At just 41, Stéphane Levac is one of Canada’s top chefs, and that’s the title he’ll be vying for next month on the televised competition Top Chef Canada. The show begins April 19 on the Food Network channel, and the former Sturgeon Falls resident will be one of 11 professionals putting their culinary skills to the test to earn the title and prestige that goes with it.
While Levac now lives and works in Kentville, Nova Scotia, he has gathered a substantial following in West Nipissing among his friends from the old days. When Levac left Sturgeon Falls at the age of 18, he didn’t look back, but now he’s been reminded that he has a slew of friends in the old ‘hood as, in his words, “My Facebook blew up!” with hundreds of locals congratulating him and wishing him luck in the competition.
Levac is not a trained chef, he’s self taught, and that might make him the underdog to some, but he’s bringing a unique sensibility, an appreciation for wild and foraged foods, to the Top Chef table. As the executive chef at Maritime Express Cider Co. in Kentville, he expresses his love for nature and foraging and finding wild foods to eat, associating it with his Anishinaabe roots. Levac was adopted by Marcel and Pauline Levac of Sturgeon Falls, and recently discovered his birth family in M’Chigeeng First Nation. He celebrates both his Franco-Ontarian and his Anishinaabe roots, but it is in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia where he is at home.
As for his culinary journey, “It wasn’t even an interest when I was in Sturgeon, I was kind of a sporty guy, always on the go, so it was more about whipping up something quick, and hit the road. I guess when I went off to school I needed to start cooking for myself… but even back then I didn’t make anything of it until I moved to Ottawa. I guess there’s more of a dining scene there, just watching the Food Network… My partner [Sarah Morrison] was in the industry.” Dining out created an interest in eating better, so Levac checked out a few recipes and started to try out some cooking. “Eventually when we moved to Nova Scotia – that’s where Sarah is from – we catered her parents’ 40th wedding anniversary. We did a bunch of hors d’oeuvres for about 60 people and it was such a hit, the feedback was awesome. Everyone was loving the food, and at that point we decided, you know what, why don’t we just start our own catering business? I guess the rest is history, it’s been about 9 years now.”
He continues, “Gigs were few and far between back then. We probably weren’t supposed to, but we worked out of our home for catering. As we got busier I needed to find a commercial kitchen. There are numerous restaurants that are for rent, but I needed something more like a home so one of my good friends – Chef Dave Smart of Bessie North House, a really popular spot here in the Annapolis Valley – that became my home to cater out of. I had a shelf in the basement, I had a key to the building.”
That was, essentially, Levac’s career path to becoming a professional chef – taking a talent and running with it, while expanding his repertoire. “The best part of this industry or profession is that there is always something new to learn, to work out. Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t.”