Challenge Accepted

Of Humble Beginnings and Opportunists

What started out as a seemingly genuine food-related question/discussion on a local website dedicated to food, has resulted in the master of expletives looking set to grace our shores to participate in a cooking challenge. 12 contenders – who have been deemed worthy in their own right of various Singapore hawker dishes – have been selected and will vie for the prestigious (yet demanding) honour of competing against Gordon Ramsay via an online voting system. Unsurprisingly, some non-food-related entity (read: opportunist) has jumped on the bandwagon and decided to be the title sponsor in (what seems to be) an effort to further market their brand. Other than the main challenge itself, I’m keen to see who will be appointed as the panel of judges in this history-making contest.

Now, most people would be familiar with this “star system” that Michelin goes by; they are awarded (mainly) to restaurants for their “excellence” in food and the dining experience as a whole. Now, the thing is, hawker food (and/or street food) are in a class of their own and having them classified in the Michelin Guide is wrong and irrelevant – not only to the Guide, but to the hawker food/street food community, tradition, and history as a whole. For those who are unfamiliar, the tiny island state of Singapore and its citizens have always had a sense of pride in their food and cooking (especially with the likes of street and hawker food), and always seem to yearn for some international attention when it comes to their food culture (and yes, all the current hoo-ha about Singapore’s fading hawker heritage is indeed true; but definitely NOT inevitable). However, I don’t think that comparing hawkers and hawker stalls to the likes of Michelin-starred chefs and restaurants is the only way to get your point across. Both hawkers and their Michelin-starred counterparts are masters of their respective crafts and cuisine and have their own share of pros and cons.

Beyond Fame and Glory

In this modern day and age, it is rather sad and disturbing to know that certain establishments fronted by (often young and) ambitious chefs only look and work towards the coveted “Michelin Star(s)” as their main motivations – which I find to be a blasphemous and shallow-minded ideology with regards to food in its essence. In comparison, if I may, true and humble food craftsmen and women have simply done what they have done (and still continue to do so) for the masses who respected and recognised them for who they were – genuine food masters. Such individuals don’t (and will never) do it for monetary gains and/or fame. Heck, some of the potential contenders who were shortlisted as challengers to Ramsay had no the clue as to who the multi-Michelin-starred swearing machine was!

Just as how the folks of other countries have their own go-to places to eat (diners in the USA, bistros and cafes in France, various osterias and trattorias in Italy, etc.), Singapore has an abundance of them by means of hawker stalls, kopitiams and the likes. Singapore also has its own version of the Michelin star system/rating via Makansutra’s annual Food Guides and other works such as Dr Leslie Tay’s “Only The Best“, and not forgetting the massive online community of food-loving people (be it via social media and/or blogs and websites).

The Bottom Line

Am I keen to see this challenge take place? Yes.

Do I think it is a good way to elevate and promote the food and food culture of Singapore? Definitely.

At the end of the day, an event such as this is another fine example of the boundless and borderless celebration of great food. While it would be interesting to see how Mr Ramsay tries to flip and toss roti prata dough, or sweat his Scottish self off in the heat and confined space of a hawker stall while stir-frying hokkien mee and char kway teow; it is without doubt that he, the hawkers and the Singapore hawker food culture are winners in their own rights – regardless of the results. It is suffice to say; we’re all winners.

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