By now you’ve probably heard either through the industry grapevine or via media reports that local chef Alex Chen of Boulevard Kitchen & Oyster Bar was victorious at the Canadian Culinary Championships (CCC) this past weekend. His victory ended a decade of gold drought for British Columbia at the annual event. Indeed, the last time the prestigious competition was won by a BC chef was way back in 2008, when chef Melissa Craig of Whistler’s Bearfoot Bistro was crowned champion.
It’s no small achievement. The CCC weekend is designed to be a gruelling experience for the chefs, and this year was no different with a variety of challenges compounding to test their talents. Each of the 11 competitors had already won the Gold Medal Plates competitions in their respective cities/regions (defeating their local peers), so in every respect it is a champions’ championship — they all have nothing and everything to prove.
There’s something different about Alex, though. I don’t know him all that well but I’ve come to respect him not only as a gifted, visionary chef but also as a highly driven and determined competitor. When I was asked to write a short description of him for James Chatto, the Gold Medal Plates National Culinary Advisor, and my fellow judges (I have been a GMP Senior Judge and the CCC’s National Referee since 2008), I supplied them with the following impression:
“Restrained and refined, Boulevard Kitchen & Oyster Bar is hardly an honest reflection of its chef, Alex Chen, a real toiler who I reckon would be the first cook in this lot to bring a gun to a knife fight. He might look relatively calm, cool, collected and conservative, but he’s one of the most fiercely competitive chefs that Vancouver (and this competition) has ever seen. He’s always looking for the advantage, that bit of advancing leverage, that perfect piece of ground upon which put the right foot forward. Once he sets his eyes on a goal – in this case the victory he believes his skills and dedication warrants him (he wouldn’t be here otherwise) – he’s unnervingly unswerving in achieving it. I can’t imagine the depths of the darkness that formed in the ambitious space between his ears when he came up short here a couple of years ago, but I’d bet several of my taste buds that he’s found a way to somehow plumb it to his absolute advantage. Alex Chen hasn’t come here for the life experience. He’s come to win and then wipe the floor.”
The Championships is made up of three competitions held over 48 hours. The first of these is a stringently timed and tightly budgeted mystery wine-pairing competition. Each chef is given an unlabelled bottle of wine and $500 cash with which to purchase enough ingredients to feed 400 guests a dish designed to pair with the wine (this year it was a 2016 Pinot Gris from Lillooet’s Fort Berens Estate Winery). Alex Chen won that competition handily.
The second competition was an arduous black box affair that saw each chef provided with seven unlabeled ingredients and an hour to use them all, creating something spectacular. The ingredients this year were Zweigelt Icewine Grapes from Summerhill Pyramid Winery, Cripps Pink Apples from BC Tree Fruits, Kohlrabi from Wise Earth Farms, Rabbit from Fraser Valley Rabbitry, Balkan Style Feta from Coteau Hills Creamery (Saskatchewan), Beausoleil Oysters (New Brunswick) and Milled Flaxseed from Prairie Flax Products (Manitoba). Alex won this competition as well.
The third and final challenge was the Grand Finale, in which the chefs were free to dream up and execute a dish employing any and all methods and ingredients of their own choosing. The scoring at the CCC is cumulative, so if it’s an even field at this point and chefs haven’t dropped the ball in the first two competitions he/she can shine at the Finale and score a podium finish. Alex, who had won Bronze here in 2016, knew this from experience, and took this opportunity to pull away even further from the pack, serving up a dish that floored the judges, myself included.
My boss at the CCC, National Culinary Advisor James Chatto, described it this way when Alex won gold with it last Fall, thus punching his ticket to the CCC):
“He chose to create his dish inside an empty tin of Northern Divine caviar which he set on a bed of seaweed at the centre of the competition plate. Inside the tin was a treasure trove of wild B.C. shellfish meticulously set in a rich custardy chowder which was then topped with a translucent layer of golden gelee. “It’s all about umami and fun,” explained Chef Chen. That gelee was made from a stock of geoduck and sturgeon bones, the natural collagen causing it to set. Chef chose five kinds of shellfish – Dungeness crab, horse clam, side stripe shrimp, geoduck clam and sea urchin – and topped three of them with a little Northern Divine sturgeon caviar. He finished the dish with an ethereal coral cracker dyed black and flavoured with squid ink and a small green sponge of brioche that used clam juice and bull kelp. So labour intensive! But so delicious! Chef’s wine choice was excellent and provided a cleansing acidity to all the rich, umami pleasures of the food – the light, tangy, suavely aromatic 2016 Ortega from Sea Star on Pender Island.
It was better the second time around, and my fellow judges were equally impressed. It’s the best dish I’ve ever had at the CCC, and possibly the best plated expression of British Columbian seafood I’ve enjoyed in my almost 45 years of eating the stuff. I’m sure the dish, which Alex called “Parfait of Wild BC Shellfish”, is something he’d like to retire and never do again (especially after serving 600 of them on Saturday night), but I hope it’s something he chooses to share with Vancouver diners at Boulevard.
They should get a taste of how good he can be, and of what it takes to win at the very highest level.