By People Staff
June 12, 2008 12:00 AM

As season 4 of Top Chef wrapped up Wednesday, Stephanie Izard rose to the final cooking challenge–and walked away as the first female to win the title of Top Chef in a nail-biter of a finale.

Izard, 31, beat out the remaining competitors — Richard Blais, 35, and Lisa Fernandes, 27 … – nabbing the $100,000 grand prize and the unique honor of being named the first female winner of the popular Bravo cooking competition.

In all three past seasons, female contestants placed in the final three, but have never taken the Top Chef title–a distinction not lost on the Chicago resident.

“This is the biggest thing that’s happened in my life,” Izard said, reacting to her win. (Her initial response when host Padma Lakshmi named her the winner was a demure, “Oh my god. Thank you. Thank you so much.”)

Considered a fan favorite throughout the season, Izard consistently placed in the top week after week, winning four elimination challenges in the 13 episodes leading up to the finale. For the final challenge, the chefs were asked to prepare a four-course tasting menu, including a dessert. Izard won praise for what head judge Tom Colicchio called her “surprising” twist on traditional presentations, specifically for her lamb entree which included braised pistachios.

But Izard’s competitors fared well, too.

Fernandes, cast as the show’s villain for her fiery temperament and kitchen outbursts, wowed the judges with her Thai- and Vietnamese-flavored menu. Blais prepared his food with his signature whimsical and innovative touches, using liquid nitrogen while crafting an ice cream dessert that also earned favor from Colicchio.

Before the actual finale, which was filmed in Puerto Rico, many of the season’s castoff contestants discussed the possibility that a woman would be named Top Chef. Fourth place finalist Antonia Lofaso told PEOPLE she was rooting for Izard: “I would love to see her be the first woman. She’s got a huge heart and a lot of integrity. She is an amazing chef and a good friend and competitor.”

As the show came to a close, the reality of her win began to sink in for Izard.

“My life is about to change,” she said. “This is just a reaffirmation. This is what I’m meant to do in life.” –Brian Orloff

Tell us: Did Stephanie deserve to be named Top Chef? What did you think of the finale?

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Chuck Hodes/Bravo