Geylang Claypot Rice's owner on debuting in Las Vegas & preserving hawker culture

PHOTO: Instagram/@geylangclaypotrice

Boasting savoury marinated meat and vegetables atop rice slathered with flavourful sauces, clay pot rice is a popular dish in Singapore that's traditionally cooked over a charcoal stove to give it a distinctive smokey wok hei flavour.

Geylang Claypot Rice is one of the last few on the island to cook the dish using charcoal, and also one of the most popular.

So much so that it was approached by the Zouk Group to make its Vegas debut, alongside Springleaf Prata Place and Boon Tong Kee at Famous Foods Street Eats, a hawker-inspired food market at Resorts World Las Vegas.

The brand first opened four decades ago in a coffeeshop in Geylang Lorong 33, before moving to Beach Road in 2019 and also earned a Michelin Plate in 2016.

The Weekly got in touch with second-generation owner Chris Chang, who tells us more about showcasing the brand's dishes overseas, new innovations, and how he thinks hawker culture can be preserved.

How did the partnership between Zouk group and Geylang Claypot Rice come about?

Chris Chang (CC): Geylang Claypot Rice was listed as one of the top ten dishes that the late Anthony Bourdain wanted to have at his food market in NYC.

The management team at Zouk saw the article and tried the food at Geylang Claypot Rice - and they absolutely loved it. Geylang Claypot Rice was then invited to be part of Famous Foods Resorts World Last Vegas.

What dishes were served? Did it have to be tweaked or specially curated to suit the American palate?

CC: One would be able to enjoy our signature chicken clay pot rice and the beef clay pot rice at Geylang Claypot Rice in Famous Foods Street Eats Las Vegas.

The culinary teams in both Singapore and Las Vegas were keen to present the very version we serve in Singapore, but understood the need to adapt to different ingredients and cooking styles.

Given fire safety restrictions (in Las Vegas, Nevada) and the setting of a food court, we were not able to use charcoal.

However, the recipe (i.e. marinade and choice of ingredients) is almost identical, with the only difference being the addition of an onsen egg in Las Vegas.

How have visitors taken to the dishes so far?

CC: There was a lot of excitement with the opening of a new mega-resorts along the strip in ten years, which helped with the fantastic performance during the first week - 6,000 bowls of clay pot rice was served in the first week of the opening alone.

We even had Singaporeans living in the States visit the stall and it was heartening to see their pictures on social media.

Post opening, Famous Foods saw many unsolicited visits by US-based food influencers such as Mike Chen (@mikexingchen), who documented his dining experience and seemed to have enjoyed himself.

At every stall, Famous Foods also made the effort to explain the dish and history of each food brand - this helped to bridge any gaps in understanding and people took to the dish very well once they heard the explanation "Asian paella".

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How were authenticity and consistency ensured if recipes were shared remotely? How were the Vegas chefs chosen?

CC: The culinary team managing Famous Foods Resorts World Las Vegas (RWLV) coincidentally saw strong representation across different Asian countries - which was extremely helpful given the breadth of cuisine that is being served.

Head chef Kevin Hee manages the team and has an impressive resume with stints at Gordon Ramsay and a good understanding of Asian cuisine.

He was able to put together a team that not only had links to the cuisine's country of origin, but also have had experience cooking the specific cuisine.

Given the depth of experience some of the chefs had, with many of them understanding the flavour profile of the dishes we were hoping to cook, it became much easier to "pass on the recipes" because they understood what the nuances were, and how to navigate replicating those flavours with the ingredients available in the US.

How has Geylang Claypot Rice been coping with the pandemic in the past year?

CC: Tough, to say the least, and it does seem that everyone (globally) seems to be suffering fromCovid fatigue. The Government support has been absolutely critical.

What is encouraging is the vaccination rates in Singapore and the intention to gradually open our economy. We hope more Singaporeans head out to dine soon.

Have there been new innovations in the past couple years?

CC: We went through a massive revamp and rebranding exercise in 2019 and were just about to celebrate our first year anniversary at our new location when Covid-19 hit.

Along with this rebranding exercise and the improved environment, it has been a lot easier to hire staff.

Customers are now encouraged to place their own orders and our intention is to make the digital move at an appropriate juncture.

Your favourite Singaporean hawker dish is…

CC: Can I be sneaky and say tze char (laughs)? Simply because of the breadth and variety of food on offer. We are absolute lovers of "wok hei".

How can we preserve hawker culture and ensure it gets passed down to the next generation?

CC: I think we need to make the whole ecosystem a bit healthier - the working environment, the pricing, and the stewarding.

Fundamentally, the hawker model has not really changed since the 1960s to 70s, and perhaps relatively speaking, the food is priced probably cheaper today than it was.

Perhaps, we can take a leaf out of many farmer's markets that Singaporeans may be familiar with overseas, or the old Tsukiji market in Tokyo where hot food is served.

Layouts of hawkers need to be reimagined and reconfigured, and working spaces need to be bigger and safer.

At the same time, food prices need to increase to reflect a healthier distribution (of economic wealth) to the often hidden participants of this ecosystem - the dishwashers and trash clearers.

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This article was first published in The Singapore Women's Weekly.