AFTER THE SWAN SONG
FROM BALLET TO BAKING
There is something I've always found fascinating about people: some of us have a clear vision of what we want to do, some of us have no idea, and some of us live multiple lives in the span of one lifetime. Stephan Bourgond, a new face in the pastry kitchen at JAN, falls into the latter category. Until last year, he was the Principal Male Dancer at Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo in Monaco! So, Stephan's story is not just that of a pastry chef, or a ballet dancer for that matter, but rather that of an explorer who approaches every new undertaking with the same curiosity, vigour and determination. Even though he hasn't quite mastered the koeksister yet…
THE BOY WHO DREAMED
At the age of six, Stephan had no idea that his new-found love of dancing would one day take him from Sault Ste. Marie, his home town of just under 80,000 souls in Northern Ontario, Canada, to some of the most prestigious ballet companies and stages in the world. "I took up ballet when I was nine and got into the National Ballet School of Canada's summer programme. I loved it, so I left home and went to school in Toronto. It was super intense, but I was surrounded by like-minded people who all wanted to do what I was doing. So, even though I was far from home, I was really happy."
At 17, Stephan was off to a ballet company in Germany, where he spent the remainder of his teenage years. Although he gained invaluable experience in those three years, he felt that something was lacking, and the urge to move on took hold once again. "The only other place I wanted to work was Monaco (Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo). In Hamburg I was a corps de ballet dancer (member of a group of dancers – basically a living prop); but no matter who you are in the company in Monaco, you always dance a lot."
Stephan always knew he wouldn't be dancing forever, but if he was going to do this, he would do it with the same fervour he had applied to all his endeavours from a very young age. "I had always had a lot of other interests. And knowing it's not forever just makes you work so much harder."
Two years after joining the company in Monaco, Stephan got his first big role. "It was totally premature for me. I was a mess," he laughs, "but they saw I was willing to do the work to get there." This perseverance is a trademark quality that propelled Stephan to the role of Principle Dancer. Over the next decade, he performed all over the globe, which opened his eyes to the world of cuisine.
PASTA AND DINOSAUR PANCAKES
"Travelling nourished my love of food," says Stephan. "I've always enjoyed cooking, and I've always been surrounded by people who love to cook. On my dad's side, my family is fresh-off-the-boat Italian, so they would never even imagine buying pasta – it was always freshly made. They had a farm where they grew everything we ate. It was incredible to see my nonno (grandfather in Italian) grow all these things in the garden, and observing the process of how an animal ends up on a plate was a really valuable experience.
"On my mother's side, my grandpa was a chef on a boat for some time. He would make the most amazing cinnamon buns and breakfast pancakes. When I was a kid, I'd ask him to 'Make a dinosaur! Make a Mickey Mouse!' With him, food was a really fun thing. He was definitely more of a baker, which is probably where I got my love of pastry."
THE SWAN SONG
The decision to hang up his ballet shoes was not easy, however. "It's really hard, because you're back to 'What do I want to be when I grow up?', but my love of food was always there. The last show I did was Swan Lake, so it was literally my swan song. At the end of the show, my character dies, and I remember thinking, 'This is it: the death of my career,'" he reminisces. "No matter how much you prepare yourself for things like that, you never really know what it's going to be like until you're in it. So, when the final curtain fell, it somehow felt like this huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. When you’re successful at something, you’re under a lot of pressure, although you may not always realise it. Suddenly, I wasn't a principal dancer anymore. I was just me again. Thrilling, but also kind of scary."
Such times of enormous personal flux can often trigger periods of soul-searching leading to new hobbies or exotic explorations. In Stephan's case, it took him to the Ballymaloe Cookery School in Shanagarry, County Cork, Ireland. There, on a lush 100-acre organic farm, Stephan reconnected with the farm-to-fork lifestyle of his Italian grandparents. And after a stint in St Tropez and an internship at Restaurant Joël Robuchon in Monaco, his road finally led to JAN.
DISCOVERING SOUTH AFRICAN FOOD
"I was so surprised when Chef Jan Hendrik gave me the job. The whole team is just amazing. Everyone believes in what they're doing. The first time I ate at JAN I was just blown away. There was this candle (kaiing candle with mosbolletjies) that just tasted so good. My dining companion was vegetarian, and she ate all of it. Even the wick!"
However, working at JAN can have its challenges for those unfamiliar with the quirks of South African cooking. "I messed up the koeksisters so many times," he laughs, "but I'm learning a lot of new techniques."
Stephan's only previous experience of South Africans had been hip hop band Die Antwoord, so before starting at JAN, he decided to adopt a zero-expectations policy. "But everyone is so nice," he says. "What I love is that, despite arriving in France a while ago, both Rutger (head chef) and Carina (sous chef) are still so excited to be here. I definitely feel a kind of New World connection to them, but South Africa has a much stronger culinary identity than Canada."
Baking his way through South African fare is hugely exciting to Stephan. "I really love baking cakes, so the Hertzog Cake was a highlight. If I'm honest, though, I enjoy eating koeksisters more than I enjoy making them."
Photographs by Daniela Zondagh
Toronto photograph by André Furtado