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FROM shopping malls to HDB flats and mobile phones, nothing, it seems, is spared in upgrading-obsessed Singapore - not even humble hawker fare. Once the stuff of sweaty kopitiams, local cuisine is increasingly finding its way into upscale, air-conditioned settings.
But we are not just talking about the obligatory inclusion of a made-for-tourists $20 char kway tiao on the menus of soulless hotel lobby-cafes. Newly opened dining spots such as Clifford Pier, Ujong, Char and Labyrinth are taking familiar native dishes and giving them a reboot, either by using better cooking techniques, working in premium or preservative-free ingredients, or vamping things up with a circa-2014 mod presentation. Notably, they're also fronting their upgraded local cuisine as their key selling point.
Why the recent shift in spotlight away from trendy Spanish and French cuisine back onto home soil? Chef Han Liguang of Labyrinth, which serves up scientific cooking-driven signature dishes such as chilli crab ice-cream and chendol xiao long bao, thinks the local movement is part of a global wave.
With chefs such as Yim Jungsik and Alvin Leung winning international accolades for their upscale takes on Korean and Hong Kong street eats respectively, Mr Han says, "it gives younger chefs like me assurance that Asian street food can be done with a level of finesse, and there are people who will appreciate it."
Furthermore, the banker-turned-self-taught chef adds, serving Singaporean cuisine naturally means that he has better access to fresher produce, as recipes typically call for easily available native ingredients, rather than pricey imported products.
Anthony Ung of Char, which serves Cantonese noodle shop roasts in a contemporary art-clad venue that passes for a trendy Western cafe, points out that with rents for hawker stalls on the rise, it is better value even for penny-pinching food and beverage entrepreneurs to turn to full-fledged restaurant venues instead. "For a little more money, you can get a much bigger space," says Mr Ung, who likewise wanted to open a hawker stall initially.
The rent for cooked food hawker stalls, which have an average size of 200 sq ft, ranges from $300 to $5,000 per month in popular food centres. In comparison, a 1,600 sq ft shophouse unit along Char's up-and-coming Guillemard Road neighbourhood has an asking price of $5,500 in monthly rent.
But will the promise of a plush restaurant working environment necessarily spur more chefs to learn and preserve heritage recipes?
"Maybe in my son's generation," says Tan Ken Loon of the Naked Finn, which serves up salted egg yolk Scottish crabs and prawn mee made with Spanish carabinero prawns and iberico pork. "It won't be an easy battle because hawker fare is already regarded as high quality, people don't see the need to improve it."
While it is true that hawkers are largely revered for their cooking prowess – popular veterans have in recent years been asking for millions of dollars in exchange for their time-honed recipes – their social standing remains disproportionately downtrodden. Think about it: when was the last time you heard anyone boast that their parents are hawkers, or that it is their lifelong ambition to be one?
According to recent Temasek Polytechnic culinary school graduate Law Jia Jun, most of his classmates would rather find work in Western cuisine restaurants abroad post-graduation. Says the 20-year-old: “It's not about the working environment, but how people will perceive you. Being a hawker, cooking hawker food – it is still considered low-class to many.”
That's where restaurant operators such as Giovanni Viterale, general manager of The Fullerton Bay Hotel where Clifford Pier is housed says marketing makes a difference: "There is a need to communicate the quality offerings of the restaurant that present an experience which is distinct from what diners usually would associate with hawker food."
"This includes premium ingredients or ingredients handmade in-house by our chefs, as well as our bespoke furniture, heritage chic dining environment and exquisite waterfront views."
And the demand for such restaurants is definitely there, he says. Besides Clifford Pier, the Fullerton Hotel group's Town Restaurant has partnered with The Straits Times and The Business Times to create the Hawker Masters buffet for the last two years. The week-long buffet that gathers popular local hawkers under one hotel restaurant roof is always fully booked.
But along with uptown, cushy surrounds also comes other challenges, such as getting diners to shell out more than double for what would usually cost them $4 a plate in a hawker centre, or inviting the inevitable comparison to the street food version.
"Singaporeans are more willing to splash out the cash these days to try out a new restaurant, but they are also very protective of their heritage. If your take on a local dish isn't anything better or different and it doesn't justify the higher price, then they will not return," says Mr Han.
"We have to be willing to pay to preserve our tradition. We are now happily paying $15 for a bowl of ramen and $50 instead of $30 10 years ago for a buffet, but we still expect char kway tiao to cost $2," says Leslie Tay of hawker-centric food blog ieatishootipost. "Once we are willing to pay more for local food, then young hawkers will realise it is financially viable to want to sell char kway tiao instead of ramen or pasta".
Sometimes, even when the heart is willing, the resources aren't there, according to Shen Tan of month-old modern Singaporean restaurant Ujong. Recalling how she had to learn to cook nasi lemak from reading and experimenting on her own when she was starting out, she observes that most hawkers aren't willing to impart their skills and most culinary schools don't include hawker food in their curriculum.
Fortunately, greater headway is being made. Recent television shows such as Wok Stars, in which celebrity chefs Alvin Leung and Willin Low whip into shape a handful of hawker-wannabes, help to glamourise the hawker profession, for one.
Launched last October, the Hawker Master Trainee Pilot Programme - a collaboration between the Singapore Workforce Development Agency, NEA, property firm Knight Frank and The Business Times - further encourages new blood by pairing off veteran hawkers with aspiring ones.
From over 400 applicants, of which 30 trainees were enrolled, two are now running incubation hawker stalls at Amoy Street. In the last quarter of this year, Makansutra founder KF Seetoh will also roll out the first phase of its new Street Food Pro 360 Course, a 30-hour programme conducted by Singapore's best chefs on kitchen skills training, food business operations, and an understanding of the culture of Singapore's food heritage.
Inspiring a new generation
Another means of transplanting authentic hawker fare into posh environs could be to get financially solvent large restaurant or hotel groups to invest in young and veteran hawkers. "You start with a small hawker stall and then people will start taking note," says ieatishootipost's Mr Tay, "but you have to be careful about picking partners who are just as passionate."
Clifford Pier's youthful executive chef Ken Zheng is a Shatec-trained descendant of hawkers, for instance. And fourth-generation hawker Edwin Poh fries up his family recipe Hokkien mee in bespoke cocktail bar Ah Sam Cold Drink Stall, while former executive chef of Chatterbox at the Mandarin Orchard Han Seng Fong, used to run his own chicken rice stall at the Centrepoint before joining Pappasan restaurant at Dorsett Hotel last year. The restaurant now serves a Richman line of food, which features lobsters and fresh scallops in humble dishes such as char kway tiao and fried rice.
But KF Seetoh thinks there's more to inspiring the new generation of hawkers than the promise of a glamourous workplace and cushy career. Citing the recent spurt of hybrid dining concepts such as gastrobars that serve Singapore-inspired tapas and forward-thinking kopitiams that pair hawker cuisine with $20 craft beers, he says: "It is not just about getting young or old hawkers to cook in air-con places, it's also about opening up the doors of business and entrepreneurship to this breed of foodies.
"It takes a total rebranding of our comfort food culture, a total rethink."