Singapore needs young "hawker stars" to inspire the next generation to fire up their woks and pick up their spatulas, said resident food expert K.F. Seetoh.
"We should make stars of them, put them on a pedestal. The young generation needs that kind of recognition," said Mr Seetoh, who founded Makansutra, a company which celebrates food culture.
"With recognition comes the opportunity for money-making," he added, speaking to reporters at a national culinary competition for young people aged between 17 and 23 yesterday.
The issue of attracting new blood into a trade shunned by the young because of its long hours and hot working environment is a long-running one.
And the problem could get worse, with more than 800 new stalls being added to hawker centres over the next 12 years.
Unless the image of a hawker changes, the next generation will continue "opening their muffin shops" and the local food heritage will be lost, warned Mr Seetoh.
"Then who's going to cook char kway teow (stir-fried rice noodles) for your children?"
Mr Yap Kim Leong, 47, general manager of the Chang Cheng Mee Wah chain of coffee shops, said that while being a star might be appealing to the young, long-term success in the trade requires determination.
"You can focus on cooking just one dish - carrot cake, for example - and if you can cook that very well, you'll be a success," he said.
"But you'll need determination as it may take a long time before you succeed."
Yesterday's inaugural Singapore Signature Street Food Challenge, organised by the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), aimed to get young chefs interested in whipping up local dishes.
The 15 teams of finalists, who come from Singapore's top culinary schools, were given two weeks to do research and practise cooking six dishes.
Each team of two then had to prepare the same dishes - carrot cake, salted egg yolk crab and bubur chacha - at the competition venue at ITE College West yesterday. Each dish had to come in two versions - one in the traditional style and the other with a modern twist.
Temasek Polytechnic's Daren Teo and Tien Jia Chen, both 19, emerged winners.
For the modern versions, they whipped up carrot cake cooked in the style of a Spanish frittata, or omelette, salted egg yolk crab resembling Italian tortellini pasta, and a bowl of bubur chacha topped with a French tuile cookie.
"The idea was to keep the flavour of the traditional dish, but give it a different look," said Mr Teo. Despite the creativity, though, it was the flavours which won the judges over, said Mr Seetoh, who headed the nine-judge panel.
The pair will showcase their winning dishes at next month's World Street Food Congress, an event dedicated to street food and its culture, organised by Makansutra.
This article was first published on March 22, 2015.
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