Podcast Episode 42

Be Unapologetically Yourself with Chef Steve Konopelski

Steve Konopelski | 48 Minutes | May 10, 2022

In today’s episode, we’re speaking with Steve Konopelski who is cheering for everyone to be “unapologetically themselves.”

Chef Steve Konopelski had a successful 11-year career as a Broadway dancer before turning his sights to culinary school. Today, Chef Steve keeps busy with his YouTube baking show “The Sweet Life of Steve,” as well as empowering aspiring culinarians as Chef Instructor for Escoffier’s online programs.

Listen in as Chef Steve describes how to build a long-lasting career in the food business, why adaptability could help you transfer skills to a new work environment, and how to celebrate your uniqueness…unapologetically.

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Notes & Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Kirk Bachmann: Hi everyone, my name is Kirk Bachmann, and welcome back to The Ultimate Dish. In today’s episode, we’re speaking with Escoffier Chef Instructor Steve Konopelski, a classically trained ballet dancer turned pastry chef. Steve had a successful 11-year career as a Broadway dancer before turning his sights to culinary school. Graduating top of his class at the French Culinary Institute, Steve went on to work for top New York restaurants, own his own pastry businesses, and launch a YouTube show. Today, Steve keeps busy with his YouTube baking show, The Sweet Life of Steve, and empowering aspiring culinarians as an online Escoffier chef instructor.

Join us today as we chat with Steve about embracing change and being unapologetic.

And there he is. Welcome, Chef. How are you?

Steve Konopelski: I am great, Chef. Thank you so, so much. What a wonderful introductions! One of my favorite topics: me!

Kirk Bachmann: Remarkable me! I’m out of breath. Before we even dive in, yours is such an interesting story. I’m super excited. I’m a little nervous about getting upstaged, but that’s okay. If you start singing, I’m out, okay.

Steve Konopelski: Okay. All right.

Unapologetic

Kirk Bachmann: Why are you unapologetic?

Steve Konopelski: It’s taken me a long time to realize the wonderful power that each one of us has. When you really stop and think about it, no one else in recorded human history has had the same life track as you. Maybe we have similar experiences. We can appreciate and empathize with each other, but nobody else has had the exact same life path as yourself, or myself. When you really, really recognize that and own that, and go, “Hey! I am so unique and special.” When you embrace that, you understand you have so much to offer to the world because there is nobody else like you. You’re it!

Kirk Bachmann: I absolutely love that. I’m 100 percent shamelessly stealing that as a parent of youngsters. What a beautiful, beautiful message! This day in age when self-esteem is so important. People are watching stuff online all the time and wondering Why can’t I? I absolutely love that.

By the way, how is 2022 treating you so far?

Steve Konopelski: I’m actually really digging 2022. It’s new. It’s different. We’re still in a weird covid-y who knows…

Kirk Bachmann: We’re hesitant, a little bit.

Steve Konopelski: We’re hesitant, and at the same time, it’s sort of this je ne sais quas, Jacques Cousteau, voyage of discovery type of situation. What is the world going to offer today? Who knows!

On Broadway Against All Odds

Kirk Bachmann: I love it. Honestly, I’ve been watching you on YouTube for a few days now. What an amazing and interesting story! You’re a graduate of the professional division of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Absolutely wow! Then worked on Broadway as a dancer for 11 years. Like we talked about earlier, that’s a career, by the way. That’s a career. So 11 years on Broadway. I have to ask: What is that in entertainer’s years? That’s a lot of wear and tear on the body. What’s the multiple? Is it more like 40 years?

Steve Konopelski: I think so. I think we can definitely call it at least a quarter of a lifetime. Let’s round up to 25. I think that’s a pretty acceptable situation. But also, I started dancing when I was eight years old. That was essentially my life up until I was…years old, when I had decided to retire.

I came with all this juvenile experience, the eight to 18 situation of training. When I was in the industry, so many of my fellow performers were people that picked up dancing in college or maybe they started their first dance class at 15 or 16. I already had ten years ahead of them just in training. By the time I was 30 – darn it, I ruined it! By the time I was there, I already had ten years plus ahead of everybody else. My longevity fatigue was kicking in even more.

Then you throw professional ballet school on top of that. That was like 12 hours a day, six days a week. That was an intense lifetime within itself. Ballet dancers longevity is even shorter that musical theater performers. Just the pounding on your joints. Forget about it.

Kirk Bachmann: I imagine. Where are you from, Chef?

Steve Konopelski: I am originally from Saskatchewan, Canada. Town of Rabbit Lake. Population 92.

Kirk Bachmann: And they all play hockey.

Steve Konopelski: And I didn’t even live in the town. I’m 20 minutes outside of the town, the middle – legit – of nowhere.

Kirk Bachmann: So fast forward from that rural sort of upbringing, hockey-centric country, to Broadway. I know this isn’t on the script; I’m just fascinated by the story. You have to share a little bit. What was that like? Young person in the biggest city in the United States.

Steve Konopelski: That moment that I got off the plane in New York…here’s the other thing. I bought my one-way, non-refundable, non-transferable ticket to move to New York City September 10, 2001.

Kirk Bachmann: No. No.

Steve Konopelski: Yes. The next day, the world changed forever.

Kirk Bachmann: Indeed.

Steve Konopelski: I’m having this moment, like “I’m about to move to literally Ground Zero. Is this the right decision?” That little bit of panic. That little bit of fear. Everybody was like, oh, New York is going to be so different! I had never been to New York, so for me I don’t know what pre-9/11 New York ever felt like.

Kirk Bachmann: And then New York changed again.

Steve Konopelski: And then New York changed again. My flight was September 26, 2001. There is still smoke going. There is still everything. I flew into La Guardia, the bus depot of airports. I get off the plane. Everything I own is in two suitcases and a carry-on bag. I’ve got $1000 in my bank account, thinking, “I’m here! I’m going to make it.” I get into the line for the cab. The cabbie comes up. He pulls up, throws my suitcases in the back. That’s when I notice he’s got one leg. He is driving me across the bridge into Manhattan with his good foot on the brakes and his crutch on the gas. I’m thinking to myself, “This is New York! This is the thing.” I wasn’t scared.

I wasn’t scared at all, because I had been raised with this sense of adventure, but I also had – we’re going there – my entire life up until that point, except for my parents, I had the world telling me that I couldn’t do it. Everybody was like, “You can’t. You’re this farm kid from the middle of nowhere. You’re never going to make it in New York. You’re never going to become a dancer.” Time and time again. It was this constant barrage of “You’re not good enough. You’re never going to succeed. Small town kids don’t do this. Farm kids don’t do this.” Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. So there was almost this other sense of, “Oh really? Watch me try. And watch me prove you all wrong.”

In hindsight, looking back at that, if I hadn’t had that, I don’t know if I would have been the strong person that I am now. Because whenever you are faced with adversity, that’s when we grow. We grow under adversity. The best, prettiest things in the world come out of places where they shouldn’t come from.

Kirk Bachmann: Such great advice for students.

Steve Konopelski: Diamonds exist because of hardship and stress and everything. The strongest trees in the forest are the ones that had to grow through all of the stuff. Anytime it felt like, how’s it going to go? One reflection of somebody saying, “You’re not good enough,” and that’s just the kick in the butt that you need. It was that acceptance. The world is my oyster kind of thing.

Yes, it was scary. I knew literally one person in Manhattan. I had this whole new world to explore, and I was like, “I’m not taking any moment for granted. I’m just taking this all in. I’m going to put my best foot forward, and I’m going to see what happens.”

All In: Radio City or Bust

Kirk Bachmann: You were all in. The piece that got me right away was the one-way ticket. Was that you, or was that your parents encouraging you? “You’re going to go to New York. You’re going to make it. And you’ll come back when you want to come back.”

Steve Konopelski: I think that was actually my bank account. It was the one that determined the one-way ticket.

Kirk Bachmann: I could get there. I can get there.

Steve Konopelski: I can get there. I don’t know if I can get home. It was very Thoroughly Modern Millie, for anybody who gets the reference.

I think maybe subconsciously there was also that situation of, “If I buy a return ticket, then I’ve already created a Plan B for myself.” This is not a Plan B option. This is a Plan A, and we’re going to make it work no matter what happens. Probably, I think, subconsciously I was like, “No.”

There also was this part, based on all that stuff that I was coming from. I didn’t want to come back.

Kirk Bachmann: Greatest moment as a dancer?

Steve Konopelski: I’ve had a lot of them. I was fortunate enough, obviously, to perform on Broadway. My Broadway debut was really, really cool, because it was just like that. It was so fairy tale. It was so TV. It was so everything. The curtain went up.

Kirk Bachmann: You were there. You were there.

Steve Konopelski: I was there. But Broadway debut’s kind of a little bit ruined. You have previews always before that. You’re rehearsing on the stage. The first time on the Broadway stage is a month and a half before the show actually goes up, or whatever. I think, for me, one of my absolute favorite moments was when I did the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. The Radio City Music Hall is THE…

Kirk Bachmann: I just got a chill. Wow!

Steve Konopelski: When that curtain goes up, it’s like you’re playing to Grand Canyon. It is just this void. You see twelve faces in the front and then the rest is just this sea of black. The stage is the size of a football field, both across and deep. I had been auditioning for that job for four years. Every year they’re like, “Oh, we love you. Can we send you out to Tennessee?” I’m like, “No! It’s New York stage or nothing.” Finally, the year the call came. “We have a spot for you on the New York stage.” And I was like, “Done!”

When that curtain went up, that was such an amazing, amazing moment! Oh, I loved being a part of that.

Still Performing from the Kitchen

Kirk Bachmann: Try to paint the picture. We’re going to talk culinary here in a moment. When you mentioned the curtain goes up, Grand Canyon in front of you, did you ever have a moment where you walked out of the kitchen or out of the bakery to where the guests were and felt the same way? That “oh my! There he is! There he is!”

Steve Konopelski: Yeah. A lot. I think maybe it’s one of the reasons that I feel like I’ve had a very, very strong culinary career. For those of you who have met me: you can take the boy out of Broadway, but you can’t take the Broadway out of the boy. So when people ask me all the time, “Oh, do you miss performing?”

Kirk Bachmann: Still performing.

Steve Konopelski: I’m still performing. That’s, I think, an important part of the culinary industry. We are creating art. We are creating a show with food. Thinking about plating up, for example. It’s kind of like you’re telling a story. That’s theater. That’s performing. That’s all that kind of stuff.

When I first went to culinary school, I was petrified. It took me five years to be brave enough to finally say, “I’m going to retire from performing. I would like to do something else now. I’ve had a good career.” Some of it was that. I wasn’t quite fulfilled in my career. Finally, I was like I had done a lot of the things that I set out to do. I am happy stepping away on my own terms instead of the industry saying, “We’re done with you. You have no place here anymore.” I was the one to say, “I have done what I set out to do, and I am happy and I am content with myself.”

From Broadway to Culinary School

Kirk Bachmann: The farm boy no longer needed to worry about the return ticket. Let’s fill in the gaps there. When did you start thinking…for me it sort of makes sense, based on your comments about theater and performing. The segue is completely obvious to me, but it may not be to everyone.

Take us through, when did that become a thing. You’re dancing. You’re busy. You’re wondering what the next step is, and then all of a sudden, French Culinary Institute. Not just a culinary school, one of the premier culinary schools. Right there in New York, which in many ways, kind of a theater as well, with all of the celebrities that were involved.

So walk us through what that felt like.

Steve Konopelski: I first started exploring the idea of culinary school around 2007-2008. that, I think, was when food entertainment television was at its peak. That’s when Food Network was like “Ta-da!” That’s when we had not just education in food, but we had food entertainment. Ace of Cakes for example. We’re not learning anything; we’re being entertained by someone’s talent and their skill set, and the fact that they are an entertaining personality at the same time.

There’s this actor-y part of me that’s seeing this. I’m like, “Huh? Okay. Here’s a whole performance that’s based around food and, of course, this seems very, very appealing. And I love to bake, and it’s something that I grew up with.” I was fortunate enough to have one of those households, being in the farm in the middle of nowhere, we made everything from scratch. My mother sewed my clothes, for crying out loud. I was one of those kids. We go on family vacation, all of us are in our matching hamburger shorts, because that’s the fabric that was on sale.

Kirk Bachmann: That’s another podcast.

Steve Konopelski: That’s another podcast altogether. That idea was there and was something in the back of my head, but I didn’t really start pursuing that until around 2010 because I had, essentially, almost an entire year in my career where the jobs weren’t really coming. At that moment, you’re like, “Maybe I need to pivot. Maybe I need to think about something else. Do I want to keep doing that.”

Going out and auditioning and trying to find the next job is exhausting. It’s physically exhausting and it’s emotionally exhausting, because you’re having people say, “We love you, but you’re just not right for this part because you’re 5’8”. We need someone who’s 5’10”.” And then they tell you Don’t take that personally. I can’t not take that personally, because you tell me I’m not talented enough, I can work on that. I can grow. But if you tell me I’m too short? I was this height when I walked in the room six weeks ago for these auditions. Why are you dragging me through all this to tell me I’m too short at the end? That is emotionally exhausting.

2010 is where the exploration really came in. 2011, for me, was a fantastic year. I think I worked pretty much nonstop from January up until September. At that time was also when my father was diagnosed with lymphoma. I took a month off. I went home, and I helped out on the farm, something I never did as a kid. I couldn’t wait to get out of there. I went back. I took my dad hand-in-hand. “We’re going to get the work done.” That was the moment where it was like Family, a real life, is very, very important as well. I had spent so much of my time – my career was my life, and that was the only thing. I was like, “There’s more to life than just being married to a career.” That was the catalyst.

Speaking with my dad and saying, “I’m thinking about this. I’ve been doing this for a while.” As a kid, you never want to let your parents down. My parents have supported me from Day One. My dad grew up on a farm one mile away from our farm. My dad saw the ocean for the first time in his mid-70s. This is a man who experienced very little in his life, and who, every second, was like, “If you want to do this, you go out. Don’t look back. Keep going.” To have him go, “I think maybe it is time to try something else. No matter what you try, you’re going to be good at it, so just do it.” I was like, Okay. That was September, and December was when I enrolled in French Culinary.

Kirk Bachmann: I love that story. Thank you for your vulnerability. Sometimes it’s just about our parents’ love. That’s it. It’s all you need.

Steve Konopelski: Or someone else. Maybe you don’t have that parental figure, but you have a somebody whose support and nourishment and acceptance means the world to you. When you get that person’s blessing and you grant yourself permission to give you that blessing, then it’s just like, Great. Now the world opens up again. Going back to what we talked about at the very beginning: unapologetically you. Granting yourself the permission to go, “I’m doing something else now.”

Kirk Bachmann: So well said.

How excited were you, with your incredible electric personality, when you were in that culinary school that first day of class? Were you jittery? Was it crazy?

Steve Konopelski: It was crazy. You’re in this sea of everybody in their pristine white – because we had only just opened the packets just three days ago. You couldn’t get any whiter than those chef coats and your little toque and your kerchief situation thing. You’ve got the elastic band pants on, which P.S., we need to change the school uniform, because an elastic waistband is the worst thing for culinary school. Because you are going to gain 30 pounds in culinary school and not know it because the pants just keep expanding!

Kirk Bachmann: They set you up for it, right?

Steve Konopelski: They do!

The Kitchen is Your New Dance Studio

Kirk Bachmann: Just such a great conversation. The other day we had a conversation with Chef Colette, who you know. She’s also a chef instructor at Escoffier with an incredible history and career. We talked about baking and pastry as an art or a science. She said, and I quote, “It’s a science with art on top.” I love that. I wrote it down. Chef, correct me if I’m wrong or this isn’t the case, but ballet is a science first as well. The skill it takes to be a professional dancer, I imagine, is incredibly intense. A pirouette is a pirouette is a pirouette. You can either do it, whether you’re 5’8” or 5’10”, you can either do it, or you cannot.

In a similar way, not to stress anyone out, but with baking – and I’m the son of a master pastry chef – with baking, honestly, even more so than savory cooking, you have to follow precise guidelines, measurements, formulas. And then you interpret later, when you understand that the fundamentals are critical, even when you’re making choux paste on YouTube. It’s not going to be choux paste unless you follow the precision. Do you agree with that approach that it’s a science with art on top?

Steve Konopelski: Absolutely. I 100 percent agree with that. Something I tell the students all the time. As bakers, we’re chemists first. We have this set of ingredients, and we have a specific set of rules, essentially, that we need to follow, a.k.a. technique, in order to accomplish a desired outcome. I want to tell this story. I don’t know if we’ll run out of time, or whatever.

But my first day of culinary school was petrifying, because mostly I felt like I was losing my identity. I started dancing when I was eight. It was the only thing I knew. I didn’t go to college. I was dancer, dancer, dancer. That was my life. Essentially, two-thirds of my life by the time I was at culinary school, maybe more, was all dedicated to a dancer. And now all of a sudden I’m going to be Chef Steve, not Dancer Steve. I did not know what to do with myself. That first day was petrifying.

And it just so happened that our instructor that day, who I never had again, was Chef Toni. Chef Toni in her introduction told us that she had been a professional dancer with Alvin Ailey Ballet Company for X number of years before retiring. So I went up to Chef Toni afterwards, and I was like, “Chef, I am really scared here. I don’t know who I am. I’m a conservatory ballet kid turned Broadway performer, and I’ve retired. I don’t know who I am. How did you make this transition?”

She looked at me and she said, “You’re going to do amazing in this industry, and here’s why. As a dancer, you understand the importance of muscle memory. As a dancer, you understand the fundamentals of technique and that you cannot do anything if you don’t have a technical base first. You understand spacial awareness. You understand the importance of repetition. You understand the importance of seeing something and being able to replicate it. You have not changed. The kitchen is your new dance studio.”

As soon as she said that, it was the lights clicked. I was like, “Oh! I am not starting from zero. Every single thing that I’ve learned and worked so hard for my entire life to this point translates perfectly to the kitchen. It’s just a different set of tools and the environment.” The environment changed a little, but otherwise it’s the same. From that moment on, culinary school was really easy.

Kirk Bachmann: So she was right. Have you stayed in touch with Toni?

Steve Konopelski: The last time I went up to New York when the school was till open, I dropped in because I wanted to try to see any of my chefs. Unfortunately, none of them were there. But I did leave messages for her and have been able able to communicate a little bit with her through social media. That understanding, like we’ve been talking about, that baking is a precision. There’s a science there. There’s technical skills. The same thing as the culinary side as well. When you understand the technique, then you can play and you can do anything. But if you don’t understand the technique first, you’re very limited in what you can create.

Understanding and Infectious Passion

Kirk Bachmann: I love that. Great, great advice.

So here’s a juxtaposition: as someone who’s twice-educated, and now an educator yourself, how much, Chef, do you appreciate learning and building skills? Does your background make your expectation even higher for your students? Are you tough?

Steve Konopelski: Yes. I’m tough, but I’m also incredibly fair. Because I understand, especially in our online format, that the variables for each student change. In a ground school, you all have the same oven. You all have the same equipment, you’re working on the same set of ingredients. As a remote student who’s working in the comfort of their own kitchen with a varying degree of tools, opportunities, even a varying degree of availability of ingredients, I do take that into account. Butter is not butter all the way across the board. Cheaper butter is a little bit inferior to a European-style butter, if you’re making an croissant, for example. We need that higher fat because it’s more plastic and elastic than el cheapo butter is. If it’s made with real butter, than we’re really in trouble. I take that kind of stuff into consideration when I’m looking at my students’ assignments and I’m doing that grading.

I also know, because of what we talked about at the beginning, none of these students are on my life path. They’re not on my track. My level of expectation is for me and me alone. That’s it. I also know I would not fathom to have the audacity to expect every one of these students to have the same passion that I do. That’s impossible. But what I hope to do is be infectious enough with my passion to help them finally find their own. I will celebrate with them when they do, and if they haven’t quite found it yet, I am confident in the fact that, at some point in time, they will have this moment and be like, “Chef Steve taught me this, and because of that, I am where I am now.”

Kirk Bachmann: Unapologetic.

Steve Konopelski: Unapologetic. That’s the long game that we have to play as chefs, or rather chef instructors. The a-ha moment might not come now, and a lot of times it doesn’t. The a-ha moment comes much later, but we’re the catalyst for the a-ha moment, and I count myself fortunate enough to have been a part of their specific personal and culinary journey.

Doing Your Best and Adapting

Kirk Bachmann: I love this topic. I want to talk just a little bit more about the fear. It seems like you overcame that fear pretty quickly with Chef Toni. You connected. You had a similar background. Maybe just a couple additional comments about – sometimes it’s moving from one chef instructor that you’re super comfortable with to a different chef instructor who doesn’t fall in line with your expectations. How do you manage, 1) your expectations, and then the potential fear of someone who does it just a little bit differently, or doesn’t know you? Fear of the unknown type of thing. Any advice for students around that?

Steve Konopelski: I think as long as you’re doing your best, I don’t think anyone can really, truly, honestly fault you for that. Your best today will be different from your best six months ago. And tomorrow’s best is going to be even better than today’s best. I think that’s the approach that you need to have when you’re coming into things.

The other approach that you need to have is there’s more than one way to put on a pair of pants. So, your chef instructor at this moment may ask specific things of you. Someone else is going to ask other specific things of you. Adaptability is one of the key things that we need to have in this culinary industry, regardless of if you’re working for a James Beard person, or you’re the boss yourself. Adaptability, it just has to happen.

I remember going from the equivalent of Pastry 1 to Pastry 2 and having a brand new instructor. Chef Joe that I had for Pastry 1, we spoke the same language. Whatever. I was the favorite student. All of a sudden I moved, and I’m working with Chef Cynthia. The first week, I was like, “I’m a delight! Why do you hate me?” Chef Cynthia – I hadn’t learned to speak her language. I came in expecting her to speak mine, but it was her environment.

Kirk Bachmann: Yeah! It’s me! It’s Steve. It’s Steve. Haven’t you heard?

Steve Konopelski: Haven’t you heard? Don’t you know? Everybody loves me. I’m top of the class. What do you mean?

Kirk Bachmann: I love how, what I’m hearing, mise en place is incredibly important in your discipline. However, living in the moment is also important, is what I’m hearing.

Prepare for the Unknown, Grabbing Opportunity

Steve Konopelski: Yes. You have to. You have to prepare, and then you also have to prepare for the unknown. I think that’s, really, honestly, and truly what adaptability is. I heard someone once say that coincidence is merely when opportunity meets preparation.

Kirk Bachmann: Oh. Love that. Love that. For athletics, parenting, or culinary school. I love it.

So after culinary school, you worked in some phenomenal New York restaurants, including working with James Beard-winning pastry chef Claudia Fleming. Congratulations. I bet that was fun. You then pivoted. You had a bed and breakfast in Maryland, full-scale bakery, wedding cakes. I’d love to hear a little bit more about that, but wrap it into what sort of advice you would give to someone today, knowing that they’re different than you, unapologetically, that wanted to so some of the same? Work with somebody who’s got a great reputation, make wedding cakes, do what makes them happy? Tough question.

Steve Konopelski: It is a tough question. My one big piece of advice is I think you have to play a long game. Especially as students, we think of mise en place as measuring out my ingredients and then I’m done. That is only a part of mise en place. Mise en place truly is what is every single step I need to take in order to accomplish the thing that I want to make. So, you want to make a career for yourself. You want to open up this bakery. What is the mise en place for that? A lot of that is going, What are the little individual skills that I need to learn in order to create my thing?

So when I got out of culinary school, I knew eventually I wanted to be my own boss, so I made sure to deliberately put myself in a restaurant environment mostly to see is this what I still want to do? Plating up very quick type of stuff is a huge skill in and of itself. Then I put myself into a big hotel environment. That’s cooking. There’s a really big difference in baking a cake for 8 people and baking a cake for 9000. I needed that education. I put myself in a bakery atmosphere because I’m thinking I’m hopefully going to open a bakery one day. Hated it! The irony still gets me, to this day.

Kirk Bachmann: I was actually going to ask next if you’d ever open a bakery again. Got that! Got that answer!

Steve Konopelski: The opportunity to work for Claudia was sort of handed to me, and I was like, “I’m taking this because I’m working with Claudia Fleming.” I didn’t care about the restaurant. It was a two-hour commute one-way just to go out to work with her. Did that for an entire year, because I was working for Claudia Fleming. I learned so, so much just from observing her. I say this all the time; I think one of the reasons she’s the best mentor is because she doesn’t know how much of an impact she’s had on my life and on my career. Those are the really great mentors, the ones who have just taught us things just by being themselves, unapologetically you kind of deal.

All of those things I did because I knew what I wanted my business to be, but I also didn’t set these parameters for myself. When we started the bed and breakfast, it was just that. It was just a B&B. Then the necessity for some catering came into our laps. The necessity for wholesale in my environment, my little town, came into our laps. You have to adapt. Adaptability. You have to be able to change. If you say, “I’m opening this bakery that’s only doing this and nothing but,” then you’re going to crash. But if you open up this business with the idea of, “This is where I am now, and if the opportunity presents itself to try something, I’ll grant myself the permission to take that chance. If it works, I’m going to run with it. If it doesn’t work, I’m going to cut it off and shift gears, and try something new.”

We wouldn’t have been able to open our stand-alone bakery if we hadn’t done the B&B first, added the catering, added the couture wedding cakes, added a small little bake shop at the B&B. Then it just kind of kept on snowballing. Eventually, on these paths of life, sometimes the paths are unclear, and we have to take a risk. Other times, there is a billboard, bright neon signs, the heavens have opened up, and you have a whole choreographed situation of the Rockettes pointing you this way. And you’re like, “Well, I guess I better go.” That’s kind of how the bakery kind of was.

Then, throw in all of the Food Network stuff. Wow! All that’s happening. You just have this cacophony of, “Oh my gosh!”

Behind the Scenes of YouTube

Kirk Bachmann: I love it. Great advice. It comes back to living in the moment. Absolutely.

Let’s talk about the Sweet Life of Steve. Obviously, infectious personality. Quite articulate. Passionate about life. It’s even more evident when you watch your YouTube show, the Sweet Life of Steve. There’s the plug, Chef.

Steve Konopelski: Like and subscribe. Like and subscribe.

Kirk Bachmann: Like and subscribe. It’s clear that you love baking and cooking and entertainment. And I quote, “Brownies are not a cake. Brownies are brownies.” I love that. Yet again, another pivot in your career. Was that an opportunity, YouTube? What about YouTube drew you in? We talked about the set and all that previously. What was it about YouTube? It’s a long way from Broadway.

Steve Konopelski: It is, and at the same time, it’s right next door. The thing about YouTube is it’s the platform for you to tell your story the way you want to tell your story without interference from anything else. Of course, it would be great to work for a network and whatever, but I also understand that there’s a business there. You don’t really get to be creatively expressive because there’s a demographic that you have to fill in, and the sponsors, and the million other things. You’re just at the end of the day, you’re a trained monkey in front of a thing coughing out what you’ve been told to do.

I think YouTube was so much more attractive because that’s my place to tell my story, and there will be audience for that. There will be people, also, that hate it. And that’s fine. Click the next video. No one’s twisting your arm.

Kirk Bachmann: You have a choice.

Steve Konopelski: It was an opportunity to be unapologetically me and share my passion, or rather “sheh-heh-er” my passion of baking and just stupidity and everything with an audience.

Kirk Bachmann: But there’s a lot more work that goes into it. Just some of the pausing, the editing, the funnies, getting the camera just right. I’ve noticed, too, you’re not hesitating. You’re looking right into that camera. You want your audience to eat you up. That’s not easy. it’s sort of branding. This would be the question for those who are aspiring to do something, to be influencers like that. Any advice on creating your brand? Because I’m sure that needs to be consistent. That needs to be who you are. It needs to be authentic. It needs to be real. It needs to be fun. But I imagine that’s not easy.

Steve Konopelski: No. It’s not. I will say, get some advice or guidance from a professional source. The Sweet Life of Steve is actually produced by a production company. That’s not my cell phone camera that’s filming all of that. We hired a production company that we happened to be very good friends with. It was an exercise for them, because they actually produce documentary films. We were like, “We want a chance to step outside of our comfort zone and try something different and be able to say, Hey, we can also do this.” All of the animation and the underscoring and all of that stuff, that was all done by the production company. We had lots of meetings about, I’d like it be like this. They’re realistically, we can kind of do it like this. I think if you want to play the long game, it’s important to get some guidance from somebody who that’s their industry. That’s what they’re there for.

You definitely need to be honest and true to yourself, because being fake reads immediately.

Kirk Bachmann: And they click out.

Steve Konopelski: And they click out.

The other thing, I think, is don’t try to replicate something that’s already out there. Be you! Be, again, unapologetically you, because the world already has an everybody else. The world doesn’t have a Steve.

Kirk Bachmann: Is there a milestone? A lot of work goes into a 25-second TikTok and people are swiping, swiping, swiping, but before you know it: a million views. Two million views. Can you get over your skis by worrying about the end result versus just being in the moment and really getting it right for you, first?

Steve Konopelski: I think you have to do. There is a marketability that has to go out there. You have to understand what your lane is. That’s where the things like the appropriate hashtag comes into play. What’s trending. What’s tracking. There is all sorts of data about when is the best time of day to post. There’s all of these algorithms now and you have to understand how that works in order to catch the wave.

Kirk Bachmann: Put yourself in a good position.

Steve Konopelski: It’s not just about coughing something out, but it’s coughing something out at the correct time with the correct search engine optimized whatevers. Hashtags, all that business, tagging people, getting it in front of already influencers that can help fast-track it. I think, ultimately, that was a bit of the demise of the success of Sweet Life of Steve. We had hoped it would track a lot more, but it was launched at a very bad news cycle time. All of the stuff that was out there was inundating everything, so you couldn’t crack through the noise.

Kirk Bachmann: Timing is everything.

Steve Konopelski: Timing really is everything. And also not getting super hung up about it. At the end of the day, we created it because I wanted to create it and have that opportunity to tell my story. If 12 bazillion people hear my story, fantastic. But if 12 people hear my story and they’re really touched by that, that’s also pretty super amazing as well.

The Burden and Blessing of Mentoring

Kirk Bachmann: That works, too. That’s a good way to approach life, too.

Let me say, first and foremost, that we’re fortunate that you’re with us at Escoffier. You’ve been an instructor for us for some time now. It’s really important, from my position, that our instructors are mentors. Have this real world experience in whatever field it’s in, to share their stories. To be a great storyteller, because I believe, and I’m sure you do, that it enriches a student’s education to hear those stories. How do you bring your life experiences, your advice, your ups, your downs into the classroom? Do you have to measure every class before you go a certain route?

Steve Konopelski: I kind of go in to each class with these are the things that I want to talk about. I’ve been fortunate enough. I’ve been teaching cakes especially for a while now. I already kind of understand where the ebbs and flows in the material are. I know what week is traditionally a little more challenging for students than another week might be. I prep them. I say, “this is what we’re getting into.” I’m honest and real with them. I don’t try to be somebody else. I conduct myself with a sense of decorum, but I also crack ‘80s references left, right, and center, because of course that’s my time. Whenever I am going to put my screen up, I “sheh-heh-er” my screen. I just have Chef Steve-isms. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Kirk Bachmann: Humor is beautiful.

Steve Konopelski: Humor is beautiful.

I cry with my students a lot. My week six, inevitably. I tell them, “Bring the Kleenex, because we’re going there.” I really open up to them. I talk to them about how proud I am of them and their accomplishes. My heart breaks for so many of these students because because they’re all on their own. Again, in this online form that we have, they have the luxury of being able to do things in their own space and their own time, and they have the hardship of carrying the burden of everything by themselves. So many of them are either embarrassed or ashamed or scared to reach out for help. The amount of phone calls and messages I get about this, that, or whatever.

Emotionally, I did not know the gravity of the burden of trying to be the mentor that each one of these amazing people deserves. Meeting each one of them where they are in their journey at that specific time is a real emotional toll. I am so fortunate that many students let me into their personal struggles. I want to reach out and I want to shake some of them. “You don’t have to do this alone! Just because the setting is you’re by yourself, you’re not by yourself.” I try to make it so apparent to them that I will be your champion. I will stand in the corner, and I will root for you until the end of time. When everything else feels like the world is collapsing around you, you just have to know that Chef Steve is on your side. And maybe, maybe that one little thought is just enough to know, I’m going to keep going. Or maybe it’s enough to say, I need to stop. I need to rest. I need to take a pause. I need to gain the strength and energy that I need in order to go over this next barrier.

What I tell them all the time is, when life feels challenging, look at everything that you have overcome to get to exactly where you are now. Realize that you and you alone did that. You had outside help. Maybe you even had divine inspiration, but at the end of the day, you’re the one that made the decision to take the next step forward. Then you grant yourself the permission to go, No, I’m going to keep on going. Because that has been my journey, and I want them to know that no matter what the world throws at you, you can overcome it because of everything you’ve overcome to this point.

I get asked all the time, “Do you regret the bullying, the lack of support, the everything?” No. If I could go back and talk to five-year-old Steve, I would just tell him that there is a huge amount of adversity facing you, a lot of self doubt, a lot of everything. But trudge through the crap, because it is going to be worth it and you’re going to become this amazing person because of all of that adversity. So now when adversity comes to me, I don’t wallow in self-pity. I don’t wish it away. I stare it down the face and say, “Bring it on! You think that this? I’ve coughed up scarier things than you!”

Kirk Bachmann: Beautifully said. We’re fortunate to have you. Our students are fortunate to have you. Toni would be proud, as I am. Thank you, thank you for that.

I have to ask the question, because Colette teed it up. Baking – art or science?

Steve Konopelski: I think baking itself is 100 percent science. I’m going to disagree with Colette a little bit. She’s probably going to find me afterwards and we’re going to have fisticuffs in the parking lot. I’m going to disagree with Colette. Baking is 100 percent science. Presentation is 100 percent art, with a science chaser. Because you can’t present things unless you understand the technique that is needed to present it. But you have to let the artistic side take over at some point. I think that the act of baking is 100 percent science. I think the act of presentation is like 95 percent art, with a science chaser.

Chef Steve’s Ultimate Dish

Kirk Bachmann: Brilliant. I’m calling Wikipedia. We’re changing it tonight.

One final question. The name of the podcast, Chef, is The Ultimate Dish. You can say anything you want. It could be dinner around the table with the family. But in your mind, what is the ultimate dish? Tough question.

Steve Konopelski: That’s the hardest question of all! I’m just going to speak a little metaphorically instead of being like “pasta.” I think the ultimate dish has to have a side of food nostalgia, a main component of where you are right now, and a dessert of what is yet to come. I think that is representation of exactly where you are in the present moment.

So whatever that might be for yourself, I think that’s the ultimate dish. Having something to reflect on where you’ve been and the joys that have carried to where you are at this point. A big helping of where I am right now, and a finisher of what is yet unexplored and untasted, and just riding. Ride that. Relish every single bite of it.

Kirk Bachmann: I am absolutely not surprised by your response at all. I absolutely love it. Calling Wikipedia on that as well. The Sweet Life of Steve. Chef, thank you so much. This has been emotionally beautiful. I really appreciate your time, and I hope you come see us again.

Steve Konopelski: Thank you so, so much for having. I was so excited from the moment you reached out and said, “Hey, would you be interested?” Of course! Of course, I would be interested. Thanks, everybody for watching and listening. Thank you again, Chef, for being such a gracious host and allowing me an opportunity to just give a teaspoon. I take everything now in culinary measurements. To give just about a tablespoon and a half of some of my story. Granting everyone, granting all of us here at the hallowed halls of Escoffier the opportunity to “sheh-heh-er” our dish with you.

Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely perfect, and thank you for sharing the spotlight.

And thank you for listening to the Ultimate Dish podcast, brought to you by Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Visit escoffier.edu/podcast, where you’ll find any materials mentioned during the podcast, including notes, links and other resources. You can also browse other episodes and subscribe.

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