People & Culture

Malaysian Chef Alex Chen makes Vancouver’s Michelin List

The Food Network Canada judge discusses how he found his passion for food, the backstory of his restaurant Boulevard and the key to his continued success as one of the country’s top chefs

  • Published Nov 10, 2023
  • Updated Nov 16
  • 1,623 words
  • 7 minutes
Chef Chen at his restaurant, Boulevard, shooting for Canada's Top 100, preparing dry aged risotto, geoduck clams, local uni, and pine mushrooms. (Photo: Leila Kwok)
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Buttery bits of crispy-crusted cornbread fall to my plate as I quietly consume the muffin, intentionally over-iced with salted butter. I am awaiting the arrival of Chef Alex Chen, unsure of how much time he’ll have to speak with me. After all, he’s a busy man, currently working simultaneously as the Executive Chef of Boulevard Kitchen & Oyster Bar in Vancouver and Partner and Chef of Wild Blue Restaurant in Whistler. Seated at a quiet corner table at Boulevard alongside Liz, Chef Chen’s wife, and Leila, a mutual friend, we laugh in unison over our shared inability to resist reaching for another cornbread muffin just as Chef Chen approaches, wearing a wide grin that’s as bright as his chef whites.   

I’m ready to launch into questions about his newly-appointed Michelin Recommend, but Chef doesn’t want to talk about that yet. Instead, he begins with the backstory of Boulevard, focusing on the talents of his teammates. I’m immediately reminded of what makes him stand out. For Chen, uplifting those around him is a priority, and mentorship and relationship building are recurring themes throughout our conversation as he talks about his ongoing success as one of Canada’s top chefs.

Tofino beach cooking and days off with friends. (Photo: Leila Kwok)
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A child in the kitchen

Chef Chen knew he wanted to make cooking a career early on. “My mom, aunties, and grandma all love to cook and are really good cooks. They all just seem to gravitate to the kitchen. Like them, I’ve always gravitated to the kitchen too,” he says. “I started to get more serious when I was 10, cooking my first pack of instant noodles,” he continues with a smirk before returning to that moment in his mother’s kitchen. “I couldn’t even follow instructions from day one. I refused to follow the directions on the package. I was like, ‘No, I’m going to create my own’. I remember my mom used to make chilli crab. I loved the flavours, so I thought, ‘Ok, I’m going to make that sauce, add prawns, and cook the instant noodles with that.’”

Chef Chen goes on to explain what he loves most about cooking. “Growing up in Asia, you have so many restrictions. Your parents want you to do well in school–it’s all regimented, scripted–but in the kitchen, I didn’t need to do that, even with my first pack of instant noodles,” he says. “The thing that really gravitates me to the kitchen is the freedom it provides me to be creative.” That creativity has made Chef Chen a standout success in his industry.

At age 13, his family emigrated from Malaysia to Vancouver, where he later got his first taste for the restaurant industry as a dishwasher and busboy, eventually working his way up to the kitchen. He apprenticed under renowned chefs Robert Sulatysky and Bruno Marti, obtained classical French training, and continued to develop his cooking skills through hard work and determination.

King crab dinner, custom bespoke to each specific clientele. Salt dough bake leg of king crab with caviar butter at Boulevard. (Photo: Leila Kwok)
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From trainee to top chef

Chef Chen left Vancouver for 11 years, working for some of the top hotel properties across North America before returning to the city where he opened Boulevard in 2014. “No one knew who we were at the time,” he shares of Boulevard’s beginnings. “We were considered outsiders in the industry.” Chen shepherded the opening, from conception to construction to culinary concept, and as a new restaurant, it took awhile to find its footing.

High-pressure culinary competitions fuelled Chen’s passion for his trade, so in 2015, he joined Gold Medal Plates, a Canadian cooking competition that recognizes the top chefs in the country, as a way to elevate exposure for his new restaurant. That year, he came in third and felt like he had failed his team. In 2017, they were given a second chance. “We went into it more strategically, relying on what we do best,” he says. “It was important for me to create a dish that represented Vancouver, so we used geoduck clams, Dungeness crab, Northern Divine caviar, and sea urchin, all from here.”

Plating at Boulevard for Canada's Top 100. The plates being used are borrowed from Ai & Om and are Japanese artisan ceramic plates. (Photo: Leila Kwok)
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“I remember watching the judges tasting our dishes, and as I was telling them our story, I could see the shock in their eyes. The story matched the food. The intensity, clarity, freshness, and focus were all there. And we won. First place,” he explains as a smile spreads across his face. “At that point, we were no longer the outsiders. It had been a decade since a Vancouver spot had won. It was a win for Vancouver, and finally, Boulevard’s story was being told.”

From then on, the accolades came in abundance. And one day, a call came in that changed everything. “I remember driving, and a casting director called me saying they were casting for Top Chef. I said, ‘What would an old fart like me do on that show? I’m not going to rob the opportunity from a young kid,’ so I said no. The same day, two hours later, I got another phone call from a casting director from the Food Network. I said, ‘No thanks, I’ve already declined the offer. And they said, ‘Chef, no one else has called. I’m casting for Iron Chef’. And I slammed on the brakes. This was my dream.”

Assisted by Connor Sperling, then Chef de Partie at Boulevard, and the restaurant’s resident, award-winning Pastry Chef Kenta Takahashi, Chef Chen became the first challenger to claim victory on the inaugural season of the Iron Chef Canada TV series.

Taking it to the backyard

As the main dish approaches our table, Chef Chen stands and serves it up, and I feel as though we’re sharing a family meal at his home. Dry aged pork loin, a crépinette with porcini mushrooms, and foie gras coated with crispy bits and chives is served with roasted brussels sprouts, spinach gratin, and charred broccolini. The plates cover every corner of the table. Chef Chen observes as we consume our first bites, explaining the care that went into preparing the pork.

A long table dinner with the team from Wild Blue Grill. Josh Bird (sous chef) and Jack Whiteside (apprentice) finish a prime strip loin over the charcoal grill. (Photo: Leila Kwok)
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We continue our chat, and Chen lights up when I ask him about his private backyard BBQs, an annual event with everyone begging for an invite. “It wasn’t like we had a plan to do it this way. I just wanted to have an event that everyone in the family could enjoy,” he explains. Now, some of the top chefs in the city come together for a casual cook-off where they get creative and connect as a community. “Some are Michelin chefs, and some are there to seek mentorship. This is a way to bring them all together, learn, try new things, and share knowledge. Everyone comes motivated to bring their best. It’s a nice, positive environment where everyone gets along. It merges everyone from all walks of life who share a love for food and gives them the opportunity to all be in the same room,” he explains of opening up his backyard to his peers.

Mastering mentorship and what’s next

With never enough on his plate, Chef Chen joined a talented co-partner team to launch Wild Blue Restaurant + Bar in Whistler in Aug. 2022, just recognized as the Best New Restaurant in North America by the World Culinary Awards. When I asked why he decided to take on such a robust restaurant project, Chen replied, “It was an opportunity to learn from the best in the industry (Jack Evrenthel), and I couldn’t have asked for a better mentorship. He’s tough, but I needed that. He said to me, ‘Alex, I just want you to remain open-minded, and when I feel frustrated, I always go back to those words: ‘be open-minded’.

Chen has also launched Table One, an intimate dinner series offered monthly at Boulevard, where he gets to unleash his creativity while providing mentorship for upcoming chefs, an important aspect of his work. “I’m taking a young sous chef and parking them right beside me for four days. They see how I plan the menu, order the ingredients, prep the dishes, and they work with me. They get to see everything and get hands-on with everything instead of just hearing me shout orders,” he explains of his mentorship style.

And at home, the mentorship continues. On Sundays, Chen can be found donning his ‘Grillfather’ apron and working around the kitchen alongside his son and daughter, who share his love for cooking. As I listen to his stories of cooking at home with his kids, I’m reminded of his upbringing and how he now walks in the shoes of his mother and aunties, passing on his passion to the next generation.

For Chen, cooking isn’t just about passing on old traditions. “What inspires my cooking is my childhood memories, how I was brought up, who I have worked for, where I have travelled, and where I grew roots. I’m inspired by the terroir of my surroundings–the wild mushrooms of our mountains, the stone fruits found in the Okanagan, and the seafood found in the oceans around us. It’s the combination of all those things that inspire me and shape me as a chef. It can’t just be about cooking from tradition. You’re a stronger chef when you take everything into consideration,” he explains of his ever-changing cooking style.

When I ask if he’s planning to slow down in the coming years, Chen says, “Not taking on new opportunities would kill me. The more I do, the more I go after, the better I become.” He goes on to explain that, for him, true success is not about winning or wealth. “I may never be rich, but I’ll always be happy,” he concludes with a proud grin.

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