Photo Credit: KK Law
Photo Credit: KK Law

Alex Chen has lived and worked as a chef in some of the top food destinations in North America – Toronto, Chicago, and Los Angeles – but three years ago, he chose to return to Richmond because as he puts it, “It feels familiar, like home.” Chen, the executive chef at Boulevard Kitchen & Oyster Bar in The Sutton Place Hotel Vancouver (845 Burrard Street, Vancouver), is an enthusiastic unofficial ambassador for Richmond, the city where he and his family proudly live, shop, and eat.

Chen’s story begins in Penang, Malaysia, where he was born and lived until the age of thirteen when his family moved to the Lower Mainland. Graced with a substantial extended family, Chen grew up surrounded by the celebratory food of his mother, aunties, and grandmother. “There was always a bunch of ladies in the kitchen getting mad at each other and still cooking,” he fondly recalls during a phone interview.

He was also shaped by grand meals at the many Shangri-La hotels that his father, a project manager, helped to build. “I remember as a kid going into Asia’s best hotels. I remember the grand entrances, the massive lobbies, all of that luxury. It left a lot of memories,” he says.

Even as a ten-year-old boy adding spices, garlic, and heat to instant noodles, Chen had the imagination and willingness to go beyond the expected. “The rules never applied to me. I always had that drive in me. I wanted to do it my own way,” he explains.

However, it wasn’t until Chen was eighteen, living in Richmond, that he really began to see cooking as a career worth taking seriously. He already had had a taste of the restaurant industry from working as a busboy for the Top Gun Group in the old Aberdeen Centre.

At eighteen, he was working at Shady Island Seafood Bar & Grill (3800 Bayview Street) in Steveston as a line cook and a new chef, Mark Scott, had just joined the restaurant.

Photo Credit: Lauren Kramer
Photo Credit: Lauren Kramer

“I yelled across the kitchen, ‘Hey chef. I need this weekend off to attend graduation.’ The chef looked at me and said, ‘You can take the weekend off. No problem. And, if you really enjoy the sun out there, maybe you shouldn’t come back. Maybe this isn’t for you,” Chen recounts.

Suddenly, Chen realized his immaturity and the need to treat cooking with the respect it deserved. In that instant, everything changed. Chen went on to complete culinary training at Vancouver Community College, as well as work in a host of well-known local establishments, such as the Top of Vancouver Revolving Restaurant, the Wedgewood Hotel, and the former La Belle Auberge in Delta. His impressive resume also includes stints at the Four Seasons Hotels in Chicago and Toronto, and the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

Chen gave up the glamour of these places and a six-figure salary because of his passion for Richmond and for Canada. In 2013, Chen, his wife, and their two kids moved in with his mother-in-law in Richmond so that he could train for the prestigious Bocuse d’Or culinary competition in Lyon, France (top ten finish). “The competition is more than a job, it’s your legacy. You are representing a country, like an Olympian. You give up everything. It was a sacrifice I was willing to make for my country,” he says.

After the competition, in July 2014, Chen helped to open Boulevard, the Sutton Place Hotel’s completely renovated and re-branded restaurant, bringing his unique blend of local and international experience to the menu.

Photo Credit: Steve Li
Photo Credit: Steve Li

Chen is constantly tweaking and coming up with new creations for the restaurant. This season, new refined dinner items include Maple Hill Farms chicken with foie gras, pistachios, corn, chanterelles, young kale, and natural jus; as well as wild salmon with heirloom carrots, celeriac confit, wild rice fricassée, and mustard jus.

Roasted ling cod with manila clams; Photo Credit: Leila Kwok
Roasted ling cod with manila clams; Photo Credit: Leila Kwok

Despite working in downtown Vancouver, Chen and his family continue to call Richmond home. Besides liking the city’s proximity to the airport, Chen adores the food, from restaurants to bakeries, and specialty shops. “I think you’re in Asian food heaven in Richmond. There’s no way you’re able to get that variety of Asian restaurants in one location anywhere else. It’s impossible. It’s so abundant,” he says.

Chen stocks up on groceries at Osaka Supermarket (1000-3700 No. 3 Road, Yaohan Centre), and is a fan of the Chinese barbecued meat at HK B.B.Q. Master (4651 No. 3 Road) as well as the tasty offerings at the barbecue shop at the Richmond Public Market (8260 Westminster Highway).

Roast pork from HK BBQ Master; Photo Credit: Tara Lee
Roast pork from HK BBQ Master; Photo Credit: Tara Lee

He also recommends the “hole in the wall” Master Hung BBQ Restaurant (8780 Blundell Road) for their “fantastic Chinese style barbecue” and great Cantonese fare.

Especially with the cooler autumn weather, you’ll find the Chen clan at Deer Garden Signatures (2015-8580 Alexandra Road; 1213-8338 Capstan Way) for their reasonably priced, delicious meals. “We go there a lot. I go for the beef tongue curry on rice. My wife goes there for the noodles,” he says.

Chen’s other spot for curry is Ginger Indian Cuisine (140-3031 Beckman Place). He explains: “It’s one of those spots that people don’t know about, but their food is really bang on, with some of the best Indian curries in Richmond.”

Butter chicken; Photo Credit: Lindsay Anderson
Butter chicken; Photo Credit: Lindsay Anderson

And, of course, Chen also waxes lyrical about Richmond’s many fabulous dumplings. His favourite dim sum spot is Fisherman’s Terrace Seafood Restaurant (3580-4151 Hazelbridge Way, Aberdeen Centre) for their “consistency, value, and quality.”

Shrimp and fish dumplings; Photo Credit: Lindsay Anderson
Shrimp and fish dumplings; Photo Credit: Lindsay Anderson

He also has a penchant for the xiaolongbao at Dinesty Dumpling House (160-8111 Ackroyd Road; 2788-4151 Hazelbridge Way, Aberdeen Centre).

Photo Credit: Lindsay Anderson
Photo Credit: Lindsay Anderson

In addition, once a week, he and his family frequent Seto Japanese Restaurant (155-8400 Alexandra Road), which Chen feels is one of the best restaurants in Richmond.

Spicy tuna roll; Photo Credit: Lindsay Anderson
Spicy tuna roll; Photo Credit: Lindsay Anderson

He loves the fact that the place is family run, as well as their careful attention to the quality of their sushi and other items, such as their chicken karaage and seafood salad. The chopped scallop cone, in Chen’s opinion, is reason enough to go. “It has perfectly toasted nori, with still warm rice, the cold creaminess of sweet scallop, and tobiko. It’s magical.”

Above all, Richmond’s sense of community is irreplaceable to him. At the end of every rewarding work day, Chen comes home to his family and all the familiar restaurants, foods, and faces in Richmond.

Alex Chen’s Recipe for Roasted Free Range Chicken with Glazed Young Vegetables, Brown Butter, and Chicken Jus

blvd_alexchen_roastedchicken

CHICKEN JUS 

Ingredients:
  • 20g canola oil
  • 2 lbs chicken leg bones
  • 1 leek, cut into 1” squares
  • 1 celery stalk, cut into ½” slices
  • 1 white onion, cut into ¼” slices
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 cup white button mushrooms, cut into thin slices
  • 4 sprigs thyme
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 1 cup sherry wine
  • 8 cups non-salted chicken stock
  • kosher salt and fresh cracked black pepper
Method:
  1. Chop chicken leg bones into 1” segments.
  2. Roast the bones at 400° F for 20 minutes.
  3. Heat a heavy bottom stock pot on medium high heat. Add oil and roast for 5 more minutes.
  4. Add leeks, celery, onion, garlic, button mushrooms, thyme and bay leaf. Cook for 5 more minutes, stirring often with a wooden spoon.
  5. Add white wine and reduce until almost dry. Add sherry and reduce again until almost dry.
  6. Add chicken stock and reduce until 1 cup of liquid is left, skimming often.
  7. Season with salt and pepper.
  8. Strain, and discard the bones.

ROASTED CHICKEN

Ingredients:
  • 1 x 3.5 lbs free range chicken
  • 1 carrot, peeled and cut into 1” dice
  • 1 celery cut into 1” dice
  • 1 white onion, cut into ½” slices
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • kosher salt and fresh cracked black pepper
  • 3 sprigs thyme
  • 3 sprigs tarragon
  • 1 whole leek, cut into ½” slices
  • ½ fennel, cut into ½”slices
  • 6 medium button mushrooms, cut into ¼” pieces
  • 2.5 oz of unsalted butter
Method:
  1. Heavily season inside the cavity of the chicken with kosher salt. Let sit for 30 minutes.
  2. Set the oven to 425°F.
  3. Mix the carrot, celery, onion (mirepoix), thyme, tarragon, leek, fennel and button mushrooms together and spread out evenly in a roasting pan.
  4. Rub chicken skin with olive oil and truss with butcher’s twine. Season with salt and pepper.
  5. Place chicken in the roasting pan. Pierce the skin and set a thermometer in between the breast and leg cavity. Set the thermometer to cook until the internal temperature reaches 160°F. Place in the oven. After 20 minutes, lower the temperature to 350°F.
  6. Brush chicken with butter every 5 minutes until the internal temperature reaches 145°F.
  7. Brush chicken with jus. Glaze at least 4 times until the chicken is fully coated.
  8. Once the internal temperature reaches 160°F, take chicken out and let sit for 20 minutes.
  9. Remove the breast and leg from the chicken and set aside.

VEGETABLES

Ingredients:
  • 6 snow peas (remove stringy bits and cut on a bias)
  • 3 red radishes, blanched in salted water
  • 6 medium green asparagus, peeled and blanched in salted water
  • 6 baby thumbelina carrots, peeled and blanched in salted water
  • 6 baby carrots, peeled and blanched in salted water
  • 10 fava bean pods, blanched and shelled
  • 3-4 turnips, peeled and blanched in salted water
  • 1 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup unsalted chicken stock
  • kosher salt and fresh cracked black pepper
  • lemon juice
Method:

Using a 10” sauté pan on medium-high heat:

  1. Add chicken stock and butter.
  2. Add all the vegetables and reduce the liquid until almost dry.
  3. Season with salt and pepper.
  4. Add a few drops of lemon juice to balance the seasoning.
To Plate:
  1. Arrange the vegetables and chicken neatly on the plate.
  2. Drizzle the jus around the chicken.
  3. Garnish with few sprigs of sweet cicely or chervil.