Makan in the USA

If Anthony Bourdain builds it, they will come. That's what the rambunctious TV host's business partners are banking on as they stump up the US$60 million needed to turn an unused pier building on New York's Hudson River into the mother of all food courts.

When the mindbogglingly ambitious project opens in 2017 - all 155,000 sqft of it - it will be Bourdain's pipe dream come true. Ever since the host of food shows No Reservations and Parts Unknown set foot in Singapore and had his first taste of laksa, he has been rallying for a communal, multi-stall dining concept to be built in New York.

That is why the core of Bourdain Market - a collection of artisanal food vendors and full-service restaurants - is to be a mega hawker centre with familiar names such as Geylang Claypot Rice, 328 Laksa and Tian Tian Chicken Rice. Not the watered-down, tailored-to-foreign-taste variety, but the real thing transplanted from Maxwell Road to Manhattan's meatpacking district.

Of the 100 stalls planned, about half will be from Singapore, says KF Seetoh, founder of hawker guide Makansutra. The man who introduced Bourdain to Singapore street food has been tasked to curate the stalls for the project. The rest of the stalls will come from other parts of Asia.

For now, the above-mentioned Singapore trio are keen to set up shop in New York, pending the logistics of leases, visas and the like. But have no fear of seeing your favourite Mom-and-Pop home-made fishball noodle stall packing up and heading West. Says Seetoh: "We're looking for stalls with the means (to go); those with scalability, maybe the second generation kind of stall who can develop their business model."

But they still have to fit into Bourdain's vision of "curated chaos and orchestrated filth", Seetoh quotes him as saying. "A cross between Old Airport Road hawker centre and the original Bugis Street."

However it's described, the bigger picture is that Bourdain Market could well be the biggest breakthrough for Singapore cuisine to grow its global appeal. While you can find the occasional Singapore restaurant in cities around the world, to have 50 Singapore hawkers in one place outside of their home turf is unprecedented, even in a diverse melting pot like New York.

Add this to a small but dedicated group of chefs aiming to educate American palates on the difference between hae mee and char Hokkien mee, and who knows - char kway teow could one day be the next pad thai.

Buying into the notion that Singapore food has strong upside in New York and the US is Malaysian-born Simpson Wong, the owner and chef of Chomp Chomp - a casual eatery serving Singapore hawker food in the West Village.

"I would say that in the past five years, Singapore food has emerged as a possible trend," he says. With Singapore being a financial and commercial hub, lots of people have gone to work there, eaten the food and miss it when they come home. You'd be surprised at how small the world is getting. Laksa, char kway teow and chicken rice have become very well known!"

He adds that the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) has played an active role, organising events like Singapore Day and Singapore: Inside Out to introduce its culture and food to the West. "It also routinely invites writers from well-known food magazines to visit the country where these writers are wined and dined, so that Singapore food gets written about in food, travel and leisure magazines like Food & Wine and Saveur."

If done well, Bourdain Market will take off, Wong reckons. Not that he needs a push from it. "I'm already doing well here. On most days, the place is packed. On Friday and Saturday night, people queue for up to an hour. Most of my diners are Asians - not necessarily Singaporeans and Malaysians. Many come with their families and non-Asian friends and the word spreads. We've also gotten good reviews from the press, like Monocle, Village Voice and the New Yorker, which draws even more diners."

New York-based private chef and consultant Lawrence Reutens is gung ho about Bourdain Market paving the way for a better understanding and demand for Singapore food.

"The prevalence of Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese cuisines in America stems from both the huge immigrant populations from those countries and also the exposure of Americans who spent time there over the last 50 years or more," says the Singaporean who worked in finance back home before moving to the US, where he decided to pursue his love for cooking.

"Singapore cuisine hasn't had that exposure and without a large immigrant population, such restaurants will have a hard time surviving here - so most Singaporean dishes here live within Malaysian restaurants. This isn't a bad thing because now there is a thirst and hunger for authentic Singaporean flavours and the current culinary culture seeks out authenticity. Bourdain Market will bring that authenticity to New York on a huge scale and as it does so there will be an opportunity for Singapore restaurants to ride the wave."

Reutens opened his own restaurant Masak Masak in 2012 to strong reviews but was forced to close it after Hurricane Sandy devastated parts of the city, including where his restaurant was located. He's hoping to open a new restaurant but in the meantime is kept busy cooking for private Singaporean clients and Singapore embassies in Washington DC and New York. Masak Masak's American clients, though, "were extremely adventurous and on the whole didn't want their dishes dumbed down".

What also boosts the profile of Singapore food in the US is that the chefs behind them have enjoyed critical acclaim for their work, and run professional rather than family-style kitchens. Reutens, for example, worked his way up to executive chef position before he struck out on his own. Wong's Chomp Chomp has been hailed by New Yorker magazine while his other restaurant - simply called Wong - earned a two star rating in the New York Times.

Bryant Ng, a Los Angeles-born chef whose father is from Singapore and mother hails from Hong Kong, was named Best New Chef in 2012 by Food and Wine magazine for his work in his restaurant The Spice Table. He recently opened Cassia in Santa Monica, California, focusing on Singaporean and South-east Asian cuisine, which has also enjoyed strong buzz.

"There's a growing interest in Singaporean food in the US, but it's still in its gestation period. For most immigrant populations, it's (the case) that these ethnic enclaves crave food from the homeland so that helps build awareness. Singapore doesn't have this. For better or worse, the majority of Singaporeans coming to the US are highly educated and aren't coming over to cook or open a Singaporean restaurant. This opens up the door for children of immigrants (such as myself) to connect with their culinary heritage and introduce the flavours to a broader audience."

While not Singaporean, "I grew up eating a lot of Singaporean and Chinese food". The diversity of cultures in Los Angeles also helps "a restaurant like Cassia because there tends to be an openness about cuisine," he adds.

"Until people are more aware of what Singaporean cuisine is, it would be harder (to serve his food) in a less populated and less diverse area. It's human nature to choose the familiar and it takes a bit more effort to try something new. The good news is that the flavours of Singaporean cuisine have a soulfulness that shares a common thread with many other better known Asian cuisines." Incidentally, "one of our most popular dishes is laksa!"

A little more circumspect about Singapore food's prospect is Salil Mehta, the proprietor of Pasar Malam - a Malaysian style eatery in Williamsburg which features Malay/Indian cooking such as nasi lemak and roti canai (prata). "Our customers are very knowledgable when it come to Thai food but close to 80 per cent draw a blank when you talk about anything beyond roti canai."

Also, "to make food the proper way we can't compromise on certain ingredients like fresh kunyit root, laksa leaf, lime leaf, curry leaf and all, which are very expensive. Along with labour cost and rents in NYC, it's very hard to sustain a successful Singaporean restaurant as the customers find it difficult to pay for a US$15 bowl of Assam laksa not knowing the ingredients and labour that goes into it."

Still, "I personally love the idea of a hawker centre in NYC as it will help us educate and expose more people to the cuisine, and it's more compelling when a personality like Bourdain advocates something as opposed to someone you have never heard of."

Authenticity issue aside, non-Asian chefs are even adapting Singapore flavours in their cooking. At the STB-driven Singapore Restaurant Week recently in New York, Daniel Holzman of The Meatball Shop drew raves for his Hainanese Chicken Rice-inspired meatballs. "I poached chicken and ground it together with rice and traditional seasonings, binding it all with eggs to make meatballs," he says. "They were super popular with all our guests - Asians and non-Asians alike."

He got his inspiration after spending four days eating his way through Singapore and falling in love with chicken rice. "Singapore has such a rich and vibrant culinary culture comprised of so many unique cuisines. I see Singaporean dishes finding their way onto American menus more and more as people fall in love with South-eat Asian food."

One thing that all these restaurants and chefs have in common is that they have all worked with STB at one time or another, if not regularly, to boost its marketing activities in the US. The impact of Bourdain Market is certainly not lost on STB either - in fact, the idea was even planted by them.

"The inspiration for the Bourdain Market stemmed from a trip STB had supported for Singapore to be featured on Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations television show," says Kershing Goh, regional director, Americas, Singapore Tourism Board. "It was during this trip that Bourdain experienced Singapore's hawker culture for the first time, and was so impressed that he opened his next show The Layover with a Singapore episode."

STB is still working out the details of its involvement and could not share any more details, she adds.

Food has always been a big part of STB's marketing efforts overseas but "in recent years, we decided to dial up this aspect in the American market as food-related shows such as Top Chef, Bourdain's No Reservations and Layover, Andrew Zimmer's Bizarre Food and MasterChef - plus the rising prominence of celebrity chefs - led to Americans having more adventurous palates," says Ms Goh. "STB has since capitalised on this trend and our diversifying dining scene to position Singapore as the culinary capital of South-east Asia. Street food and hawker fare still form the basis of the food culture that we promote, but our portfolio has expanded to include the influx of celebrity chef restaurants and establishments that serve modern Singaporean (mod-Sin) cuisine, and profiling our own local culinary talent."

While the chefs involved are excited about the potential and the interest in their food, there is one customer they find the most challenging of all - Singaporeans.

"They are some of the most critical diners among all my guests," says Chomp Chomp's Wong. "They're always complaining, saying, 'this isn't how my Ah Ma would do it - the popiah would have bamboo shoots in it'. Oh well, you can't please everyone."

Perhaps. But you can be sure that once Bourdain Market is open, Singaporeans - and everybody else - will go.

This article was first published on October 24, 2015.
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