When you start to follow a dream, you never know what direction it might take you. More importantly, you never know what new dreams will awaken within. No one knows more about that than chef Steve Konopelski. In his formative years, Steve fell head over heels for the world of dance. His love for the performing arts would lead him from the tiny Canadian town of Mayfair, located in Saskatchewan, to the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School. It was there he immersed himself in his craft in pursuit of realizing his dream of becoming a professional dancer.
His hard work, determination, and dedication paid off and he soon found himself performing in a variety of shows throughout the United States, including stints on cruise ships and several variety shows across the USA. In 2004, Steve was cast in a production of Guys and Dolls at the acclaimed Paper Mill Playhouse. This was followed by roles in ‘Cats,’ ‘West Side Story’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast’ at other notable regional playhouses. Steve made the leap to Broadway in 2006, with a performance in ‘Hot Feet. Not long after that, he appeared in the Broadway production of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ where he was cast in the role of the Cheese Grater. In 2008, Steve performed in the City Center Encores Series’ production of ‘Gypsy,’ which starred Tony Award-winning actress Patti LuPone. It was around this time when Steve realized a new dream was beginning to materialize and there were chapters in his life yet to be written. In 2011, Steve decided to retire from performing and pursue his passion for baking.
Steve enrolled in the French Culinary Institute, now known as the International Culinary Center. He received top marks in his class on all major projects and graduated in the top in his class in 2012. While still attending culinary school, Steve worked as a pastry cook at the esteemed restaurant, Saxon + Parole in New York City. After graduation, Steve served as a cake decorator at the Garden City Hotel on Long Island. He then went on to serve as assistant to the pastry chef at the prestigious North Fork Table & Inn on Long Island, working under the James Beard Award-winning chef, Claudia Fleming.
In August 2014, Steve and his husband Rob Griffith moved to the Eastern Shore of Maryland to make their new dream a reality. After acquiring a Victorian-era waterfront house in downtown Denton, Steve and Rob renovated all of the guest rooms, added a commercial kitchen and opened their doors in May of 2015 — Turnbridge Point was born! The beautifully unique establishment has quickly earned a reputation for providing an outstanding guest experience. In addition to rave reviews by their guests, Steve and Rob were recently honored by the Caroline County Chamber of Commerce with an award naming them “Entrepreneurs of the Year.” The most exciting part of their story is that it has only just begun! In addition to running the B&B, Steve also designs wedding cakes for brides and grooms throughout the Mid-Atlantic region, operates Turnbridge Point’s catering business, hosts a monthly Sunday brunch, and continues to share his love of baking by teaching classes throughout the year.
Jason Price and Katy North of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with Steve Konopelski and Rob Griffith at Turnbridge Point to discuss the unique journey that brought them to Denton, Maryland, the challenges of bringing this unique B&B to life, Steve’s time as one of the most ambitious competitors on Food Network’s ‘Holiday Baking Championship’, and what the future holds for them and Turnbridge Point!
You know your way around the kitchen and your love of cooking led you to big things. Where did that chapter of your life begin and what are your earliest memories of being in the kitchen?
Steve Konopelski: One of my earliest memories as a child was watching my grandmother cooking in her kitchen. I am from a Ukrainian background so I was able to see my grandmother make perogies on a weekly basis. I remember her rolling out the dough on the counter and cutting them with a sort of big machete type knife. I remember that very fondly. My mother was also quite the homemaker. She baked everything from scratch. We had a huge garden and, during the summertime, there were always fresh vegetables and lots of canning. Growing up, it was second nature to me to always see something being made from scratch. She taught all of us how to cook and how to bake. It was something that was always very familiar to me and was something I just grew up doing. My father did a lot of baking as well. My mother had taught him how to make bread and that was his thing. He would make bread at least once a week. He would cook breakfast for us a lot. When I grew up and went away to college, I was so shocked by how many people I would meet that didn’t know how to cook! [laughs] I had just assumed everyone else grew up the same way I did! I grew up in a household where something was always being made from scratch.
You spent the early part of your life as an accomplished dancer. What brought you to the arts?
Steve Konopelski: My father had been a musician when he was young. Music was another thing we also grew up with in our house. He played the accordion and he had taught himself. I remember, as a kid, he would bring out his accordion and play and we would all dance and skip around. My mother, in order to make Saturday morning chores more fun, would put on her Elvis Presley records. It wasn’t really chores at that point, it was dancing and skipping about! [laughs] When I was about 7 years old, the girl who was my babysitter had taken dance lessons. We went to see her dance recital and I said to my mom, “I want to do this. I want to take the dance classes.” She reluctantly put my sister and I into a jazz class. We loved it! It really helped me with my coordination. Apparently, I was quite an uncoordinated, gangly child! [laughs] It helped me with my coordination, which helped me with the sports I was playing as a kid. The following year, she put us into jazz and tap and it progressed from there. It was something I just fell in love with! Once I hit the 12-year-old mark, I started doing summer workshops and programs. I was trying to find other places to get more training. A teacher of mine had pointed my mother and I in the direction of professional ballet school. I auditioned for the National Ballet of Canada and Royal Winnipeg Ballet. I got accepted for the summer program of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. After the summer program, they accepted me to their year long program and I went into their conservatory program. I did that for three years and that really helped me see that dance could be a full-time and professional career. Up until that point I had assumed all dancers had a day job! I assumed they were all architects or doctors or something during the day and then they danced and performed at night! [laughs] My eyes were opened and I could see dance could be a full-time career. While I was at ballet school, I made the decision that I didn’t want to pursue the classical ballet route. I still wanted to be a professional dancer in some capacity, so I started looking more toward musical theater. I did a few auditions and got a few musical theater jobs. I auditioned for the German company of “Cats,” which was a great experience for me. That is what sent me down the path that would eventually lead me to New York City.
What are some of the highlights of the dance chapter of your life? What stands out to you as milestones?
Steve Konopelski: There are plenty of highlights from my dance chapter! One would be performing “Don Quixote” while I was in ballet school. It was the 25th anniversary of the school, so they put on an entire three-act ballet. It included an orchestra and it was fantastic! That was the first time I felt like I was a professional. My Broadway debut in New York was a huge accomplishment for me. I also performed at Radio City Music Hall in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. Most prevalent in my mind is being part of the company of “Gypsy” starring Patti LuPone. That, for me, was my crowning achievement as a Broadway performer. It was a fantastic production. Everything about it was quintessential music theater at its finest. It was at that moment, once the show had close, that I started considering retirement. I felt I would never recreate that experience. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity and I felt very comfortable and satisfied by that. I didn’t feel the need to have more Broadway shows under my belt. I felt I had a really great career and wanted to finish on a high note. That is what led me to consider what I would do with my next step in life.
When did you realize becoming a world class baker was the next venture you would pursue?
Steve Konopelski: “Gypsy” closed around 2009. I did another three years of doing some regional stuff here and there. I began to research schools and looked at almost all of the culinary schools in Manhattan. I sat in on classes and really tried to figure out what would be the best fit for me. I spoke with chefs and even wrote people I had seen on television. [laughs] I actually sent Facebook messages to them asking them their thoughts on culinary school because I had read a lot of things saying, “You need culinary school” or “You don’t need culinary school!” This was a whole new world for me, so I wanted to get as much information as I could. About three years of research went into it and a slight stubbornness because there is always a little part of you that is holding onto the dream. I finally had to get to the moment where I was allowing myself to have new dreams and to pursue those.
At what point did you meet Rob, your husband and business partner?
Steve Konopelski: Rob and I met in January of 2007. I was doing “Beauty and The Beast” on Broadway. Rob was there to see my highs as a performer, my unemployment as a performer and my travels across the country to do little shows here and there as a performer! [laughs] He was even there for my decision to take on a new career path. He stuck by me through all of that!
Are there parallels between the culinary world and the world of performance art?
Steve Konopelski: There are actually a lot of parallels, which I think has made it very easy for me. I get people asking me all the time if I miss performing. The answer is no! The reason that I don’t is that I have used almost every skill that I have learned as a dancer or performer, and have had them translate into the kitchen. I can give you a couple of examples of that. First, as a dancer, muscle memory is incredibly important. Part of our learning and training as a dancer is to be able to see something only a few times and to be able to replicate it. Those are important skills in the kitchen. You can read a recipe on how to make a croissant but, until you are actually rolling out the dough and really get to feel what it feels like, you don’t really know what you are doing. The muscle memory is a key thing for me. In culinary school or with any chef I have worked with, repetition and being able to replicate is a really, really important skill. Spacial awareness is something you are trained with as a dancer. It is about knowing where you are, how much space you are going to take up as you are doing a certain amount of movement so you don’t run into somebody else. At the same time, you also know how much space they are going to take up with their movement so they don’t run into you. Knowing what you are doing, what they are doing and what everyone around you is doing is a very important skill to have in the kitchen. The kitchen is really, really tight. If I am turning around with a knife in my hand and there is a guy getting ready to run past, you want to be aware of that! You want to be aware of everything that is going on. In the restaurant I worked in before we came to Denton, Md., a lot of times things would be in the oven but the other person in the pastry department was off doing something else. Knowing that she was working on a specific thing about five minutes ago, I knew to check on it because she may not be back in the time it will be done. I needed to be able to pick up with whatever task was halfway completed, finish it and carry on with my work. I also knew that if I stepped away, it would be completed because my colleague was on the exact same page as me.
Rob and yourself created something very special with your bed and breakfast, Turnbridge Point. How rewarding has the experience been for you? I am sure it has been quite a challenge!
Steve Konopelski: For me, it is fun being your own boss and being able to create something …
Rob Griffith: Technically, I am your boss.
Steve Konopelski: Rob is my boss, except when we are in the kitchen! He does have a jacket that says sous chef and it is hung slightly lower than my jacket! [laughs] I’m not kidding! We are getting to create something here that is really and truly from our own imagination. We had a vision and we got to build it from the ground up. There really wasn’t much here at all when we started except for a gorgeous building and an opportunity. That was it. It has been very rewarding to create something, see it through, and watch it grow!
Turnbridge Point is located on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in Denton, Md. I am sure you looked far and wide for the perfect location to start a business. What made this the right area to bring your vision to life?
Rob Griffith: This wasn’t the only place we looked. We looked at places from Bel Air to Cambridge and further West. We were looking in Maryland generally. This house wasn’t even on our radar and it was our real estate agent who picked it up. We had been looking at properties with more acreage. We were looking at properties that had over an acre so our guests would have room to wander around. This property is slightly under an acre, so it never made the cut when we would do an online search. When we came out to the property to look around, we loved that it was located right in the middle of town and our guests could wander around if they wanted to. We loved the fact that the river was in the backyard and it isn’t something you are going to find in many places for an affordable amount of money. It is so peaceful back there! Those were the two big things. The area was perfectly situated! When we started to look here, it was made known to us that making the decision to have a bed and breakfast here would be supported by the town and the county. That is not something you can find anywhere else or that is verbalized to someone who is looking at a house. It is scary to go into a different area to start a bed and breakfast not knowing if they would approve us, but here everyone approached us and said, “Please do it!” It is nice to know your business is going to be supported and things will move along in the right direction when you start up. Those were all big pluses!
What were some challenges with bringing this amazing property to life as a bed and breakfast?
Rob Griffith: I guess, in the beginning, it was the process of coordinating everything that had to be done between contractors, the health department, planning and zoning, the fire marshall …
Steve Konopelski: All of the things they don’t tell you about when you are opening a new business!
Rob Griffith: Yeah! It was overwhelming at first with the long list of things we had to do. At some point, maybe in December of that first year, we questioned if it was going to work out.
Steve Konopelski: There was a moment of, “Is this even worth it?” Luckily, the end was in sight so we just kept trucking for a little bit.
Rob Griffith: There was always a surprise.
Steve Konopelski: It always seemed like whenever we had signed the last application for something, we had to go in front of some other committee or write another check.
Rob Griffith: For example, we needed fire sprinklers but had to re-hook them up to the street and they couldn’t run off of our water, so we had to dig the street up.
Steve Konopelski: It was always something and it made us wonder if it was ever going to happen!
Rob Griffith: We were blessed with an incredible contractor!
Steve Konopelski: We were!
Rob Griffith: When work started, that was the best part! It was the challenge of getting to that point that was hard. We had many contractors come in and some wouldn’t even consider taking on the project. I would say more than half of the contractors we had look at the project said no. Even some of the fire sprinkler people said no. It was like, “OK. I don’t know what to do now!” [laughs] How do you find someone after everyone says no!
Steve Konopelski: There was a moment where it seemed like we were just going to have a really nice big house and that was going to be it! [laughs] It wouldn’t have been the worst thing in the world but it isn’t what we wanted to achieve.
Rob Griffith: Part of the problem with getting the people to do the work was that we were bigger than a simple kitchen renovation and smaller than a big construction project that some of the contractors take on. I think that scared some of the little guys and some of the big guys thought it wouldn’t be worth their time.
Steve Konopelski: Yes. We fell right into the pocket of too big and too small …
Rob Griffith: We did end up finding someone great!
All of the hard work paid off and you have a beautiful space. Tell us a little bit about what you offer at Turnbridge Point and what makes it unique.
Steve Konopelski: Obviously, we offer a bed and a breakfast, which are key things in a bed and breakfast! [laughs] We think of ourselves as more of a boutique hotel than a typical B&B. We really enjoy playing concierge. When guests come in, we have a variety of things to choose from, listed on our website, to add to their stay. There is anything from breakfast in bed, to cakes for special occasions, to flowers. We have partnerships with a lot of businesses in town. For example, that allows a guest to purchase their four-course, prefixed meal through us and go right to Harry’s On The Green and have their dinner there. We can also set a guest up with a manicure, pedicure, facial or massage. We also have kayaks out in the backyard. There is a lot of stuff that we will take care of for you and you can pay for through the website, www.turnbridgepoint.com. That is great because when you get here, you are just going through all of the stuff you have already planned out. We are always trying to discover more and more fun things to do within an hour radius of our location. It seems like just when we feel we have discovered everything, we will have a guest who wants to do something even more different than what we currently offer. That drives us to find even more unique things to do in the area. There are snacks when the guests arrive and they get fresh baked chocolate chip cookies in the evening before they go to bed. Then they wake up in the morning we have a great little breakfast for them when they wake up!
Rob Griffith: It’s not little either!
Steve Konopelski: Yes! It is actually quite a big, gourmet breakfast! That is basically how being a guest at Turnbridge Point works. We also do small catered events here. We have done bridal showers, baby showers, rehearsal dinners, lunch meetings and, over the holidays, we did quite a few Christmas parties. We cater all of those things! We have also had people who have rented out the house for a big cocktail party. Their friends will come over here. It works for so many people because they don’t have to worry because we handle the cooking and cleaning. It offers them and their friends a chance just to hang out and enjoy the moment. At Turnbridge Point, we also offer brunch. Which has become a huge thing for us.
Rob Griffith: That was by request. It had spread through town that we were going to be doing brunches before we even decided we were going to be doing brunches. [laughs]
Steve Konopelski: I had a few people say to me, “I heard you are doing brunches!” I was like, “Oh really? We are? When did this happen?” [laughs] It has really been fantastic. Every one of them has been sold out! From the moment we bought the property until construction started, we had a lot of time hoping and praying that this thing would get off the ground. It also gave us time to think about the unique things we could do. We got to know the town and see where the needs were. That is why we started doing the farmers market. We saw there was a need for a bakery here. We are not in the position to do something like that full-time but we can make stuff for Saturday mornings and take it to the farmers market. When we had people ask about brunch, we knew there was a need, which led us to doing brunch.
Rob Griffith: The first time we saw the house, we had come back the next day with my brother and his wife to show them around. We said, “We will go into town and get brunch.” That is when we realized there was no place to have brunch, so it was always something that stuck in our heads as something we could do. It is not always bed and breakfast season, so you have to supplement with the other things we do.
Steve Konopelski: We also do catering off of the property, mostly in the dessert realm. We are doing birthday cakes, wedding cakes and more. Through the website you can order the Kouign-amanns, cinnamon rolls and chocolate chip cookies with a couple days notice and come by and pick them up. That has been a really cool thing, especially during the holidays. Lots of people took advantage of that.
We are doing some classes as well. We are going to sit down over the next few weeks and the spring and summer schedule will go up. We do private classes here, which is something some of the B&B guests have done as a part of their add-on package. We have also had people from the local area come here for private classes to learn how to do something. We will also be adding high tea! We have a few other ideas of things we would like to do that we aren’t quite ready to divulge just yet!
You made your television debut as one of the contestants on Food Network’s “Holiday Baking Championship.” Watching you on the series each week and cheering you on was great and stressful at the same time! [laughs]
Steve Konopelski: It wasn’t stressful for me because I knew what happened! At the same time, it was stressful because I wasn’t sure how it would be edited from week to week.
How did you get involved with the series and did you have reservations about diving into the project?
Steve Konopelski: Last January, I saw a posting on Facebook from a chef that I follow that basically said my, “Reality TV show looking for pastry chefs to submit resume and bio to … ” I had no idea what it was for but I figured what the heck! Why not?! About a month later, the same chef posted something again but this time said it was for the “Holiday Baking Championship” for Food Network. I was glad I had submitted to that but a few months went by and I hadn’t heard anything. For me, it was like a normal audition I had done millions of times as an actor, “OK. Someone else got it. That is fine.” My phone rang one day in April and it was a casting director from Food Network. They said they were interested in talking to me more about the project. From then on it became a weekly process of a phone interview, a Skype interview, making a video of us going through the house or working in the kitchen and so on. Every week I was getting a phone call from someone requesting new information. That went on until the second week of June, which is when I finally got a call that said, “You’re in! Pack your bags because you are leaving in two weeks!” It was scary because I didn’t really know what I was going to have to do. I had watched the previous season and the spring season of “Baking Championship,” so I had an idea of the format but I didn’t know what challenges they would throw my way. It is hard to prepare for something like that. I felt like I had to take everything and hope that something that I have will work for what I am going to do. Then there is the whole unknown of being in a new place, a strange kitchen, and not being able to use the equipment that I had picked or have grown accustomed to using. It is very weird to go to some place and not know exactly where the flour is. In my kitchen, I know exactly where everything is. It might be hard for Rob to find things sometimes but I know exactly where everything is! [laughs]
How did the show impact you on both a personal and professional level?
Steve Konopelski: I think everyone needs to have an opportunity where their limits are tested. That is one of the reasons I even pursued the application process. I think it is very healthy to put yourself into a position where you don’t have any control, to be tested and see if you can rise to that challenge. That is something I was looking forward to having happen to me, to have that personal growth and growth as a chef. I had grown comfortable with the things I was preparing. Sometimes you need that little push to become innovative and to create something new that isn’t something you make on a daily basis or take what you make on a daily basis and change it to make it better or different. For me, that was the real exciting part! As I went on in the challenges and stayed on the show longer, longer and longer, I had the epiphany moment of, “Look how far I have come in this competition. I am proud of myself.” I even had the moment of saying, “Regardless of what the outcome is at the end of this, I am completely satisfied with what I have accomplished!” I didn’t have any of the shoulda, woulda, couldas! It would have been fantastic to have had that big check and it would have definitely paid off some things! [laughs] However, after the show wrapped, I didn’t feel like a loser or that I had lost anything. It was never about the money. It was about something greater than that and I feel like I got all of that! I am so grateful for the process and what I accomplished. I have zero regrets!
With that said, would you do it again? Would you entertain a return to television in some form in the future?
Steve Konopelski: I think it would definitely depend on the format. Would I want to do a competition based thing again? I don’t know. I don’t want to say never because you never know what is going to come around the corner. If it was not in a competition setting, probably yes! [laughs] The stressfulness of the competition environment was very tough. It was hard to watch and poor Rob was just beside himself most episodes!
Rob Griffith: I was beside myself in July too! That was when they were filming. It was very stressful to know he was in an event and I would be watching my watch thinking, “Why hasn’t he called yet? Is he getting eliminated?” I thought you won! After the last episode, he came out and said, “I did really well.” Then it was radio silence for hours! It was so long! [laughs] I think it was 9 p.m. by the time he was finished and finally called me. He said he didn’t win and I wasn’t sure I believed him.
Steve Konopelski: Rob hates surprises but he really, truly believed I was lying to him and it was going to be this big Christmas surprise and I was orchestrating this whole thing to throw him off the scent so I could surprise him at the finale!
You made the show fun and had so many classic lines. One of our favorite sayings while working in the kitchen together these days is, “Hot dish coming through and he’s got a hot plate too.” Your personality really shined through for the show!
Steve Konopelski: Well, thank you! Well done, me! [laughs] I tried not to take myself too seriously in that atmosphere. It was strange because the thing that was not nerve-racking at all to me was the fact I was on a television set. The moment I walked on set and saw the cameras, the A.D.s, the makeup people, the hair people, the grips and everyone else who was there, I knew what all the people’s jobs were. I had been on a lot of TV sets from the things I had done in New York, so it was not foreign to me at all. I think it may be a thing that threw off some of my other competitors. There is an entire world going on around you while you are trying to focus on what you are trying to do. It is very hard to try and ignore that world. From my past experiences, I knew how to ignore it and how to pay attention to it when you need to pay attention to it, like when the camera’s in your face and they are asking you to say something. You can’t freeze up from the beast in front of you. You have to release to it, say your little spiel and go on with your thing. I found that part of it quite easy. It was the nut challenge, it was that stuff that was challenging!
We were so worried for you during the challenges! Also, I yelled for a medic today and nothing happened!
Steve Konopelski: [laughs] The rules are as follows: One must always yell for a medic when in need. You must always call a hot dish coming through and always do a pirouette when successfully baking! These are things everyone should know!
You can serve as an inspiration to so many people with all that you accomplished, whether it be achieving a dream, changing careers or taking on unknown challenges to take your craft to the next level. What is the best lesson we can take from your journey so far?
Steve Konopelski: I think you shouldn’t be afraid to follow a dream and you shouldn’t be afraid to allow yourself to have new dreams and follow them as well. That was a big lesson I had to learn. By allowing yourself to want to do different things, it doesn’t mean you are a failure in other things you are trying to pursue. We have a lot of learning experiences in our lives and sometimes the path we thought we were on rounds the corner and you discover three more paths branching off from the path you were on. I think it is important to not be afraid to take one of those paths and see where it takes you. I also think you should always do something that you love, no matter what that might be and have fun while you are doing it. For us, I feel a big lesson we have learned is that it is OK not to have all of the answers when you are starting something new. With Turnbridge Point, we are making up some of the rules as we go along. We are discovering how our business is evolving and letting it evolve, rather than doing only one thing and staying closed off to other opportunities that may come our way. We are allowing ourselves to evolve organically. I sound like such a hipster! [laughs] But it’s true! Other B&Bs run themselves in totally different ways, but we would like to stay in a place like the one we are running and hopefully other people will too! By creating something that is honestly part of who we are, I think it makes the experience that much better. Nothing that we do here seems forced. Rob and I run this place the way we want to run it and we are not doing anything that isn’t something we wouldn’t appreciate as customers. I think, even though it may not be consciously received by our guests and customers, I think they recognize that. I think they recognize deep down that there is something very fun and unique about what we are doing here. I think they really appreciate that and that’s what makes them want to come back. It is a little bit different here in a great way! An important thing I have learned is not to be afraid to make your own rules and to take a risk!
You have a great vibe going and I know we are excited about what you are bringing to the community! The future is definitely bright at Turnbridge Point!
Steve Konopelski: Thank you, so much!
Rob Griffith: Thank you, Jason!