Nova Scotia

Top Chef Canada contender Stéphane Levac finds himself while foraging

For chef Stéphane Levac, foraging in the Annapolis Valley near his home is as much about finding himself as it is about finding local ingredients.

Chef at Maritme Express Cider in Kentville will compete in upcoming season

Chef Stéphane Levac says there's 'an abundance of free ingredients' to forage in the Annapolis Valley where he lives. (Stéphane Levac)

For chef Stéphane Levac, foraging in the Annapolis Valley near his home is as much about finding himself as it is about finding local ingredients.

The executive chef at Maritime Express Cider Co. in Kentville, and one of 11 contestants on season nine of Top Chef Canada, has come to cherish his quiet moments in nature. 

"I'm just at peace, you know, like connecting with the elements. Being Indigenous, there's a spiritual feel to it that I'm kind of just discovering about myself," he told CBC's Mainstreet recently. 

Levac is Ojibwa and was adopted by a French family when he was a young child. He said he lived with a lot of anxiety not knowing where he came from, and it wasn't until he moved to Nova Scotia nearly a decade ago that things began to fall into place. 

Levac and his family forage for chanterelles and morels, as well as juniper and other wild berries. (Stéphane Levac)

"I've moved around a lot, especially in my 20s. I lived in Ottawa, Timmins ... Sudbury," he said, "and this is where I'm really finding myself, giving myself like this identity of who I am not only as a chef, but as a person."

Last summer, not long after the start of the pandemic, Levac found members of his birth family on Facebook for the first time. He was working at his restaurant when he received a reply. 

"I had to take myself off the line and went into my car and you know, I kind of lost it. It was very emotional, hard to describe," he said."It was like 40 years of emotions just running through my body."

His reconnection with his family was bittersweet as Levac learned that his birth mother had died. Still, he's excited to meet some of his family for the first time when travel restrictions allow him to visit Ontario. 

"There's so much to look forward to," he said. 

At 41, Levac said he's beginning to understand who he is, and to learn about his Ojibwa culture. 

"To me, that's living off the land, not gathering too much. When I forage … I only take what I need, really and I have to leave something for the next person, right? It's all about sharing," he said. 

His partner and young son join him in foraging for ingredients like juniper berries, mushrooms and seaweed, which often end up in the dishes he creates.

The family pastime is a much needed break from the business of running a restaurant and a chance to explore the province, Levac said.

"Since I moved to Nova Scotia, this is home to me now," he said. "You know, I feel like myself. I don't have to hide anything anymore."

The upcoming season of Top Chef Canada premieres April 19.

With files from CBC Radio's Mainstreet