefs served their first course and Stephanie's red snapper was the most well-received.

"I think it's probably the best of the three," commented Alfredo.

"It was good.  It was almost really good," added Tom.

All nine people at dinner gushed about Lisa's Tom Kha Gai soup and dumplings, and it was clearly the favorite in the second course.

"Lisa's soup was absolutely delicious," said Gail.  "It was really well-balanced.  I could eat a giant bowl of this and be completely satisfied."

"Lisa's was really very good," said Tim.  "I probably would be happy to have seconds."

Both Richard's pork belly and Lisa's Wagyu beef received mixed reviews during the third course, while all of the diners were pleasantly surprised by Stephanie's use of mushrooms, braised pistachios, blackberries and olives on her lamb medallions.

"I thought she was going to crash and burn when I saw those olives," said Gail.  "The second I put it in my mouth it was like a light bulb went on.  I said, 'Oh, she's really thought about this.'"

"This is the first time I hear at the table everyone is using the words, 'I love,'" added Alfredo.  "We haven't heard that yet."

"Richard's dish just needs work, Lisa's dish is just pedestrian, Stephanie's is full of surprises and it works," said Tom.

The desserts were then served, and both Lisa and Richard received rave reviews.  However Stephanie's fears were realized when her ricotta pound cake wasn't very well-received.

"It was okay, but it was nothing special," said Tim.

With the dinner in the books, all of the diners discussed the meals.

"I think over the entire season -- over the last several months -- we've seen these chefs grow.  We've come to know them," said Tom.  "Richard is definitely more intellectual and out there.  Lisa is sticking true to herself, what she likes to eat and what she likes to cook.  Stephanie tends to have more of a homey spin on things.  I think we have a very strong contrast of styles and flavors and I think it's going to be a very interesting Judge's Table."

Top Chef: Chicago's final Judges' Table then commenced.

For the first course, Padma thought Richard's scallops were under-seasoned and Tom agreed, calling them a "little bland."  He thought Lisa was "very assertive" with her first course and she said it reflects her "spicy personality."  Gail commented that Stephanie's first course was a "beautifully presented dish," and Ted and Padma agreed.

Gail thought Richard's second course "became kind of muddled," a general consensus amongst the judges.  Ted said Lisa's was "virtually unanimous" as the favorite and "blew everybody away."  Stephanie's dish was mostly complimented, however Tom said he couldn't understand why she used raw, crunchy leeks.

Richard's third course was criticized for the beef not being crispy enough, and he explained it was only seared because he wanted to keep the "integrity" of its flavor intact.  Lisa said her beef was also "just barely seared" and Tom questioned that decision.  Gail said the sweetness of the sauce used by Lisa threw-off the beef's taste.  Stephanie's lamb was praised.

"I think it was one of the more creative things to happen all night," said Ted. 

"This dish kind of reminded me why you should always keep a very open mind when you're eating," added Tom.  "It was the last dish I tried.  I thought it was full of surprises."

Richard and Lisa both received compliments for their desserts, and it became clear that the final course was obviously Stephanie's weakest.

"I had some issues with the dessert," said Tom to Stephanie.  "It was a miss."

Stephanie admitted she "fell short" on the dessert and Lisa boasted about how she was confident in all of her courses.  The same couldn't be said for Richard.

"I feel like I choked a little bit," he said.  "I think I over thought things too much.  I think when I'm at my best is when I'm not thinking.  I think it certainly wasn't my top performance that I've had so far on the show."

The judges began to deliberate and Gail immediately expressed surprise at Richard's comment.

"In a sense, I agree with him," said Tom.  "He made a few mistakes.  When he says he chokes, he looks at the pork belly dish and knows that dish wasn't complete.  I think we all agree that dish could have been better."

Tom quickly added Lisa and Stephanie also had "a few missteps" as well before the panel seemed to reach a decision after taking a poll on each dish.

Richard, Lisa and Stephanie then reconvened at the Judges' Table.

"This was a very, very tough decision -- very difficult to make," Tom told them.  "In the end, we based our decision on which meal we would go back and like to have again."

Padma then revealed that Stephanie was the winner.

"I won Top Chef!  Holy s**t!  Really?" said Stephanie after her victory was revealed.  "This is the biggest thing that's happened in my life.  My life is about to change.  It's going to be absolutely insane."

Bravo has already renewed Top Chef for a fifth season.

(Photo credit Bravo/Rafael Pichardo)

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