After a successful performing career on Broadway, Radio City and more, Steve Konopelski hung up his dancing shoes to purse a career in pastry arts. His journey has led him to opening Turnbridge B & B, and more recently to entertaining audiences on Food Network's "Holiday Baking Championship". Having known Steve since our ballet school days at RWB, I was curious to hear how his skills as a dancer have translated into pastry. This is the final part of a three part series.
KM When you are looking at cake and are, let's say - "developing it's character" how do you see the cake?
SK I concentrate a lot on scope - is it a three tier or four tier, then what is the appropriate size ratio. For example: if it's a smaller cake it shouldn't have these big flowers on it. Everything needs to be...
KM In proportion.
SK Exactly. Proportion is definitely something I focus on a lot. I also try to find out, where is your eye going to focus? Everything needs to have a center, even if that center is deliberately off center. There always needs to be a point of focus, and everything expands from that. I also really try to make sure the cake has movement - that it's decorated in such a way that it has flow and fluidity, and that everything makes sense.
The cake also needs to look as if it belongs in whatever party it's at. It can't be an eyesore that stands out because it doesn't belong. It's a cast member that belongs in the show with everybody else. If someone comes to me and says we really want a Batman cake for a wedding but it's at the Plaza - how do we then make Batman still belong at a wedding that's dripping diamonds and crystals? That's something that's very important to me.
For me, this seems like the natural way to approach things. Maybe some of that comes from being trained as an ensemble member. That's why I've always loved that term - corps de ballet - because you are the body of the piece. No one person is more important than anyone else, meaning, you can't stand out more than anybody else. You have to belong with everyone else in the collective whole. To me, that's how a wedding should be. The collective whole is what makes it so beautiful. That's how I approach cake. It all has to really fit together. I love that, it's so much fun for me, that whole character development, in that I am making something that has to be part of the show.
KM I love that. I think that's true too, once you've been a dancer and your brain has been rewired that way, you start seeing the whole world through that particular lens.
SK Yes, and I don't think people are necessarily training dancers for their life after dancing. I never went to any transitional seminars so I don't know how much it's talked about, which is why I appreciate this conversation so much. Dancers have a career that doesn't have longevity, and it really needs to be pointed out more and more that - you can take everything you've learned in the studio and it does translate to so many different careers and aspects of life after dance. Placing emphasis on the importance of technique and repetition will make you successful in any career.
KM As dancers, we always say we come home to the barre. Where is your "barre" now?
SK (laughing) Does anybody else say that aside from Mr. Moroni? Because that makes me instantly think of him, he would always say that - come home to the barre.
As a chef, I don't have as much of a regimented "barre" as you do in the dance world. But I think for me, a few of the things that really are key and basic are: rolling dough, so the rolling pin is my barre; the piping bag is my bar, because there really is a basic technique involved in piping.
Knife skills too - as a pastry chef I don't cut as much as say, a culinary chef would, but I think your knife skills really is the barre - you're wielding a sharp piece of steel that really, at any time, could take your finger off. So you still need to wield it with technique, it's not something that you would ever tune your brain out from. It is the same thing with doing a tendu - you should never shut your brain off and start to do your taxes or think about what I am going to have for dinner ? I'm always "in class" because I'm still working that basic technique.
KM What has been the most surprising discovery you've made about yourself and your journey in the last five to ten years?
SK That it's important to allow yourself to have new dreams. That's it's okay to close the door on some of your dreams. It's a real fine line between quitting and allowing yourself to find joy in doing something else. I think that's one of the scariest things in career changers - especially with dancers because of how you say, this experience has been a part of our identification from a kid on.
If you would have asked me six years ago if I was going to stop performing and do something else, the answer would have been no. I would have said I'm doing this forever! I'm going to have seven Broadway shows and I'm going to win a Tony! All of those sort of things that as a performer you dream about. And it's fine to have those dreams. I also think that it is okay to start to allow yourself to have different dreams and to pursue those instead. I think that has been one of my biggest discoveries.
Everyone also needs to have validation. One of the reasons I applied for the Food Network show was to confirm to myself exactly that - I did make the right decision? Was retirement the right thing for me? Through the process of the show I finally got into the mindset that, regardless of whatever the outcome was going to be - I am so proud of what I have accomplished. That was the biggest joy of the Food Network competition for me - that I finally knew that I had made the right choice and that I chose the right career for me.
A lot of people are always asking me, do you regret retiring? I can honestly say the answer is no. The reasons are because of what we've been talking about. I haven't lost anything as a dancer - I've brought all of that with me, so I'm not missing anything.
I think that's where the whole retirement question and scare actually comes into play - will I have an audience next time? Will I have an emotional connection, will I be able use my technique?
The answer is yes. I have all of that where I am right now. So I don't miss it at all, I truly don't. If your heart is in it, you are never in the wrong place.