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Chef Stephan Bourgond

Paragon Seattle

Stephan was born and grew up in Sault Ste. Marie in Ontario on the border with Michigan, a very small town. As a kid, he tried everything: sports, art, dance. Hated dance because classes were held on Saturday mornings. He demanded that his mom let him quit because he didn't want to miss cartoons anymore. His mom replied that if he quit, he could never go back again. He was ecstatic until he started missing it. He went back and the teacher told him at some point he would need to try ballet. Lame. Forced into it. But the teacher saw something in him. So he went to a Toronto school for an audition where he skipped around the room. At 9, you didn't have to do too much. They stretched him, looked at his proportions, joint flexibility, muscle flexibility, how much he'd grow. Back then, there were specific aesthetics to uphold. He was accepted for the summer program and loved it. On weekends, they'd take the kids to the zoo, amusement park, mall. At 10 years of age, he was accepted into the full-year program. He was excited. Turns out the whole year school was tougher - no weekend trips, working 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. on academics and dance, choreography, shows. Then two hours of homework. Academics had the same high standards as ballet. "They told us that ballet is not a long career, you can't rely on ballet; you could graduate and not find a job."

The first year he was a little homesick but got over it quickly. "It was an exciting place. Staff was great. I had a great experience." Students had sponsors who mentored them. At 12, he met with sponsors and learned how to talk with people, a skill that has served him well. When he was 16, he had the opportunity to audition for a school in Hamburg, Germany, and for a company in Toronto. "I felt I needed to expand and experience things. I said I'd like to audition in Germany. I was told I didn't have to audition, they wanted me." After graduating school at 17, he moved to Germany, starting a new life in Europe. "It was a good place to go. I didn't understand the language, but Germans are organized and rule-driven. I understood that." He lived there three years, loved the company and what they did, but wanted to do more. He auditioned in Monte Carlo. "It was an amazing company. The Director liked me. He used to be a dancer in Hamburg. I explained to him that I didn't want to dance forever, so while I was doing it, I wanted to give everything. He appreciated my honesty and said they'd let me know in three days. I was already late in handing in my resignation but thought three days was okay. Then they came back and said, it will be two more weeks. I told them I couldn't let the company in Germany hang like that, so I turned the possibility down. They called the next day and said I was hired. I resigned in Germany and headed to the south of France! Palm trees and salty sea air."

His career development was speedy - they saw drive and talent in him. His first principal role was playing an elderly Faust on his death bed. He was 22. Afterward the staff said it was the worst show they'd ever seen. But they kept trusting him, giving him chances. At 25, he became a principal dancer, the top male dancer in the company. "It was a generally great experience with lots of travel. There was a moment where I realized I was where I'd always wanted to be. I figured I had 2-1/2 years to figure out my next move and started reflecting on what I enjoyed in my spare time. Each new city we visited, I would look up the best restaurants, using them to learn about places and cultures. When I was at home, I found peace in food. Work was demanding with lots of eyes on you all the time. I would try cooking new things and get creative. Pretty soon people were coming over for dinner parties. Food was my way to socialize and communicate. It was always an important part of my life. My father's side of the family were Italian immigrants. My grandparents had a farm with animals and gardens. Nona would create incredible food. My mom's father cooked on tugboats and would make dragon and Mickey Mouse pancakes for me.

"At 32, I resigned from the company in Monte Carlo, but had 1-1/2 years left; there was no one to replace me. Ballets had been choreographed on me. I had to hand over information and teach people. My last performance was March 31, 2018. It was an incredible, emotional night, everyone on stage was happy to be there with me. After the show I felt it all lift off my shoulders. I was on posters and billboards in New York, Japan, Syria. Now I was nobody again. So cool."

He left France for Ireland where he attended Ballymaloe Cookery School for three months. He didn't want to attend a year-long school. He needed basics and then experience. Ballymaloe was on a 100-acre organic farm. He learned that the beauty of food is what it does to people, to honor the products you're given. He shopped small markets. It was a great transition for him, surrounded by people of all ages who needed something new in their lives.

He returned to France where he got a job at a biodynamic vineyard. Some friends were doing a wine tasting food truck. "I arrived and they told me I was the cook, the manager, social media manager, everything. They gave me Excel notes and I said, 'what's Excel?' It was a huge learning curve. I used local ingredients, some I found between the vines, and made salads. When it closed, I got a four-month internship at a Joël Robuchon hotel restaurant in Monte Carlo. They had it all there: bakery, kitchen, pantry, bar, catering. I organized my schedule to jump into each to gain experience. It was miserable: old school French kitchen with people screaming at you. They refined my skills. I spoke good French, but this was new vocabulary to learn. After three months, I told HR I needed to leave. They offered me a job. I couldn't do it."

He already had a job lined up. In all of his travels, a restaurant in Nice was his favorite. The owner was a fan of his dancing. "He asked me to cook at the restaurant. I was such a fan girl - I had this restaurant on a pedestal and here I was cooking there!" I joined as a pastry chef. They did an eight-course tasting menu; I was in charge of 4 of the 8 courses. Plus I became their private chef at their space across the street where up to 20 people could come for eight courses. I was in charge of all eight. I loved doing that. There was an open kitchen and people would talk to you. I had one server with me. It was the best. I hated the consistent 15-hour days, but I was surrounded by amazing people."

Chef mentioned he was opening a restaurant in South Africa on a private game preserve. He wanted Stephan to go work there for three weeks because he wasn't schooled in tradition and jaded. 'You think in all directions.' Stephan's husband, Lucien Postlewaite (a principal dancer at the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle; they met in Monte Carlo) went with him, flying on a private jet to the middle of the Kalahari, staying in a hut with giant windows looking at the watering hole. "I became friends with the safari guide, and she told me about seed pods that kudus eat. So I got some and made kudu cookies. The Head of Preservation showed me what was edible, what was in season, and what flavors were like. We made things from what was there, including a cake that looked like sand but was edible with a mold of an actual lion's paw walking through. I loved the staff and guests."

That was his last overseas adventure. He packed up to move to Seattle which started a painful series of events. He had to put his dog down, and he almost didn't get into the country; Lucien stepped in and made new arrangements and he made it to Seattle on Halloween night in 2019. A week later he was in a car crash. Until he got his work visa, he couldn't work or leave the country. His grandmother passed away in Canada and he couldn't go to the funeral. He got his work visa in March 2020, just in time for the pandemic.

Yet after all this, he landed at the Paragon Seattle in May 2020. Both the Paragon and Stephan are doing much, much better.

March 2021

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