Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Gordon Ramsay Hawker Challenge - A Bad Idea, And a Better Way to Engage a Michelin Star Chef

This is another topic I have been avoiding for a week now, as I originally thought it would just pass by like any other weekly water cooler topic. But, evidently it has not.

I wanted to avoid talking about it as I felt such triviality did not warrant a genuine blog post, but with this latest Gordon Ramsay hawker challenge, I am compelled to put this down.

Just to backtrack a bit, this whole affair started from a HungryGoWhere article, "Are Singapore Hawkers Michelin Worthy?"

At that time, I said to myself, this was just another bait article to glamorize the hawker profession as part of the movement to encourage the younger generation to join the profession.

But I did take issue with the article's somewhat simplistic attempt to align the hawker standard to a Michelin star chef, which can never be a fair comparison. Hawker food was started to provide food for the masses in the heartlands by the heartlanders themselves.

It was and is still the best source of Singaporean comfort food. Simple but heartwarming dishes that speak to everyone of us. A hawker's main objective is to make a living for his family by doing what he or she knows best. Making a good plate of Singaporean street food.

A Michelin star means something else entirely. It is about achieving a standard of culinary excellence not just by a plate of food, but how service is run and how a fine dining restaurant is managed. And therein lies the flaw in HGW's original article.

As Singaporeans, we are proud of our hawker heritage, and we already have a very effective grading system in various publications, the most famous being KF Seetoh's Makansutra guidebook, which cleverly uses the 3 choptsticks system as a homage to the 3 Michelin star grading.

Beyond that, TV shows and various other media outlets have their own ways of grading our islandwide hawkers. This should be more than enough to judge our hawkers on our own terms. And even then, everyone of us still has our own favorite hawker stall tucked away in a corner of this island.

Where HGW's article is flawed is the notion that hawker food and Michelin chef can be judged in the same manner and criteria. This itself, is as futile as the acting awards like the Oscars actor categories.

Oscars are never really judged based on the the skill of an actor in a given year, for if there has to be a really fair acting competition, the only way is to get all 5 actors to play the same role in the same year and see who pulls it off the best.

It may not be the best analogy, but my point is simple. Food is already subjective by itself, but to want to compare and compete based on 2 different cooks' background, training and knowledge is foolhardy and redundant. There can be no winner in such a challenge.

Likewise, the only viable challenge between 2 cooks of such diverse cultures may be to give both of them the same set of ingredients and come up with a new dish and judge them on their creativity and execution of this new dish. And even then, the results can be very subjective and non conclusive.

What is more prevalent in food today, is to engage in each others culture and cuisine, and to inculcate into your own tradition, the influences of other cuisines in order to elevate and enhance your own food. This is what western chefs do all the time, traveling all around the world to taste and learn and bringing a bit of the culture back to their own home and cooking.

Even today, some of our Chinese fine dining cuisine has incorporated influences from the West by the introduction of foie gras and truffles into classic Chinese dishes. Personally, I do not see a need to be so defensive of our own street food that we reject trends and influences from the outside world.

So, coming to this Ramsay challenge, I find it totally meaningless other than it is a good publicity stunt for all, including Ramsay himself if he accepts. At the end of the day, if you want Gordon to know more about the hawker heritage of Singapore, by all means invite him here to have a sharing session.

But not to compete and see who is better. The beauty of food is that today, with the resources and platforms available to us, everyone benefits. The end result of such a challenge will not determine if a Singaporean hawker is better than a Michelin star chef. If anything, it may only reveal ourselves to be reluctant to accept outside input to improve our cuisine when it should be the other way round.

If our goal is to elevate our hawker food to a higher standard, then by all means be open to new ideas and to new suggestions, even from Michelin chefs. At the same time, we must also learn from other cuisines and other cultures to bring new dimensions to our own food. In that process, we may even inspire cooks and chefs from other nations to learn from our unique street food culture.

Someone once asked me what is Singapore cuisine during a lunch session. And I immediately answered street food. But he argued that places like Japan and Thailand have a very clear definition of their own cuisines, so much so that they can export it to other countries very easily and are very identifiable.

But we have yet to do that with our Singapore cuisine. We need to find a way to bottle up our own beautiful food in a way that other nationalities can easily identify as Singaporean cuisine as they would a plate of sushi from Japan or a bowl of Vietnamese beef pho.

Engage Gordon Ramsay if you must (and at the same token, include others like Keller and Heston), but instead of asking him for a challenge to see who can cook a better hawker dish, why not pick his brains instead on how to bring our hawker food to a larger international stage.

If anything, hawker food will benefit immensely from better plating and garnishing techniques that western chefs possess, and that can only help to accelerate our Singapore cuisine into the global arena. Make our food as accessible as a cup of Seattle coffee or Korean kimchi and by then, we will really stand proud of our own Singapore cuisine.

Is this not what all of us bloggers want in our unending quest to write about the hawker scenery, which is global recognition of our hawker fare? If so, look at the end point and not be myopic about a one off challenge that will fade away in most people's memory long after Gordon has left our shores.

But make a step in the right direction and champion our own hawker food to be a definitive form of Singapore cuisine that you can find in every corner of the world. And where every nationality on this planet will enjoy a plate of our very own hawker delicacy with equal aplomb as us Singaporeans do here.

That, I think, will speak better of us as Singaporeans and leave a lasting mark on the culinary stage.


  1. Thanks for writing this. I love this post. And I agree wholeheartedly. I think it's Singtel's marketing gimmick, Singtel has most probably already contacted Gordon Ramsay before the challenge. And I agree with you that it is juvenile marketing. Not only is the comparison between Gordon Ramsay and hawkers unfair (as you;ve stated in your article), the marketing gimmick really casts Gordon Ramsay in a bad light. If he accepts, he would be seen as someone proud. If he declines, he would be seen as a coward. And if he comes--most likely he will come lah, since Singtel liaises with him--he will lose even if he wins the competition. Why can't Singtel just invite him over and let him interact with the hawkers and stop pulling these juvenile stunts?

  2. thx for readin and sharing the same views :)

    if u r rite about singtel oredi brokering this with gordon, then its sad that this will still go thru. there are much better ways to handle this pr stunt then to issue challenges, machiam like schoolboys.

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  4. I agree that it is a bad idea, but I disagree with the earlier poster that Gordon loses in any way. By accepting the challenge in humility (which he has done), he shows himself to be a good sport, a man of the people who likes the food of the people, and wins a whole new base of fans in this part of the world.

    That's before we get to the contest! If he loses, he loses in a contest with an expert in a cuisine with which he is not familiar. If he wins, his credentials are reinforced and of course, he will be humble about it because whatever you think of him, he is a true master of PR. He knows when to shoot his mouth off and when to be humble.

    But at the end of the day, palate different, skill different, mindset different. Apples and oranges. Mission achieved of drumming up cheap, short-term publicity for local hawker food, but absolute fail on mission to improve the image of hawkers.