Catherine Ling is a food and travel writer who considers every meal an adventure. She contributes to Makansutra and blogs at Camemberu.com. The views expressed here are her own.
Singapore’s humble but beloved hawkers have triumphed 2-1 in a cook-off with the legendary Gordon Ramsay who runs restaurants that have earned not just one but three Michelin stars. Are our hawkers then worthy of Michelin star attention? Well, they may not be decorated, but it looks like they still win the hearts of locals.
Nearly 5,000 people thronged the Singtel Hawker Heroes Challenge to see the Ramsay, the Hell’s Kitchen star, pit his skills against three hawkers who were chosen in a national poll drawing 2.5 million votes. The chef only had two days to learn and prepare the same hawker food that these local masters have been doing for decades.
Singapore has probably never seen such fervor for a celebrity chef. The earliest person started queueing up at 1am, and there was already a visible queue at 10am in the morning, even though the event at Newton Food Centre only started at 6.30pm.
The first 1,000 people got the chance to taste the food prepared by Ramsay and the hawkers. Voting was done by SMS, and tabulated on the go. The atmosphere was tense as the results were shown live on big screens. Fans also went wild whenever Ramsay did any public interaction. Local food guru KF Seetoh helped to host the event.
Check out what the lucky eaters had to say about Ramsay's hawker food:
The battle was closely contested. Tian Tian Chicken Rice won by 6 per cent, 328 Katong Laksa by 19 per cent and Chef Ramsay’s version of Chilli Crab triumphed by 5 per cent.
All three of the dishes proved difficult for Ramsay but the toughest one was the laksa. There were so many components and variations: the tofu, the coconut, the paste, the shrimp. He knew within a short time that he would be slightly behind on that.
“I’ve grown up with fish and chips, and steak and kidney pie. I’ve trained with the best chefs in France and London. We have street food like hot dogs, burgers and the odd taco van, but we don’t have street food quite as unique as this,” the chef mused.
Ramsay said he has long loved Singapore hawker food and what it stands for. “And even after winning three Michelin stars, they still kicked my a*se!”
But Ramsay seemed happy and gracious about the results. He admitted that the hawkers were instrumental in giving away some of their secrets.
“Chefs are obsessed with other chefs beating them,” said Ramsay. “But to see the generosity and the way they treated me inside their hawker stalls...and I am the disruption, I am the one turning their little world upside down, and being a pain in their a*se. And to see them still teach me how to do their food, it is just humbling. Forget the corporate stuff, forget the sponsors. This is about them.”
He wishes he had more time here to learn about cooking the local food. There are dishes here that he’s intrigued by - he cited rice and fish dishes. Yes, he’s tried the fine-dining options in Singapore since he’s been here, but he said, “If you want the real food in Singapore, get yourself to a hawker centre. That’s my message tonight.”
Watch the cook-off contestants' reactions here:
Pics: Gordon Ramsay versus Singapore hawkers
Gordon Ramsay tries his rival's laksa
Gordon Ramsay meets laksa cook-off rival
I can match S'pore hawkers: Gordon Ramsay
'I fell in love with Singapore food'