ANNAPOLIS VALLEY, NS – An executive chef with newfound Island roots will be making his television debut later this month as he competes for the prestigious title of Top Chef Canada on the ninth edition of the popular Food Network Canada show.
Stéphane Levac was adopted from the M’Chigeeng First Nation at just six weeks old, growing up in a Francophone family in Sturgeon Falls.
Mr. Levac found out at age 9 that he was adopted after learning about the process of adoption at school. He recalls coming home from school that day and, once the family was gathered around the dinner table, he pointedly asked them, ‘Am I adopted?’ He recalls the shock that washed over his parents’ faces, but they quickly composed themselves and told him that yes, he was adopted. It was then that he learned of his First Nations background. At age 14 he discovered that he came from M’Chigeeng First Nation.
“My birth mom had me at 15 years old; I understand why she put me up for adoption,” the chef explains from his Annapolis Valley home.
As a teen Mr. Levac began reaching out to Children’s Aid Society, seeking information about his birth family. They would tell him only information that pertained to his health and said he would have to wait until he was 18. At 18 there were scant more details, but he did learn his birth name, Christopher A.
“It was frustrating, and I gave up for a while,” Mr. Levac admits.
Mr. Levac moved on with his life, attending George Brown for graphic design (admittedly losing interest “pretty fast” in the course) and eventually moving to Ottawa, where he met his wife-to-be, Sarah. He held a variety of jobs, among them blackjack dealer at Ottawa-area casinos, “but I always had a knack for cooking.”
Mr. Levac admits to wooing his wife with his cooking early on in the relationship. The two had very different schedules, and when he was off he would peruse the cookbook aisles at Chapters, try his best to memorize the recipes he wanted to try, rush home and recreate them for his love. Apparently this worked, because on Canada Day 2011, the Levacs welcomed a baby boy into their life and they made the decision to move to Nova Scotia, where Sarah is from.
Mr. Levac eventually found work in the butcher shop of a specialty grocery store. During that time the couple decided to try their hand at catering Ms. Levac’s parents’ 40th wedding anniversary, and the reviews were phenomenal. “It was such a hit that we started our own catering business, Frais Catering.”
Eventually, the demand outstripped the size of the business and after five years, the couple called it quits.
Mr. Levac then found work at a well-known Asian-fusion restaurant in Halifax, Studio East, a fast-paced kitchen where the chef-in-training got a real taste of a working restaurant.
“I was told that if I could do Studio (East), I could do it anywhere,” he says.
Mr. Levac decided to come back to the Annapolis Valley, finding employment at a coffee house where he learned the business side of running an eatery. This eventually led him to his current employer, Maritime Express and Cidery, where he acts as head chef for the popular gastropub.
Stephanie Ogilvie, a chef at the Halifax restaurant Brooklyn Warehouse, was a contender on the last season of Top Chef Canada. Ms. Ogilvie, a friend of Mr. Levac who has been watching the chef rise in popularity on the East Coast, suggested he reach out to Food Network Canada and apply for the 2021 season. After a series of interviews and videos of his work, Chef Levac was accepted to Top Chef Canada.
It was an overwhelming few days for Mr. Levac late last spring. At the same time he learned he would appear on national television, he also discovered his birth family.
The call of wanting to learn more about his birth family had never left the chef’s heart and online searches brought him to the Facebook group ‘M’Chigeengers.’
Mr. Levac recalls waking up early one morning and heading out to his back porch to have a cigarette. He had been contemplating posting his story to the page and that morning, he screwed up his courage and made a post, seeking help from his birth community. He hit ‘publish’ and went back to bed. When he woke up later that morning, he was inundated with messages from people who were eager to help him on his journey.
He learned that his mother was Christine Abel, who has passed on to the spirit world, and that he has so much family who are eager to meet him.
Despite growing up in Sturgeon Falls, he has never been to Manitoulin. Mr. Levac grew up playing hockey, even as close as Espanola, and attending Little NHL tournaments (he recalls playing against the well-known Wiky Hawks), but never had the chance to set foot on the Island—something he can’t wait to do.
Needless to say, it was a whirlwind few days for the chef and his family.
“I’m a self-taught chef—just making it on the show is amazing,” he says. Out of the 11 competitors, he is the only chef representing the East Coast.
Mr. Levac has a message for his M’Chigeeng family: “I look forward to coming home. I’m from Sturgeon, yes, but my roots are being from Manitoulin Island. I’ll have to cook for them when I get to meet them, but they’ll have to cook for me too!” The chef says there are skills he’s hoping his family can help teach him, like the art of cooking over an open fire.
Top Chef Canada airs on Food Network Canada next Monday, April 19 at 10 pm.