As a longtime country music fan, Top Chef Season 4 winner Stephanie Izard was more than willing to serve as executive chef at the 2011 CMT Artists of the Year gala airing Tuesday (9/8c, CMT) but looked to the honorees for inspiration when designing the evening's menu.
"I got a list from each of them, of the different things they like to eat and don't like to eat," Izard tells TVGuide.com. "Taylor Swift said she liked sausage and gravy from Cracker Barrel, so I did an itty bitty sausage and gravy thing for a passed hors d'oeurve."
The bites were received favorably at the ceremony, which was both a relief and good omen for Izard. Swift joins Jason Aldean, Kenny Chesney, Lady Antebellum and Brad Paisley as one of the artists being honored this year. Not only that, but the success of Izard's James Beard-nominated Girl & the Goat restaurant has encouraged her to open The Little Goat in 2012. "When I heard from the servers that the sausage and gravy was the biggest hit, I was like, 'Oh, the simplest thing: I love it,'" the chef says. "That's good because we're opening The Little Goat as a diner. It gave me hope that I could make good gravy."
As a Top Chef, however, she reserves the right to make her own calls on the menu and didn't cater to every artist's palate that night. Says Izard: "Kenny Chensey said he only ate well-done beef, but I actually did a beef tartare."
Check out the three-course menu below and more of Izard's thoughts on cooking for and rubbing elbows with the country crowd, the legacy of being in the Top Chef "fraternity" and her ambitious plans for a special New Year's Eve menu.
CMT Artists of the Year 2011 Dinner:
First course - Spiced shrimp, BBQ pork, brussels slaw
Main course - Coconut-braised beef short rib, butternut squash kimchi
Dessert - Butternut malasadas, brown-butter apples, bourbon gelato, Thai whipped cream
Which of the artists were you the most excited to see at the CMT Artists of the Year event?
Stephanie Izard: All of my cooks were really excited for me to see Taylor Swift of course because they're all twentysomethings. But the whole lineup was pretty impressive. They're all on the younger side. We learned a little bit about all the artists' different stories, their belief in country music, how it's their background. They're all these hard-working, successful, artistic individuals, and I kind of consider chefs to be similar. We're young and work hard in this slightly different artistic industry, so it's always great to be around that.
What was your approach to creating the actual dinner menu?
Izard: The first menu I put together was just a few favorite items from my restaurant, but then I was like, "Well, it'd be much more fun to make an original menu for the night and make it more influenced by where we were going to be in Nashville." So the first course had some barbeque pork because I think of barbeque when I think of the South. We did a bunch of smoked pork and then I made a wet barbeque sauce — we mixed them together and so we had a little tangy, spicy pork underneath the shrimp. For the main course I wanted to do some nice beef. I think a few of the artists mentioned that last year they felt it wasn't quite enough food, that they wanted something nice and hearty. So we did a coconut-braised beef short rib. It was cooked through until it was fork-tender with some miso sweet potatoes. Then I brought a little butternut squash kimchi that we make at the restaurant. The marinade on it is a little bit spicy, but the actual butternut squash was so sweet, just shaved and sort of raw. It's got a bit of crunch to it and the natural sweetness kind of shines through the spicy.
And then how did decide to finish the meal?
Izard: Dessert was sort of a cross between apple pie and pumpkin pie. The malasadas we made were these little doughnuts filled with squash and cheddar puree, paired with bourbon gelato. We got our bourbon from a Kentucky distillery, Buffalo Trace. But they also make Weller bourbon, which is sort of a brand that is as little bit lower cost. So we got a barrel of Weller, A year ago I just started getting a little more into bourbon. It's fun to learn about but it can give you a headache if you try to learn too much at once. [laughs]
Does any part of the CMT event stand out for you, either someone you met or a performance?
Izard: I got to meet Scott Hamilton, which was pretty cool. He was actually the first famous person sitting near us. After the meal, we got to sit down for the whole performance portion. The Avett Brothers were awesome. I was like, "I'm going to be you guys' best friend." There were like, "Alright... our new stalker." Each artist got to have one of their songs performed by themselves, by a duet or somebody else. And there were some other additional performances like the Avett Brothers and Gavin DeGraw. Rob Lowe did all the hosting, and William Shatner introduced one of the artists. He has a dry, funny, sarcastic sense of humor. He said to Brad Paisley, "I was reading in your book that you really love Star Wars. What about Star Trek?" And Lionel Richie was one of the people introducing acts. I was like, "No way. He looks the exact same." I went up to Taylor Swift afterwards to say hi.
Which Top Chef people are you still in touch with?
Izard: Yeah, Dale Talde was just in my restaurant recently. We met each other before the show also. I just did a dinner with Jen Biesty a couple nights ago. And Antonia [Lofaso] I talk to once in a while. I did dinner with Spike [Mendelsohn sp]. I come across different people from different seasons throughout my events and travel like Hosea [Rosenberg] and Michael Voltaggio. Depending what events I'm at, there's usually going to be somebody around, and even if we weren't on the same season and don't know each other well, we sort have this odd little fake fraternity bond or something.
Are you currently watching the Texas season of Top Chef?
Izard: I've only watched an episode so far, but there are a bunch of people from Chicago on this season. I definitely need to get into it but I need to learn how to use my DVR.
What do you think about being the only female winner of Top Chef to date?
Izard: I don't know. It's something that gets brought up often. You can tell that this season on Top Chef, they're definitely trying to find another — there are three women I think from Chicago. There are some talented women out there. Hopefully one of them will pull through this season. We'll see.
You've done well with Girl & the Goat so far. What's next?
Izard: Right now I'm finishing up my last little book tour for Girl in the Kitchen: How a Top Chef Cooks, Thinks, Shops, Eats and Drinks that came out in October. I'm actually sitting in Ann Arbor right now about to go to a book signing. And then we're working on opening our next restaurant called Little Goat. We have little onesies that we made that say that "Kid."
We're in the middle of the holiday season. What food puts you in the mood for the holidays?
Izard: The thing that makes me the most excited for the holidays and Thanksgiving is just green bean casserole, just simple things like that. The traditional one. It's like my favorite thing ever. And we were just talking about doing a whole roasted pig at our New Year's party at the restaurant. I used to be all into turkey and such, but now I much prefer a whole roasted pig.
The CMT Artists of the Year gala airs on Tuesday at 9/8c on CMT.