I meet chef James Chen and his son Kelvin at a coffee shop in the evening. Chef James has spent the day busily working as a second cook at the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel, but still appears energetic and excited to chat. He’s set to re-launch his very popular Richmond Night Market stand, Chef James Xin Jiang Man BBQ, when the market opens this year on May 12, 2017.
Chef James has a fascinating story to tell of how he arrived at this point in his career. Born in Xinjiang, a region in northwest China, he grew up eating food influenced by the Uygher people living around him. James is of Chinese Han ancestry, but developed a love for Uygher laghman (pulled noodles), various lamb dishes, as well as fiery spices and peppers used in their cuisine.
His initial professional training occurred at Xinjiang Agricultural University where Chef James studied animal husbandry and genetics. The chef who cooks delicious skewers at the Night Market had a high profile career in China, working for a company that put him in charge of a complex breeding program for sheep. Chef James was developing a hybrid dual-purpose sheep that would yield both good quality wool and meat.
In his free time in China, James worked on his cooking skills, mostly learned from the Uygher grannies who would whip up food for him and his colleagues. Little did he know that these culinary lessons would come in handy years down the road.
In 1995, he and his wife decided to move their young family to the Lower Mainland after an uncle, who lived in Vancouver, urged him to come. I ask Chef James how he could give up his prestigious job in China after spending so many years investing in that career. He nods, acknowledging the sacrifice, but says he wanted a “new life” and a different challenge.
It was a rough transition after arriving in Canada. “It was hard. I tried to find a job in my profession, but my language skills were not high level and my degree was not transferable.” The only work he could find was a part-time position at a farm in Abbotsford, a far cry from the high level genetic research he did in China.
Instead, Chef James worked tirelessly as a server at Red Star Chinese Seafood Restaurant in Vancouver in order to support his family. One day, a friend knowing his passion for food, asked him, “Why don’t you learn Western cooking?” This question inspired Chef James to enroll in the one-year culinary arts program at Vancouver Community College in 2000.
With his background in animal husbandry, cooking school was a breeze for him. “I was the top student,” he says, explaining that his scientific knowledge of animal anatomy helped him with the butchery unit, as well as the mathematical and technical aspects of culinary training. The most difficult part of his VCC program was all the course material being in English.
Chef James did his cooking practicum at the Fairmont Waterfront and was hired initially as a busser. He quickly moved up the ranks to become a first cook, and then a second cook. Over the next seventeen years, he received his Red Seal culinary certification and worked at a variety of establishments, such as the River Rock Casino Resort, the former Ramada Plaza Hotel, Peace Arch Hospital, as well as the Grand Villa Casino in Burnaby. He also has worked continuously at the Fairmont Waterfront where he’s cooked breakfast for a wide variety of high profile individuals, like Queen Elizabeth II, Stephen Harper, and Christy Clark.
Then, a decade ago, Chef James decided to work towards owning his own restaurant. “We wanted to try a business, so the whole family could work together,” he says. The erratic hours that came with being a cook meant he wasn’t seeing his family enough. He decided to make a food stand at the Richmond Night Market the test run for his future business. Little did he know that the stand itself would become a big success.
During the first year running the stand, the menu covered a wide array of offerings, like wraps, skewers, curries, and rice dishes. Over the years, through customer feedback, the selection became more focused in order to showcase the most sought after items: skewers (lamb, beef, chicken, honey garlic prawn, lamb kidney, and crispy buns), roasted corn, and roasted yam with house-made aioli. The business also now spans two vendor spots (#75 and #76). In previous years, he also had a stand at the former International Summer Night Market.
The Night Market business is truly a family affair, with Chef James’ wife, son, and daughter involved. His son Kelvin, who has a business degree, manages the front end of the stand, as well as helps with marketing and business development. For example, it was Kelvin’s idea to start serving corn that’s dry roasted to lock in all the flavour.
Meeting Chef James and Kelvin together, it’s clear that the father and son team enjoy working alongside one another. Kelvin says that they really like chatting with their Night Market customers. “I think it’s good because you get immediate feedback. Oftentimes in a restaurant, the chef is behind closed doors. At the night market, he’s able to interact with the customers,” explains Kelvin. He says his father infuses his personality into the cooking, reveling in the showmanship and entertainment aspect of being on display. Customers love Chef James so much that his face has become synonymous with his food.
The crowd favourite item is, without a doubt, the lamb skewers, seasoned with chili pepper, as well as freshly ground cumin imported from Xinjiang, China. Chef James says that the cumin from Xinjiang has a distinct aromatic earthiness. His skewers also stand out because all the meat is expertly hand-cut, drawing upon Chef James’ multi-faceted training. He also goes back to China every year, tasting everything from street food to high-end cuisine in order to tweak and refine his own recipes.
Besides the upcoming Night Market, the company is intent on finding a suitable location for a sit-down restaurant. “The goal is this year,” says Kelvin, emphatically. The cuisine will be xianjiang-focused, but with an expanded menu, including stews, noodles, rice dishes, and, of course, lots of lamb.
In the meantime, fans of Chef James’ cooking can find him every evening at the Richmond Night Market (May 12-October 9, 2017, Friday-Sunday and holidays). Although Kelvin says that “sometimes it can get a little crazy” with the many orders, Chef James remains unfazed: “I like the pressure.” In the midst of the Night Market crowds, look for Chef James’ photo on their stand signage and follow the intoxicating smells of barbecued meat.
Chef James’ Recipe for Honey Garlic Prawn Skewers:
- 5 lb shrimp
- 1/2 cup chopped parsley
- 1/2 cup minced garlic
- 2 lemons
- 50mL honey
- 300mL olive oil
- 2 tsp ground black pepper
- 1 tsp chili flakes
- Salt to taste
- Combine ingredients and marinate (parsley, garlic, lemons, honey, olive oil).
- Skewer prawns onto bamboo skewers.
- Grill over medium heat on one side until the tail turns red. Brush gently with olive oil.
- Flip to the other side until fully cooked, brushing gently with olive oil.
- Sprinkle with chili flakes, pepper, and salt to taste.