Stephan Azulay’s Instagram account looks like that of a modern fine-dining restaurant. It’s a grid of intricate, flaky pastries and well-plated dishes dotted with complex gels and purées.
Azulay isn’t a trained chef, but he is a second soloist with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and being a professional dancer comes with a certain level of personal expectation.
"Taking my food as far as I can take it is probably just me being a perfectionist about it," he says. "And that totally comes from the ballet; we try to do everything as best as we can."
Food and dance have been rare constants in Azulay’s life.
Born in London, he lived in Germany, Australia and the United States before landing in Winnipeg in 2016. His father, Antonio Vargas, is a famed flamenco dancer and Azulay has been dancing since he could walk. Ballet became a serious focus in high school and he’s been working professionally since the age of 18.
On top of hours spent in rehearsal studios, his childhood was filled with good food and formative cooking lessons from his parents.
"I was always in the kitchen," Azulay says. "My mom and dad are both unreal cooks and I was definitely spoiled with food growing up."
His Moroccan-born dad taught him how to make authentic paella and other recipes inspired by Spanish flamenco culture, while his mom introduced him to traditional Portuguese pastries and seafood dishes.
Cooking took a back seat while he was in school, but Azulay started playing around in the kitchen again when he joined a dance company in New York.
"I don’t know if it was out of necessity to save money or just out of boredom… but I started cooking a lot more," he says. "It just became a kind of hobby and like any hobby, the more you do it the more fancy it gets.
"Once I got to Winnipeg it was like a bigger thing… a lot more people were surprised by it."
He was living in Las Vegas and dancing with the Nevada Ballet Theatre when he started looking for jobs in Canada — where his then-girlfriend lived and work visas were easier to obtain than in the States. After a slew of auditions, the RWB offered him a position and Winnipeg became home for now.
His first year in the city was a bit lonely and very cold, but he found community in the local food and music scenes. Azulay continued experimenting with recipes in the kitchen of his downtown apartment and learning new cooking techniques online — ChefSteps, a cooking website and foodie forum, is a favourite resource.
On top of dancing full-time and working odd jobs at local cafes and restaurants, Azulay cooks himself meals from scratch every day. Pre-pandemic he was also hosting private dinners for friends and strangers. One of his most ambitious events included seven courses and a full week of prep work, all while he was in the thick of rehearsing for a show.
Where he finds the time is anyone’s guess.
"It’s funny because a lot of ballet dancers hate cooking," he says. "You bust your butt all day and then you come home and you don’t really feel like spending two hours in the kitchen prepping a dish.
"But to me, I enjoy being creative in the kitchen and... I feel like every meal, there’s an opportunity for me to work on a skill of some sort."
Even when it’s self-imposed, the pursuit of perfection and personal growth can be a taxing endeavour.
"I definitely feel the stress in the moment," says Azulay, while talking about a 3 a.m. dinner prep session. "I’m like, ‘Why do I have to make it so fancy?’ But then I see the result and it’s totally worth it. There’s been dinners, not to pump myself up too much, where people will eat and be like, ‘This is literally the best meal I’ve ever had in my life.’"
The coronavirus pandemic brought an abrupt end to dinner parties and slowed his dance schedule. Cooking has been a comforting distraction.
"I’ve been baking like crazy just to keep myself busy," he says. "(And) being in Winnipeg without family or friends to spend Christmas with, it was definitely a good distraction."
While the masses have been toiling with sourdough starters, Azulay has been perfecting croissants, cronuts and canelés, a French pastry with a custard centre. He started posting the creations on his Instagram page (@cookwithsaz) and was soon taking orders from pastry-loving followers.
As is his tendency, he quickly found himself — and his cooking equipment — overextended. Croissants take three days to make and he was coming up with a new variety every weekend, from cheese to chocolate to almond. He decided to pare down the venture after making more than 100 croissants in one weekend.
"That’s over two kilos of butter," he says with a laugh. "I have a studio apartment, there’s no storage space, I have a regular KitchenAid stand mixer, which I’m very thankful to have, but I can only do one double batch at a time and it’s like smoking. I was looking at commercial dough mixers and stuff, but I was like, "Do I want to spend $1,000 on this? It doesn’t seem like a good decision to make."
He still occasionally posts sweets for sale, but Azulay is heading back into rehearsals with the ballet next week and back to cooking fine dining fare for one.
While dance has brought him around the world, food has given him a sense of place.
"Food is more than sustenance, it’s where we come from," Azulay says. "It tastes good, there’s also the art part of it, but more importantly, to me, it’s the culture of everything."
Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.