On the Boulevard of Iron Dreams

July 02 2019

Classically trained with an iron resume, Chef Alex Chen is not only the name and apron behind Boulevard Kitchen + Oyster Bar, he’s also a husband, father, Canadian Culinary Championship Gold Medalist and Iron Chef Canada Champion. His competitive partners and mentees have also gone on to win prestigious competitions like the Hawksworth Young Chef Scholarship.

So, how does he and his team keep their cool when the heat strikes and time is running out? We stopped by Boulevard to find out.

First of all, congratulations on your fall appearance on the inaugural season of Iron Chef Canada! How did it feel to not only be one of two representatives of Vancouver on the show, but to also come out victorious at the same time?

I first knew about Iron Chef in 1998 when I attended cooking school at Vancouver Community College. To get invited to participate and actually win is like crossing something off the bucket list. Both my kids were able to see me compete on TV, that was pretty cool, but my son then offered my services to his entire school.

On your episode, you had to create 5 dishes for the panel in an hour. Describe your approach to dish and flavour processes when there is a “showcase ingredient” and a “culinary curveball ingredient” involved.

The secret ingredient was tomato, as it was peak season in Ontario. To be honest, the 60 minutes went by so fast; I was simply in survival mode. I didn’t have time or the ability to strategically plan what I was going to create for each of the five dishes. You just have to be like, "okay, this is what we're going to do. We're going to do a progression from subtle all the way to strong and impactful dishes." We wanted to keep things simple and highlight the secret ingredient, not hide it. With tomatoes, there's an abundance of umami, savoury, sweet, and acidic flavours so we added salt and olive oil to highlight the quality of the ingredient.

How was it working alongside Chef Connor Sperling during this competition? 

Connor has been with me for six years. I brought him to France to compete at the world stage with me so he’s seen the whole process and I know how dedicated he is, from being a cook all the way to being my right-hand man.

At the time of the competition, I knew Connor was going to be on his way out because he had been with me for six years, won Hawksworth and it was time for him to go explore the world, get more stages and global work experience. It was sort of a parting gift between him and I, symbolizing the end of our journey for now. 

Overall, I just wanted to pick a team that has the best synergy, I think that's most important because when we go into battle, nobody should feel like they're left alone. We have each other's back. 

What were your biggest takeaways from the overall Iron Chef experience?

Competitions are an emotional roller coaster. At the end of the day, for me competitions are also more about being a mentor. As the coach, chef and the big brother figure, I just want to be able to coach and lead my team through to the end toward a win because I understand the requirements and ups-and-downs of being a competitor. I’ve been doing competitions for the last 20 years.

My team and I spoke every day regarding our Iron Chef process and progress, they even call me “Daddy” in the kitchen. We went there as a group and came back as brothers.

In competitions, you learn that a chef cannot just be like, "you work for me, you cook,” it's the legacy you impart. Hopefully one day, when they walk away, I've made a difference in their lives and pointed them in the right direction. When they work for someone else or run their household, they're hopefully able to remember all the small words I'd given or shared with them; then I'm a happy man. 

What do you enjoy most about participating in major competitions, and how do you balance them with the work demands of being a restaurateur?

What I enjoy most about a competition is the competition itself, the process. It drives you to a point where, on a normal basis, you wouldn't do the things that you do. You put yourself into a very difficult situation in a time-constrained manner, doing things that are deemed impossible. In the end, not only do you see it's possible, but you also thrive.

Balance, however, is a hard one. In day-to-day operations, you have long hours but you have to find the time. If you want it enough, you'll find a way and there's always a way. It's a blessing too for me to have an entire kitchen that really supports me on my journey, asking me if I have enough food and water, or if I need my dishes washed and help with set-up.

What from your restaurant experience do you bring to competitions, and what from competitions do you bring to your restaurant?

Communication, organization, cleanliness, finesse, flavours, seasoning; all of these apply to restaurants on a day-to-day basis and competitions. 

Running a restaurant, you have to be organized, detail-oriented, and teamwork-oriented. Every single day, you think on the fly when allergies come in and last-minute requests are made. This is similar to your black box or secret ingredient moments during competitions in a way. 

It's also effective and efficient to be assertive in both scenarios. It's not a bad thing as long as you're not rude. For example, "I need you to do this right now, please and thank you." Just watch your tone of voice and verbiage.

Two of your staff, Connor Sperling and Daniel Kim, competing and won the Hawksworth Young Chef Scholarship Competition. How do you help prep your staff for these competitions?

Mentorship means a couple of things. Most importantly, you need to be present and make time. How do you make time between being a chef, running a restaurant, family, wife and kids? You have to just find a way, just like you make time during a competition. You also need to be able to communicate with your team like, "hey, I need an hour so I can watch this competition."

You also need to be able to provide meaningful advice while still leaving a bit of room for them to really figure out their timeline and flavour profile. It's never saying, "you should cook this sauce this way or that chicken that way." It should always be like, "I would consider it like this or like that," so that they can impart some of their own personality.

At the end of the day, when the time is up, it's their own journey and competition. It's not just my competition because it's not my way or the highway. I'm just there to advise and perhaps make suggestions. It still comes down to how much they want it, how hard they work and how dedicated they are because they have to find their way. Between running the service, doing day-to-day cooking and finding the time, you could easily just say, "I'm tired today, I don't want to practice" or "I'm tired today but Chef, I'm willing to practice anyways," and then I know if they are ready or not. 

Back in the kitchen at Boulevard Kitchen & Oyster Bar, what are some of the newest dishes or ingredients you’re serving, or experimenting with?

Right now, it's all about spring – morel mushrooms, white asparagus, artichokes and rhubarb. There's an abundance of these ingredients in British Columbia as it gets warmer and I'm looking forward to all of them. Halibut is also currently in season. Plus, I just harvested a bunch of elderflower that we're going to pickle into vinegar, syrup, ice cream, and vinaigrette. 

Do you have any other projects or aspirations for the future right now? 

I want to continue to grow, whatever that means, I grow in many ways. Enjoy seeing the kids grow up, grow old with my wife and collaborate with my restaurant owners who understand and support me; they don't micromanage me. For example, if I say I need to go on Iron Chef, they don't tell me not to, they support me and I want to continue to work with people like that.

At the end of the day, money isn't everything. Relationships, respect and authenticity are deeper and strengthen us a lot more. Whatever comes our way is not a lack of projects, it’s determining what is right for me. For example, I definitely want to open a wood fire restaurant, whether it's super high-end or not. Bring on the heat!