Golden Plates 2020: Vancouver culinary experts pick the city's best restaurants and elect Roger Ma as chef of the year

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      He didn’t open a new restaurant in Vancouver this past year, nor is he new to the local culinary industry, but Boulevard Kitchen and Oyster Bar’s executive chef, Roger Ma, has found himself in the limelight after recently returning home with a prestigious accolade.

      The Vancouver-born-and-raised chef won gold at this year’s Canadian Culinary Championships (CCC), a two-day national cooking competition held last month in Ottawa that was the finale to its regional counterpart, the Great Kitchen Party. The invite-only gastronomic event consists of three parts (mystery wine pairing, the black box, and the grand finale), creating a rigorous mental and physical process that rewards only the most deserving chefs.

      This achievement may not resonate with people outside the professional-cooking sphere, but local chefs and culinary experts who are familiar with the CCC recognize its magnitude and how challenging it can be, which is why they voted Ma chef of the year in the Georgia Straight’s annual industry-insiders survey of more than 50 chefs, food and beverage directors, and restaurant managers. (For the results, scroll to the bottom.)

      They often say that being slow and steady wins the race, and those wise words can definitely be used to describe Ma’s journey to culinary success. The 38-year-old Vancouverite originally enrolled in art school, and planned to pursue a career in design.

      But having grown up in a large Asian family where food was often a focal point at home and at family gatherings, Ma soon realized he wanted to try his hand at cooking for a living, and eventually attended the Dubrulle French Culinary School (the same year it was bought by the Art Institute of Vancouver).

      “Food has always been a part of me. We would always end up at my grandma’s house on weekends and spend the whole day eating and cooking, and at home my mom would cook a lot of Chinese [food],” Ma told the Straight in a phone interview. “[I] haven’t looked back since deciding to go to culinary school. I really enjoy making people happy through food.”

      Chef Ma grew up in a large Asian family, where food was always an integral part of family gatherings.
      Leila Kwok

      After completing his training, he held positions at Rogers Arena, Umberto Menghi’s former high-end Italian eatery Circolo, and Fifty Two 80 Bistro & Bar at the Four Seasons Resort Whistler.

      It was up at Whistler that Ma made many meaningful connections that got him to where he is today: getting connected with Thomas Haas through his chef Jason McLeod would help pave the way for six years at New York’s Michelin-starred Daniel by Daniel Boulud, and meeting chef Alex Chen (his colleague and mentor at Boulevard) through Dan Olson (Railtown Cafe and Catering) would eventually lead him to his current role.

      When Ma decided to move back to Vancouver from New York, Chen reached out to him about working together.

      “At that time in 2013, Boulevard was just a concept the owners were talking about. Alex wanted me to be a part of it [and] I thought it was going to be a great opportunity,” said Ma. “I was a chef de cuisine, and Alex was the executive chef. We did all the concept development, all the recipes, and setting up the restaurant.”

      Ma acknowledges that Boulevard may have had a sleepy start, but it has since won various awards and become one of the most respected fine-dining establishments in Vancouver. He helped propel the restaurant to where it stands now by consistently creating dishes that cater to all kinds of palates, by drawing from his training, experiences, and travels, as well as his Asian heritage.

      “For a lot of Asian food, there’s always that sweet, salty, sour element that a lot of other cuisines don’t really have. It’s nice to kind of apply that, whether it’s French, Italian, or Japanese,” explained Ma. “Having that at the back of your head makes your dishes a little more diverse and unique.”

      He describes his food as thoughtful and tasty. “I always like to have a story behind whatever I make, either a historical reference or a reason for being on the plate,” said Ma, “whether it’s tradition or inspired by another dish from somewhere else or the circumstances of it.”

      At the CCC, Ma’s regional qualifier and grand-finale dish was his B.C. Coastal Terroir, which features a unique marrying of flavours and textures like honey-mussel gratinée, foraged bull kelp, sea-urchin custard, Yukon Gold potato, scallion terrine, and shellfish emulsion.

      One of the ingredients used in Ma's award-winning grand finale dish at the CCC was B.C. sea urchin.
      Leila Kwok

      The inspiration behind his award-winning dish was a boat trip that he took with local seafood purveyor Fresh Ideas Start Here. “It was actually very inspiring being out on the boat and just seeing all the kelp floating in the water, and [how] you could literally pull it out and start eating it,” he recalled. The winning dish pays homage to where he’s from, and showcases the progression of his career.

      Ma’s gold medal was not the first CCC win for Boulevard—Alex Chen also took home the top prize in 2018. With him following in Chen’s footsteps within and beyond the kitchen, one has to wonder if Ma has ever felt the need to break out of his colleague’s shadow.

      “Him and I, it’s a pretty unique relationship we have. He looks at me as a little brother and I look at him as an older brother,” explained Ma. “For sure, he has a big shadow, but I never felt that I’m trying to make my own voice or something like that. He’s very respectful and supportive of me, so I never felt like at any point I’ve had to fight for my own spotlight.

      “I just like to keep my head down and work, and focus on my food and make sure the restaurant is running well and guests are happy,” he added. “Those things are more important to me than the spotlight.”

      While Ma will be busy re-creating his competition dishes for a special tasting menu running throughout March, he’ll still have love to spare for the classics in Boulevard’s food repertoire, such as the roasted sablefish (with soy-sake glaze, baby hakurei turnip, and bone-broth emulsion with marinated seaweed). “That’s all I really want to eat on my days off.”

      Don’t expect the 2020 Canadian culinary champion to diverge from his current path anytime soon. He’s happy where he is, and has no far-fetched plans to open his own restaurant in the near future. But he does have ambitions to turn the establishment where he works into an institution that can survive for decades to come.

      “I just want to continue to evolve Boulevard and evolve myself as a chef and see where that takes me,” said Ma. “I feel like we’re just getting started for what we can really do, and I’m pretty excited for the next few years.”

      Industry Picks

      Chef of the Year

      1. Roger Ma
      Boulevard Kitchen and Oyster Bar
      845 Burrard Street
      604-642-2900

      2. Ricardo Valverde
      Ancora Waterfront Dining and Patio
      Various locations

      3. Joel Watanabe
      Kissa Tanto
      263 East Pender Street
      778-379-8078

      New Restaurant

      1. Published on Main
      3593 Main Street
      604-423-4840

      2. Elisa
      1109 Hamilton Street
      604-362-5443

      3. Oca Pastificio
      1260 Commercial Drive

      Michel Jacob's French cuisine at Le Crocodile has been wowing Vancouverites for more than 30 years.

      French

      1. Le Crocodile
      100–909 Burrard Street
      604-669-4298

      2. Au Comptoir
      2278 West 4th Avenue
      604-569-2278

      3. St. Lawrence
      269 Powell Street
      604-620-3800

      Italian

      1. Savio Volpe
      615 Kingsway
      604-428-0072

      2. Cioppino’s Mediterranean Grill & Enoteca
      1133 Hamilton Street
      604-688-7466

      3. Ask for Luigi (tie)
      305 Alexander Street
      604-428-2544

      3. Oca Pastificio (tie)
      1260 Commercial Drive

      Other European

      1. Chambar Restaurant
      568 Beatty Street
      604-879-7119

      2. ¿CóMO? Taperia
      201 East 7th Avenue
      604-879-3100

      3. Autostrada Osteria
      Various locations

      Tannis Ling's Bao Bei Brasserie has earned the respect of her peers in the dining world.

      Chinese

      1. Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie
      163 Keefer Street
      604-688-0876

      2. Mott 32
      1161 West Georgia Street
      604-979-8886

      3. Jade Seafood Restaurant
      280–2811 Number 3 Rd., Richmond
      604-249-0082

      Japanese

      1. Miku Restaurant
      70–200 Granville St.
      604-568-3900

      2. Yuwa Japanese Cuisine
      2775 West 16th Avenue
      604-731-9378

      3. Masayoshi (tie)
      4376 Fraser Street
      604-428-6272

      3. Kingyo Izakaya (tie)
      871 Denman Street
      604-608-1677

      Vikram Vij is once again the king of Indian food in Vancouver.

      Indian

      1. Vij’s
      3106 Cambie Street
      604-736-6664

      2. Tasty Indian Bistro
      Various locations

      3. Indian Oven
      2006 West 4th Avenue
      604-730-5069

      Korean

      1. Damso Restaurant
      Various locations

      2. Sura Korean Royal Cuisine
      Various locations

      3. Maru Korean Bistro
      125 2nd Street East, North Vancouver
      604-566-6292

      Vietnamese

      1. Anh and Chi
      3388 Main Street
      604-878-8883

      2. Phnom Penh Restaurant
      244 East Georgia Street
      604-734-8898

      3. Mr. Red Cafe
      Various locations
      Other Asian

      Maenam's Angus An is one of Vancouver's most versatile chefs, mastering high-end cuisine and street food.

      Other Asian

      1. Maenam
      1938 West 4th Avenue
      604-730-5579

      2. Phnom Penh Restaurant
      244 East Georgia Street
      604-734-8898

      3. Sala Thai
      102–888 Burrard Street
      604-683-7999

      Latin American

      1. Ancora Waterfront Dining and Patio
      Various locations

      2. Chicha Restaurant (tie)
      136 East Broadway
      604-620-3963

      2. Cuchillo (tie)
      261 Powell Street
      604-559-7585

      3. La Mezcaleria
      Various locations

      Harambe offers standout Ethiopian food at an affordable price on Commercial Drive.

      African

      1. Harambe Ethiopian Restaurant
      2149 Commercial Drive
      604-216-1060

      2. Arike Restaurant & Cocktail Bar
      1725 Davie Street
      604-336-9774

      3. Simba’s Grill
      825 Denman Street
      604-974-0649

      Vegetarian

      1. The Acorn Restaurant
      3995 Main Street
      604-566-9001

      2. Heirloom Vegetarian Restaurant (tie)
      Various locations

      2. MeeT Restaurants (tie)
      Various locations

      3. Burdock & Co
      2702 Main Street
      604-879-0077

      Cheap Eats

      1. Guu Izakaya
      Various locations

      2. Phnom Penh Restaurant
      244 East Georgia Street
      604-734-8898

      3. The Dime
      Various locations

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