Chef Ramsay heats up Maxwell

SINGAPORE - Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay turned up the heat at Maxwell Food Centre during lunch time on Friday.

Security guards had to stop media and eager fans who surged towards him, hoping to get a picture of the Scottish chef-restaurateur as he entered the bustling hawker centre to learn how to cook chicken rice from Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice owner, Madam Foo Kui Lian.

The mayhem also affected neighbouring stalls. The owner of one threw water at the crowd, and baffled diners asked what was happening.

Amid the commotion, a man asked loudly in Mandarin if popular Hong Kong singer-actor Andy Lau was in the hawker centre.

Even when the 46-year-old Ramsay disappeared for more than an hour to "freshen up", his fans stayed around the chicken rice stall, waiting for his return.

At the first SingTel Hawker Heroes challenge tomorrow at Newton Food Centre, Ramsay will attempt to recreate Tian Tian's chicken rice, together with chilli crab from Jumbo Seafood and laksa from 328 Katong Laksa.

More than 2.5 million votes were cast in a poll by online restaurant guide Hungrygowhere, to pick the three hawker masters from a shortlist of 12.

There will be 1,000 platters of food, served on a first-come-first-served basis from 6.30pm. Each platter will have food prepared by Ramsay and the three hawkers.

Diners will vote on the spot via SMS for the version they prefer and a live update on the total number of votes cast will be screened during the event.

Ramsay also visited Jumbo Seafood's outlet at East Coast on Friday night and 328 Katong Laksa on Saturday.

On whether getting tips from the hawkers is considered cheating, Ramsay, known for using colourful language, says: "I'm not cheating, I'm stealing. I'm like a magpie, I've come to look at everything glittery. Every top chef learns from another.

"Even when everyone's gone to bed, I'll be sneaking down to the St Regis kitchen and practising my a** off. It's just me, there's only one Gordon Ramsay palate."

But do not expect newfangled twists on the three local favourites.

The host of reality cooking competitions Hell's Kitchen and MasterChef US says: "I'd be stupid to try to reinvent the wheel. I'd cause a riot if I came up with a new chicken rice.

"I'm going to cook the rice perfectly, boil the chicken, and master the blend of garlic and ginger in the chilli.

"For the chilli crab, it's important to get the bile out. And for the laksa, it's about the blend of spices and how you season it."

Mr Ang Kiam Meng, chief executive officer of Jumbo Group, is looking forward to taking on Ramsay, whom he terms as a "passionate chef".

He says: "It would be very interesting to see how a Westerner would interpret our cuisine. The blend of spices is very crucial in the sauce and that's the magic that will make or break the attempt."

Tian Tian's Madam Foo says in Mandarin: "He may not be so good at controlling the fire and estimating the time needed. He's a master of Western cuisine, he can't possibly learn about our local dish so quickly. Just like I won't be able to do Western food either."

Ngee Ann Polytechnic student Joshua Foo, 18, an ardent fan of Ramsay, waited patiently at Tian Tian yesterday. He says: "I like to cook and I watch his videos on YouTube to learn recipes. It's simple, clean and easy to understand. He is a big inspiration for me. But with all due respect to him, I'm sure our hawkers will do well."

To those who are looking to see the cookbook author flop at local fare, Ramsay says: "I'm expecting a lot of people dying to see me fail. The more the people who think I'm going to lose, the better I'll become.

"I love a challenge, I hate playing safe and I love the vulnerability. This is not about me thinking I'm better than the hawkers. SingTel threw the challenge at me and I'm going to put my balls on the line."

Those who have always wanted to taste Ramsay's Michelin-starred cuisine might get lucky.

He says he is also looking to expand his empire of restaurants here.

"I'm looking at opening a restaurant myself here and I cannot wait. Nothing will give me more pleasure."

So will he be swearing at the cook-off?

He says: "We have good days. When things go right, I'm the first to tell my chefs. When things go wrong, I'm also the first to tell them.

"So 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."