By People Staff
Updated June 12, 2008 12:00 AM

She kept her win secret from family and friends for three weeks. So after watching the Top Chef finale last night, Stephanie Izard says she’s finally able to express her pride … and not just because she won Top honors. “I was so proud that I actually kept it from my family this whole time,” she says, laughing during a call-in from Chicago. So how did the first female Top Chef celebrate her win? In typical Stephanie fashion — at a local bar in Chicago, where she resides. “Everybody’s cheering like I just won the Super Bowl,” the 31-year-old says. “It was really exciting.” With plans to open a restaurant in Chicago in the next year, Izard spoke to PEOPLE, answering your questions about her win, working with Lisa and why Anthony Bourdain terrifies her. — Brian Orloff

How does it feel to be the first female Top Chef winner?It definitely makes me feel great to be the first female winner. Women are always struggling a little bit in this industry. I never look at myself as either a male or a female chef. I just think it’s about who the best chef is. But at the end of the day, I know women have a tough time in the industry. There’s just a lot of guys we have to push around. Laughs.

A lot of viewers were disgruntled that Lisa was in the final three. What was it like working with her in the finale?Lisa came down to Puerto Rico as a new and improved Lisa. She didn’t just get her hair cut. She came down ready to cook … and was being very positive. The nice thing about Lisa is that she does have a lot of confidence, and she was being really calm. I don’t know if it’s that Puerto Rican air that just made her super chill, but she definitely was the best version of Lisa that we’ve seen all season.

What were you thinking when Richard said he ‘choked’ at Judges’ Table?Richard’s mind is always racing … and none of us did our best meal ever. Richard knows when he hasn’t cooked the best meal that he can, and obviously that was on his mind. I respect the fact that he was just being honest. Of course the judges thought it was a little bit strange that he said that. Looking back, I’m sure he’s going to regret having said that, but he was just stating how he was feeling.

People seemed surprised by some of the eliminations … specifically Dale and Antonia. How did you react?A couple episodes into it, I was actually talking to Antonia and we were like, ‘All right, so the final four is going to be me, Antonia, Richard and Dale.’ And I was pretty convinced of that. I thought that the four of us showed a lot of strong qualities throughout the season. I was really sad to see Dale go on a personal level because he’s a friend of mine … but also he’s very skilled and he’s very good at what he does and he’s very passionate about food. Of course, Antonia . . . she’s a very strong chef, and I don’t know exactly what happened to her in the last episode. In the end, Lisa did put a little bit of a stronger foot forward with her dishes … so I think that’s what brought her through.

And now your reader questions:I love Stephanie! I would ask her how she kept her composure when Dale left the pork out all night? –AmberI definitely am not a screamer, and I try my best to handle situations. Again, there goes that Puerto Rico air. I know Dale didn’t do it on purpose, and he just felt so bad. I knew that between the two of us … and that whole pig we had to work with … we’d be able to find another dish to do.

Stephanie, does it feel good knowing that even though you did not win the palate Quickfire competition, that you won? –CaraI look back to that challenge all the time. I can still taste some of the tastes in my head. When I picked olive oil, I picked the lighter one because that’s what I’d prefer. The one with the stronger flavor, of course, is the more expensive and the higher quality one. I sort of took the wrong approach to it. But at the end of the day, obviously I have a good palate, otherwise I wouldn’t be good at what I do.

There were so many talented and well-respected chefs as guest judges, which one made you the most nervous and which one were you the most excited to cook for? –TracyYou could probably tell in the first episode that I couldn’t sauce my dish because Anthony Bourdain walked in. I’m a huge fan of his … and have always watched No Reservations–and just have the utmost respect for him. Even though he scares me to death, in the end it turned out that both times he was there, he loved everything I did.

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