Stéphane Levac had never considered auditioning for a cooking reality show. But a network of Nova Scotian chefs helped the former restaurateur land a spot on this season’s Top Chef Canada. Consider it kitchen aid.
“The show reached out saying that Stephanie Ogilvie had referred me,” he says of the Top Chef season eight runner-up, who runs Hopscotch Dinner Club on Barrington Street. “Stephanie, Brock [Unger, Ogilvie’s partner] and I, we’ve worked together over the past years with Cahoots or I invited Brock down here for events, and she referred me.”
Levac is originally from Ontario, but has lived in Nova Scotia for more than nine years, first running a catering company with his wife, then working in Halifax with chef Ray Bear at Studio East. He shifted to the Annapolis Valley, first to do a quick stint at Just Us! in Grand Pre, and has now run the kitchen at Maritime Express Cider in Kenville for the past two years.
But Levac still didn’t feel qualified for Top Chef until Ogilvie nominated him. “I wasn’t thinking even about applying for the show, you know, I didn’t really put myself on that kind of level,” he tells The Coast in a phone call.
There’s been a handful of local chefs making their way to television in recent years. On top of The Canteen’s Renée Lavallée and Ogilvie on Top Chef, MasterChef saw Nova Scotian Jennifer Crawford take home the crown in 2019, while the most recent season saw both Andy Hay from Andy’s East Coast Kitchen and Andrew Al-Khouri from aFrite in the kitchen studio.
While it may have been through his restaurant connections that he managed to land an interview, it was Levac’s talent that scored him a spot among 10 other chefs from across the country.
“I went through the process of applying, a very intensive application,” he says. “From there I had a couple of interviews, did a 10-minute cooking demo video, and I guess they liked what they saw in my last meeting, that’s when they let me know I was going to be on the show.”
Levac says his father-in-law helped film his homemade audition tape, and while he can’t reveal what he cooked that impressed the judges, as the only chef from east of Montreal this season, he says he felt some ”added pressure” to represent Nova Scotia. “I have some go-tos for fine-dining styles. You know, something that was fairly easy for me to put together as well as showcase where we live,” he says.
While at Maritime Express, Levac has honed in on perfecting his elevated pub food, but in his spare time he’s often found foraging at the shore or in the forest. “I like walking the shorelines, I’m 10 minutes from the Bay of Fundy so I’m constantly looking for different seaweeds that I could forage, succulents, like sea asparagus and fanworts.”
Levac says a mutual love of foraging is one thing that’s bonded him with Ovilgie over the years. “Both of us kind of agree it’d be kind of a shame if you’re a chef in Nova Scotia and don’t forage.” he says.
It’s all under wraps whether Levac went home during the first week or took home the Top Chef Canada title for 2021. But he says the experience–especially during COVID-19–was like no other.
“We had to self-isolate in our rooms, we took a couple of COVID tests and from there we all met a week later when we started filming,” he says of his trip to Toronto. “And that’s when the bubble started. The whole cast and crew was in a Top Chef bubble, I guess you could say.”
Top Chef‘s new season premieres on Monday, April 19 at 11pm Halifax time. Levac says a few people wanted to get together at work to watch, “but I don’t want to make a big deal out of it.” He adds, “My family and I are just going to stay home, we’ll try to keep my son up and we’ll watch it together.”
Levac’s still astonished at how far he’s come in just a few years. “It’s a very short career as far as cooking goes, and it’s kind of crazy that I ended up being on the show,” he says.
He’s keeping up with his friends in the industry, too, and will be popping up at Hopscotch on April 25. Then Levac’s off to opening weekend at Fox Harb’r resort, along with Andy Hay and Renee Lavalee, proving that Nova Scotia’s food network never has too many cooks in the kitchen.