Wednesday 10 July 2013

Hawkers triumph over Ramsay in food contest

Celebrity chef scores with chilli crab but not laksa and chicken rice
By Lydia Vasko, The Straits Times, 8 Jul 2013

IN THE end, Singapore's hawker heroes triumphed over celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay at the SingTel Hawker Heroes Challenge at Newton Food Centre last night.

The Michelin-starred chef beat Mr Ang Kiam Meng, chief executive officer of Jumbo Seafood Restaurant by 5 per cent, but lost to Mr Ryan Koh, 31, of 328 Katong Laksa by 19 per cent and Madam Foo Kui Lian, 64, of Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice by 6 per cent.

Around 3,000 votes were cast by 1,000 members of the public who turned up at the hawker centre to taste chef Ramsay's and the hawkers' versions of each dish, and voted for their favourites via SMS.

On losing in two of the three categories, the notoriously foul- mouthed 46-year-old chef said: "What I'm taking home is a confirmation of how good hawker food is. I won three Michelin stars and they still kick my a**."

On his victory over the celebrity chef, Mr Koh diplomatically said: "I feel really happy to have won while representing Singapore. Chef Ramsay did not have a basic understanding of laksa but he was here only one day. Maybe if he had more time, he would cook better than us."

Mr Ang left soon after the competition ended and was unavailable for comment.

Mr Koh, Mr Ang and Madam Foo - chosen from a shortlist of 12 hawkers through an online poll which drew 2.5 million votes from members of the public - were in the lead in the polls throughout the night. The scores were broadcast live on a screen.

One thousand portions were available on a first come, first served basis. Some fans started queueing as early as 1am yesterday. By the time the cookout started at 6pm, almost 5,000 people had congregated for the three-hour-long event.

Makeshift kitchens had been set up for the competition in tents between the hawker centre and its public carpark.

The scene was chaotic for most of the night. Throngs of people pushed to get a glimpse of the celebrity chef, while frenzied fans screamed and chanted chef Ramsay's name.

Miss Azraini Alfred, 22, a recent James Cook University graduate and a Ramsay fan, started queueing with her friends at 11am. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see him in person and to try his interpretations of local food," she says.

When asked who she voted for, "Gordon Ramsay" was her enthusiastic reply. But when asked whose food she preferred, she said: "Honestly, I thought the hawkers were better (for chilli crab and laksa) but they were on a par with the chicken rice."

Other responses were similarly mixed. Ms Shirin Omar, 49, preferred Jumbo's chilli crab which she felt had a milder taste. "Gordon Ramsay's sauce was too sour," she said.

Ramsay spent much of the event stalking intensely around the makeshift kitchen stirring the chilli crab sauce and helping with the meal service. He even changed his laksa recipe at the last minute, a move which, he admitted, was probably a mistake.

The chef, who left for London right after the competition ended, said that the hawker food, particularly laksa, was incredibly difficult to master. "The laksa was a tough one because there are so many different variations, the tofu, the coconut, the shrimp, the paste, so I was struggling. I knew within the first 45 minutes that we were slightly running behind on that."

Ramsay and the hawkers each had a team of assistants.

On what he would do to celebrate his win, Mr Koh said he planned to go home, take a shower and prepare for another day at his family's laksa stall.

"It's going to be a full day tomorrow."

Chef Ramsay heats up Maxwell
Security guards had to control the chef's fans and a stall owner splashed water at the crowd
By Eunice Quek, The Straits Times, 6 Jul 2013

Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay turned up the heat at Maxwell Food Centre during lunch time yesterday.

Security guards had to stop media and eager fans who surged towards him, hoping to get a picture of the Scottish chef-restaurateur as he entered the bustling hawker centre to learn how to cook chicken rice from Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice owner, Madam Foo Kui Lian.

The mayhem also affected neighbouring stalls. The owner of one threw water at the crowd, and baffled diners asked what was happening.

Amid the commotion, a man asked loudly in Mandarin if popular Hong Kong singer-actor Andy Lau was in the hawker centre.

Even when the 46-year-old Ramsay disappeared for more than an hour to "freshen up", his fans stayed around the chicken rice stall, waiting for his return.

At the first SingTel Hawker Heroes challenge tomorrow at Newton Food Centre, Ramsay will attempt to recreate Tian Tian's chicken rice, together with chilli crab from Jumbo Seafood and laksa from 328 Katong Laksa.

There will be 1,000 platters of food, served on a first-come-first-served basis from 6.30pm. Each platter will have food prepared by Ramsay and the three hawkers.

Diners will vote on the spot via SMS for the version they prefer and a live update on the total number of votes cast will be screened during the event.

Ramsay also visited Jumbo Seafood's outlet at East Coast last night, and will be at 328 Katong Laksa today.

On whether getting tips from the hawkers is considered cheating, Ramsay, known for using colourful language, says: "I'm not cheating, I'm stealing. I'm like a magpie, I've come to look at everything glittery. Every top chef learns from another.

"Even when everyone's gone to bed, I'll be sneaking down to the St Regis kitchen and practising my a** off. It's just me, there's only one Gordon Ramsay palate."

But do not expect newfangled twists on the three local favourites.

The host of reality cooking competitions Hell's Kitchen and MasterChef US says: "I'd be stupid to try to reinvent the wheel. I'd cause a riot if I came up with a new chicken rice.

"I'm going to cook the rice perfectly, boil the chicken, and master the blend of garlic and ginger in the chilli.

"For the chilli crab, it's important to get the bile out. And for the laksa, it's about the blend of spices and how you season it."

Mr Ang Kiam Meng, chief executive officer of Jumbo Group, is looking forward to taking on Ramsay, whom he terms as a "passionate chef".

He says: "It would be very interesting to see how a Westerner would interpret our cuisine. The blend of spices is very crucial in the sauce and that's the magic that will make or break the attempt."

Tian Tian's Madam Foo says in Mandarin: "He may not be so good at controlling the fire and estimating the time needed. He's a master of Western cuisine, he can't possibly learn about our local dish so quickly. Just like I won't be able to do Western food either."

Ngee Ann Polytechnic student Joshua Foo, 18, an ardent fan of Ramsay, waited patiently at Tian Tian yesterday. He says: "I like to cook and I watch his videos on YouTube to learn recipes. It's simple, clean and easy to understand. He is a big inspiration for me. But with all due respect to him, I'm sure our hawkers will do well."

To those who are looking to see the cookbook author flop at local fare, Ramsay says: "I'm expecting a lot of people dying to see me fail. The more the people who think I'm going to lose, the better I'll become.

"I love a challenge, I hate playing safe and I love the vulnerability. This is not about me thinking I'm better than the hawkers. SingTel threw the challenge at me and I'm going to put my balls on the line."

Those who have always wanted to taste Ramsay's Michelin-starred cuisine might get lucky.

He says he is also looking to expand his empire of restaurants here.

"I'm looking at opening a restaurant myself here and I cannot wait. Nothing will give me more pleasure."

So will he be swearing at the cook-off?

He says: "We have good days. When things go right, I'm the first to tell my chefs. When things go wrong, I'm also the first to tell them.

"So I'm going to call it as I see it. The pressure is on and there is no way on earth I can afford to f*** this up."

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