Chef of the Year: Alex Chen

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Alex Chen has an understated way about him. In between filming his new, unnamed show with Food Network Canada, Chen discussed his personal and professional approach to life.

“I just want to continue to evolve. It’s about continuous learning and growing.” It’s this insatiable curiosity, coupled with what Chen describes as his “guiding intuition” that have led him to become one of the greatest chefs Canada has ever known — while at the same time remaining humble amidst the accolades. His trademarks? Classic French cuisine with a twist and masterful attention to detail.

Since the age of 13, when his family immigrated to Vancouver from Malaysia, Chen’s raw ambition and strong intuition led him down a path to becoming the legendary chef he is today. At just 43 years old, his résumé speaks for itself: Chen is a 2018 Iron Chef Canada winner on the inaugural episode of the Food Network Canada series; a team leader of Team Canada’s top-10 finish at the 2013 Bocuse d’Or in Lyon, France; a Gold Medal Plate, B.C. regional champion at the 2015 and ’17 editions; a gold-medal winner at the national 2018 Canadian Culinary Championships; a Chef of the Year title at the Vancouver Magazine Restaurants Awards; and the acclaimed co-founder of Vancouver’s Boulevard Kitchen & Oyster Bar (with renowned chef and friend Roger Ma) in 2014.

The restaurant, which sits within the The Sutton Place Hotel Vancouver, marks the first time Chen designed his own restaurant — from inception to construction to rollout. The Boulevard Kitchen & Oyster Bar — a fine-dining haven with a seafood focus — holds 290 seats if you include the Gerard Lounge and private dining rooms attached and features an oyster bar at its centre. Italian-marble bar tops, antique chandeliers and elegant, U-shaped, leather banquettes allow for privacy while dining.

Chen remembers his mother and grandmother as big influences in the kitchen, however, he quickly ventured out and began working in restaurants as a young teen in 1989. “My parents were not wealthy,” says Chen. “At a very early age, I wanted independence. I had pride. I didn’t want to ask them for money anymore. It was a situation, as immigrants, where everyone had to pitch in.”

Chen began working at McDonald’s at just 13 and needed a permit to do so. “I had always loved cooking with my family, but it wasn’t until my late teens that I decided I really loved this,” says Chen. “The energy just grabbed me and invited me in. It was what I was always meant to do. It’s just how I was wired.”

Chen’s father worked as an engineer and project manager for the Shangri-La Group — the Singapore-based hotel and restaurant company — so he wasn’t completely unfamiliar with the hospitality industry. “My dad would bring me into these hotels at a young age,” says Chen. “You would see the huge lobbies, the tall ceilings, the incredible interiors and it was just like ‘wow’.”

After high school, he began “slinging” fish and chips, though he didn’t take the job too seriously, but he did have an awakening of sorts. “I realized I wanted to learn more,” he explains. “I was craving a real chef’s education and a sort of higher learning.” Chen started to look up restaurants in the phone book (“Google and the internet didn’t exist back then”). He started calling random places inquiring about work, but during the January slump, post-Christmas, no one was hiring.

It wasn’t until he met Joe Wong, the executive chef at Top of Vancouver, a revolving restaurant, that Chen was given the opportunity to work in a professional kitchen. During this formative year and a half, he also registered in the culinary program at Vancouver Community College, graduating a month before his class. “Because of my earlier restaurant experiences, I had already acquired amazing knife skills. I was able to butcher and break down fish,” says Chen. “But it was also a great program for me to accelerate my learning. I was making consumes and taking it all in.”

It was during his college years that a fellow student handed him a tape for Iron Chef Japan. “It was a complete revelation for me. I was like — what the hell is this?” laughs Chen. “I had goosebumps. My heart was pounding. It was like I was bitten by the bug to compete.” Chen entered a culinary competition at the end of his college year for the Vancouver Chef’s Association in the College Category and won first place. “I think it was salmon,” Chen recalls. “And I remember I just totally went for it. I had the inner intuition to push forward and to keep practicing and perfecting my craft.”

As he kept winning in local competitions, he also apprenticed under renowned chefs and culinary pioneers Robert Sulatycky and Bruno Marti. “Marti was like the godfather of French cuisine, so I studied with him,” says Chen. “I knew it was putting an investment back into myself.” After working with Marti, Chen moved to Toronto with his then girlfriend (now wife) to work at the Four Seasons with Sulatycky. He also worked under chef Lynn Crawford for close to a year.

It was at the Four Seasons that Chen learned how to manage the volume of 300 to 400 covers in a single night. “I was this young kid and made a lot of mistakes. I was overwhelmed by the size and scope of the job,” says Chen. “But I worked harder, put in more hours and continued to build and nurture the relationships with my staff until I finally got the rhythm of it.” He says a talented chef managing a complex and multi-layered system like that of the Four Seasons must have “poise under pressure” and the communications skills to hold or stop orders to ensure smooth service to hundreds of people.

Executive chef of the Boulevard Kitchen & Oyster Bar, Roger Ma, spoke of Chen’s temperament. “In the kitchen, he’s very organized. I would say he’s very demanding, but also very fair,” says Ma. “He also brings a sense of humor to the kitchen and that’s a rare quality in a chef — the ability to make people laugh. When staff are grinding for 12 to 14 hours a day, sometimes it takes one little smile to get some relief and Chen can give that.”

Ma and Chen also bonded over their food philosophy. “We’re very similar in the way we approach food,” says Ma. “I come from classic French cuisine, especially after working at Daniel [Daniel Boulud’s flagship restaurant in New York] for so long. We both embrace that classic, timeless cuisine, but reinvent it in some way.”

One classical dish that Chen continues to reinvent is the terrine, a French layered loaf of different ingredients and distinct flavours. “Obsession continues with building terrine,” says Chen. “The process is calming. You can’t make beautiful terrine if you are in a rush.” Some of Chen’s most famous terrines have incorporated seafood such as shrimp, Dungeness crab and scallops. Ma explains, “When you cut open the terrine, it looks like this beautiful mosaic.”

However, what garnered Chen the title of Canada’s top chef at the 2018 Canadian Culinary Championships (now rebranded as Canada’s Great Kitchen Party) was a unique parfait of wild B.C. shellfish, ‘chowder’, Northern Divine caviar and bull-kelp ‘brioche.’ The head of the judging committee described it as including “the whole Pacific Ocean.” “Chen made a rich chowder stock from the Geoduck clams, a type of clam specific to the Pacific coast,” says Ma. “And then served it in caviar tins, with tiny leek and celery on top, sprinkled with bits of fresh sea urchin, clam, shrimp and Dungeness crab, then topped with a dollop of caviar.”

With all the accolades, Chen says what he values most is his time with family — his wife and two kids, ages eight and 10. He not only takes them into his professional kitchens, but also cooks with them at home. “I also like to bring my family to events,” says Chen. “I like for them to see what dad does.”

At the end of the interview, Chen speaks with gravitas about how age has deepened his understanding of his role. “I now understand the responsibility of the word ‘chef’,” he says. “It’s more than just cooking. I now understand how my words can have a big effect on some kid’s life who’s just started in the kitchen. I’m part of their development, their views on an entire industry, on their ability to pay rent. I’m the father figure, the coach, the big brother.”

Chen prides himself on coaching his chefs through various competitions. Two of his chefs are recipients of the Hawksworth Young Chef Scholarship (in 2017 and 2018), an annual national competition. “When they win, I win,” says Chen, smiling.

Chen has also given back. Recently he contributed to Food Stories: A Cookbook for a Cause — with 100 per cent of the profits going to A Better Life Foundation, an organization that makes meals for people in need. Chen has also volunteered his time to cook at a fundraiser for the Nicolas Sonntag Marine Education Centre, which helps to sustain the ecosystem of Howe Sound, B.C. In 2018, Chen also volunteered at the Freggie Children’s Program, showing 30 grade 5/6 students how to assemble a perfect spring salad and chop veggies.

For the future, he says there are plans on the table to expand, though he won’t say when or where. But, no matter where he goes, Chen’s commitment to up-and-coming chefs will remain consistent: “I’m in the role of building up, rather than breaking down — a layered composite of dedication, passion and creativity: something like a terrine.”

Written by Jennifer Febraro

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