VANCOUVER - For the past year, chef Alex Chen has spent up to 12 hours a day, six days a week, preparing to step into a cubicle akin to a boxing ring outfitted as a high-end kitchen as he aims to be crowned the top chef in the world.
The cubicle kitchen built for Chen in a Vancouver restaurant by a former fellow chef is the same size as the 10-square-metre space he'll be stationed in at the prestigious Bocuse d'Or cooking competition in Lyon, France, on Jan. 29 — the first day of the two-day event involving chefs from 24 countries.
Chen and his 10-member crew have been practising feverishly for their chance at glory as tunes from hip-hop bands Public Enemy and Wu-Tang Clan blare in the kitchen where they're reduced to nearly yelling at each other to get attention.
It's all good mental prep for when they face up to 4,000 revved-up foodies cheering for their home country at an exhibition centre where the Canadian fans will don red hockey jerseys sporting Chen's name.
"I describe it like a World Cup soccer match," said Vincent Parkinson, a chef and spokesman for Calgary-based Bocuse d'Or Canada. "People get their faces painted, there are noise makers, air horns, the Swiss have cowbells, the French have trumpets, the Danish have drummers. You can't have a conversation with the person next to you sitting in the bleachers, that's how loud it is."
The chefs will have 5 1/2 hours to cook two dishes — European turbot and French blue lobster as well as Irish beef tenderloin, with the option to include chuck steak, ox cheek and oxtail. They'll also have to come up with three garnishes, including one that represents their home country.
Twelve chefs will be competing in side-by-side kitchens on each day, and Chen and his crew will showcase their skills between the Finland and Belgium teams, with Guatemala, Brazil and Morocco — a newcomer this year — also competing the same day.
The United States, Sri Lanka and Japan will be among the contenders the next day, when the winner will be announced.
Getting ready for the championship has consumed Chen's life since he beat five chefs in a national contest in Toronto in April 2010, putting him on a track to fulfil his dream of representing Canada at the Bocuse d'Or, which has been held every two years since 1987 and was named after Lyonnais chef Paul Bocuse.
"It's all about conditioning yourself, not only your body, where you can withstand all the pressure and competition, but also your mind," Chen said of the thousands of hours he has spent preparing for the big day. "Throughout this journey you'll go through a lot of ups and downs. It's an emotional roller coaster."
During 2012, fundraisers held by Moxie's Grill and Bar — Chen's sponsor — in Calgary, Toronto and Vancouver helped Chen secure money for the equipment and supplies he'll be taking to France, including the $15,000 platter designed for him and on which his fish creation will be presented.
Chen, 35, was lured back to Canada in December 2011 from Los Angeles, where he worked as executive chef at the high-profile Beverly Hills Hotel after stints at the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto and Chicago.
Taking the plunge to compete in the intense Bocuse d'Or meant uprooting his family when the youngest of his two children was just two months old.
"Most people don't understand why I would give up on a pretty good job. I looked at my wife and said, 'You know I've always wanted to do the Bocuse d'Or.'"
With a push from his wife, Liz Ow, to go for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and coaching from Canadian chef Robert Sulatycky, whose fourth-place finish in the Lyon competition in 1999 still hasn't been surpassed by any other chef in North America, Chen was ready for the challenge.
A chef from Norway won the 20,000-euro prize and the adulation of chefs around the globe in 2011. Parkinson said he's optimistic about Canada's chances at the toughest culinary competition this time around, especially because of new rules introduced for this year.
For the first time, the competition will include a mystery basket of ingredients for the garnishes, and the chefs won't know what it contains until the day before they take to the stage.
And unlike before, when competitors knew what meat and fish dishes would be included two years in advance, Parkinson said organizers selected beef tenderloin last June and the turbot and lobster choices weren't revealed to the chefs until November.
"The Scandinavian countries have had lots of time to practise in the past. The chefs would have taken a sabbatical and practised literally for two years, so they were very robotic," he said.
"This is what precipitated the rule changes. If one or two of the Scandinavian countries stumble it gives us and other countries a chance to sneak up."
Chen has been importing the fish from France for his ongoing practice sessions but had to use Canadian beef because of customs restrictions.
Over and over again, he and his team have cooked the beef and fish during 5 1/2-hour stretches.
They plan to land in France four days before the competition and head for the Irish beef for one final practice session before facing the crowd and 24 judges, one from each country.
"You'd be surprised to see how many of these men and women burst into tears afterwards," Parkinson said of the international chefs. "Some of these people have been working for literally six years on getting to the Bocuse d'Or. Maybe they've tried to get to the Bocuse d'Or a couple of times before they make it."
The Bocuse d'Or will be streamed live at http://www.bocusedor.com