I was actually straining my ears out, hoping to catch an expletive or two from Gordon Ramsay when I attended the SingTel Hawker Heroes Challenge in Singapore last weekend. But, heck – no such luck.
Michelin-starred celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay is actually pretty charming in real life, when addressing the public. Maybe that’s what his PR agency tells him he should do. He was even smiling most of the time he appeared and spoke to his fans in his clipped English accent.
The scene at Newton Food Centre where this event was held, was quite chaotic. Two huge tents were erected next to the car park where this challenge was held. One tent was the media-cum-public-eating venue while the other bigger tent was where Gordon (and his team) and the 3 selected hawkers and their teams were cooking.
It all started a few weeks ago when Gordon Ramsay was thrown a challenge to see if he could cook better than the Singaporean hawkers. Singapore’s No.1 online restaurant guide – HungryGoWhere then conducted a poll to select the 3 top hawkers who would face-off Gordon in the challenge. An astounding 2.5 million votes were cast and Tian Tian Chicken Rice, 328 Katong Laksa and Jumbo Chilli Crabs emerged as the top 3 selection.
The stage was set. Gordon Ramsay flew in a few days earlier just so that he could go round and learn/get tips on how to cook those 3 items from the hawkers. Of course everywhere he went, there was mayhem as his ardent fans were all clamouring for a peek at him. I think, like me, they were all waiting for him to swear. I guess they were a bit happier when Gordon said “SingTel threw me a challenge and I’m going to put my balls on the line”. On whether he will be swearing at the cook-off, he offered “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”.
They started queueing at 1.00am!
When we (together with KY of KYSpeaks and Wei Zhi of KampungBoyCityGal) reached the Newton Food Centre at 6pm, there were already hordes of people around. Long queues were stretching all around the tents and carpark. I heard some people had been queuing since 1am the night before! Everyone who was there wanted to be in line to taste the food cooked by Gordon and the hawkers as 1,000 servings will be given out FOC on a first-come-first-served basis. Those who tasted the food then voted, via sms, on either Gordon or the hawkers for each of the 3 dishes.
Security was very tight and even though I had a media pass, it did not allow access to the cooking stations where the action was. From the media area, I caught glimpses of Gordon dashing around, either instructing his team or handing out trays of food to the people in the queue. And of course, all around him were the PR people and media crew with their tv cameras and all. So, at any one time, I could only watch from a distance. The PR rep could not even tell if there’s going to be any media session as apparently Gordon was in a bad mood.
So we settled ourselves to tasting the food served by the hawkers and Gordon. Six plastic containers of the food (3 by Gordon and 3 by the hawkers) were fitted snugly onto a cardboard tray. Here’s what I think of the food and the actual results of the sms votes:
1. Chicken Rice:
Gordon’s rice was OK and pretty fluffy. The 2 pieces of chicken breast meat in my serving were on the dry side but I could be biased since I hate breast meat. The chilli sauce tasted a bit “off” – I’m not sure if it went bad or there’s some funny ingredient added to it. Tian Tian’s chicken rice was nicely aromatic and fluffy. There were about 4-5 pieces of smooth tender chicken thigh, generous sprigs of coriander leaves and the chilli sauce was excellent. So, without a doubt, my vote was for Tian Tian. No surprise here, Tian Tian actually won this one, by 6 per cent.
Tian Tian’s Chicken Rice
Gordon’s Chicken Rice
2. Chilli Crabs:
Jumbo’s crabs were submerged in a thick gravy which had all the right nuances of sweetness, sourness and spiciness – pretty well balanced. On the other hand, Gordon’s chilli crabs were heavy on the spices scale and not tangy/sweet enough. It tasted almost like “sambal crabs” instead of the typical Singapore-style chilli crabs. As it turned out, Gordon won for Chilli Crabs, by 5 per cent.
Jumbo’s Chilli Crab
Gordon’s Chilli Crab
I actually thought Gordon would win this as I thought he did a good job on this. I liked his version. The laksa curry was balanced in its spice and coconut milk content and I liked that it was not overly rich. 328 Katong Laksa tends to be heavy on the coconut milk and very “lemak”. However, the result was Katong Laksa won this round, by 19 per cent.
328 Katong Laksa
So, the Singaporean hawkers won the challenge 2-1. The hawkers winning is expected. I’d say it’s very commendable that Gordon Ramsay won one of the dishes, considering that he only had a couple of days to learn and cook them. On the other hand, the Singaporean hawkers have been plying their food for years.
The Hawker Heroes during the press conference
After we had tasted the food and while waiting for the sms voting results, guess what? I turned around and lo & behold – Gordon Ramsay was heading to our table!!! Yes, he came and stopped by our table to say hello and asked about the food! I quickly whipped out the big-ass recipe book I was carrying in my bag the whole evening and asked him to autograph it. That was actually LL’s request and I lugged that thick hardcover book all the way there from KL, so you can imagine how determined I was to get his autograph. Of course he sweetly obliged and even posed for photos with us before he dashed off.
OK, mission accomplished. I got the autograph. I got up close and personal with one of the most famous chefs in the world. What a weekend.
The Malaysian Bloggers who were invited by HungryGoWhere Malaysia for the event!
For this memorable experience, my thanks go to HungryGoWhere Malaysia as we were their special guests in Singapore for this event. Yes, HungryGoWhere is coming to Malaysia very soon – check out and like their Facebook Page for the latest updates!