Stéphane Levac

Chef Stéphane Levac’s journey in the kitchen

Chef Stéphane Levac got a later-than-traditional start in the foodservice industry, choosing hospitality in his 30s after his son was born and his family made the move from Ontario to Nova Scotia. Self-taught Chef Stéphane and his partner Sarah began their culinary journey together by catering her parents’ anniversary party, an endeavour that led them to start their own catering company, meeting a need and finding their niche in Nova Scotia’s wine country.

As the catering demand outgrew the business, Levac moved to work his way up the ranks, learning the industry from the restaurant perspective, and when Maritime Express (in Kentville, NS) reached out with their plan to open a local cidery, Levac seized the opportunity to put his learned skills to use. The cidery and culinary destination offers guests unique flavours and elevated comfort food. With delicious dishes like Filipino spring rolls, the Bibimbap Burger, Yucatan shrimp, and more on the menu, Levac combines creativity with his passion for cooking.

We caught up with Chef Stéphane to hear about his experience at Maritime Express and how his love for foraging, history, and heritage are at the heart of his meals.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you describe Maritime Express Cider’s concept and food program?

Levac: It’s a cidery in the Annapolis Valley, the second largest producer of apples in the world after New Zealand, so it’s the perfect setting for cideries and microbreweries. Our kitchen program features elevated pub fare and we offer delicious food that our guests enjoy.

We also host events. Maritime Express is located in an old train station from the 1930s, with dining rooms and a ballroom that offer unique event experiences, so we are often creating special event menus from apps to buffet-style to cater to those larger-scale needs. And with a kitchen staff of under ten people, we hustle. My catering experience comes in very handy for banquets. That part of the job is stressful, for sure, but it’s very rewarding at the end of the day.

Do you have a favourite dish or menu item?

Levac: I don’t know if I would say that I have one favourite dish, but I love Taco Tuesdays! The concept wasn’t something I embraced right off the bat, but I grew to love it, and our customers love it too. At this point in the program, we’ve probably created anywhere from 30 to 40 different tacos. As a chef, I want to keep the inspiration alive, so this allows me a way to offer variety and to get creative within that same theme. Everything is made from scratch and there’s so much pride behind what we do.

How do your history and heritage affect your approach to culinary?

Levac: I am Indigenous, and I love to include those flavours wherever I can, but of course, it needs to be the right combination, at the right time. Some of our meals are definitely “Indigenous fueled,” though. For example, I have been able to include dishes like the 3 Sisters Gnocchi on the menu, which incorporates corn, black beans, and squash into a stew, along with peas, tomato, and sage. But rather than making everything about me, I really try to offer guests what they want, mixed with what I’m excited about.

I love foraging and do a lot of it in the summertime, so I try to figure out how I can incorporate local ingredients into the menu that make sense for everyone. I sneak my heritage in with garnishes, and I introduce some of the foraged ingredients. For example, in the spring, I make pesto from foraged ramps, so customers can try out something new and exciting on the menu.

Tell me about your experience in Season 9 of Top Chef Canada.

Levac: That was an experience! Top Chef Canada reached out to me after they received a recommendation from my friend Stephanie Ogilvie (a previous Top Chef Canada contestant). It all happened in a weekend, and it was a great experience, but I was not ready for it. Looking back, I should have prepared better, but being the “wild card” without much restaurant experience, I was competing with contestants who had staged at some famous restaurants, with completely different backgrounds than mine.

The part I loved most was that they allowed us to bring 15 ingredients of our own, which was a cool opportunity. Everything I brought was foraged or a combination of my own creations. I made and brought my own apple cider vinegar from scrap apples infused with sumac, so I really got the chance to showcase something different and what was important to me. What the experience taught me is that you need to be ready and open for whatever comes your way – it’s such a valuable life lesson.

Following Top Chef, I was offered so many great opportunities, from television shows to culinary competitions and more, so it was a worthwhile experience in so many ways.

Where do you see yourself in the future?

Levac: The restaurant industry is so tough right now, with all the challenges we’re facing and what we’ve gone through in the last few years. I have always wanted to own my restaurants, and I still do, but I have a smaller scale in mind now. I think a restaurant with 12 to 20 seats would be perfect – I’ve seen that model here in Nova Scotia and that works for me. That scale allows you to know exactly how much to prep to do each day and you can connect regularly with your clientele. I’m not closing any doors, though. With the television experience, I’ve had some interesting offers for shows, so that might be an avenue in the future. I want to find something that aligns with my values and uses my passion to move forward. I think doing a little of everything is the best way to keep life interesting!

This article was originally published in the spring/summer 2024 edition of CRFN magazine.

Photo credit: Julien Faugère