KF Seetoh A storyteller born in the spirit of a chef. Veteran journalist, culinary entrepreneur, TV personality, confidant Anthony Bourdain and food critic who believes “the best story you tell is through food” has just written his next tale – bringing the Singaporean street food empire to the new downtown food market urban hookerwhich was launched yesterday (Wednesday).
The 11,000-square-foot space on W50th Street between 6th and 7th Ave features an exclusive run of Singaporean, South Asian, and halal food vendors – with some mixed New York favorites, including Hell’s Kitchen’s favorite Filipino. Tradition. Each vendor was personally selected by Sitoh, who told W42ST on a market opening day tour that when it came time to select 17 vendors for the space, he already had dozens of interested parties from around the world.
Sitoh laughed as several fans stopped him for asking for a photo, “My nickname in Singapore is Street Food Guru, so I know a lot of people.” “When I mentioned that I was looking for vendors who would come to the US and set up a market here and carry the Singaporean food flag, we had about 50 to 60 people showing up right away,” he added. “Only a few of them had the guts, pardon my French, the balls to do it—it’s a lot of work. But I told them, ‘When you cross this river, there’s a whole green grass on the other side.'”
He will get lost knowing a thing or two about being smart. “Once upon a time, I was a photojournalist and writer in Singapore, where I realized that the best story that can be told is one through food,” he said. He decided to set up a local food guide company called makansutrawhich offers “local, raw, real and unforgiving” tours of Singapore’s street food scene – known as hawker markets – to visitors.
Makansutra Seetoh’s success led to more opportunities as an on-screen foodie and food critic, and his reputation as Singapore’s foremost expert on hawker culture grew. “Even Michelin-starred guides are now recognized as peddlers,” he said.
One person who admired Sitoh’s work was the late, great Anthony Bourdain, a New York culinary legend who advocated the exploration of local cuisines around the world. Seto chuckled, “When he came out with his first book, I was already a rock star in Singapore with my TV food show, so technically…I did that before Tony – he’s a recorder.” “His agent called me and said, ‘Hey, Tony is filming in Singapore and says he can’t leave without you on the show.’ I said, ‘Yeah, sure, I’m free tonight,’ then I hung up and told my wife ‘Who the hell is Tony?’ !”
After taking Bourdain to the “dirty and rickety seafood restaurant in the red light district,” the two immediately shocked him. When Seetoh created the file World Street Food Congress – A multi-day global show for street food vendors in 2013 – Sitoh said, “I said, ‘Tony, you owe me a favor, you have to come and top my event.'” Their collaboration would continue as Bourdain suggested bringing energy from a Singaporean street food market to New York.
“He wanted to bring her to Pier 57,” Seetoh said. Over time, the project’s finances collapsed and then Bourdain died in 2018. But “while working with Tony, I got to know Eldon Scott,” Urbanspace’s president, Sitoh said. Years later, he approached Scott with the idea of reviving a forgotten street food venture — and Scott ran with him. “Eldon took two pieces of paper on which I wrote my idea to the partners at Urbanspace and they were ready to sign,” he said.
Over the past two years, Seetoh has built his team of vendors, many of whom have helped with the paperwork required to move to the United States. Seetoh said the support of his people — “I really advocate for them” — is paramount to him, and some of the chefs behind the Urban Hawker counter are from the same families that created the most famous dishes of the Asian diaspora. “They are here, and they are smashing it. I am here to support them and tell the story,” he added, introducing us to a chef named Chris as “a rock star. Singapore’s national seafood dish, spicy lobster, was invented by his father.”
In the case of Hell’s Kitchen favorite Tradisyon, Seetoh was keen to check the Filipino restaurant for authenticity. “I’ve heard of them, and I asked Chef Anton [Dayrit], “Do you sell this fancy fusion stuff?” “I’ve met a lot of Filipinos who have been cooking waffle,” said Sitoh. “And they said ‘No, we sell hot pork,’ and they mentioned all the dishes that I know are Filipino street food—I said, ‘Good—I know what you’re talking about here.'” They cook authentic food as is.”
“It’s all about the community,” said Joey Chanko, partner at Tradisyon, adding that they are thrilled to be part of the Urban Hawker family. “It’s amazing to be here – there’s high energy and high foot traffic,” added team member Frances Maburang.
By bringing Urban Hawker to Midtown, Seetoh hopes to add variety to New York’s dining scene. “I come to New York a lot — to visit Tony and do events,” he said. “I love burgers, pizza, pasta and bread but after about 400 visits, I want more!”
Looking around the bustling day in a crowd, Seetoh said New Yorkers are the perfect market to try dishes not commonly served in the United States. “New Yorkers don’t even know how curious and receptive they are to new food. They will come here and eat things they can’t pronounce.” When asked about his favorite dish, Setoh objected. “For me, it depends on which side of the bed I get up on.”
With Urban Hawker shutting down (about 70 percent of sellers are fully operational and just getting their liquor licensed), Seetoh has already set his sights on opening up markets in other cities. “We are looking for opportunities on the West Coast, Los Angeles, Chicago — I have an idea of how we can partner with 15 million sellers around the world and bring these flavors to America,” he said.
Looking around at the variety of sights, smells, and flavors, he added, “All I can do is sell you the most authentic street food—someone’s ancestral food. When you eat here, it’s like someone in your family is cooking for you.” Seto is determined to take his street food show on the road: “I love to impress the world’s palate.”
urban hooker Officially opens Wednesday, September 28, but is now launching at 135 W50th Street (between 6/7th Avenue).
#Singaporean #street #food #expert #Seetoh #aims #impress #York #palate #Urban #Hawker