In one of the last scenes of Top Chef DC, which wraps up with the first of two final episodes airing tonight, there is a telling moment in which a slight culture clash unfolds.
The setting is the Tanjong Beach Club, a restaurant located on a tranquil stretch of sand on Sentosa, a tiny dot of a resort island attached to Singapore by a causeway. The four final contestants are in the kitchen, furiously working to put food on the table for one of the big challenges, and chaos, as is the norm for these competitions, is in no short order. In Singapore, however, there is an additional element throwing a wrench in the works.
"There was a bit of a language issue," says Dave Serwatka, vice president of production for Bravo and executive producer of the show. "We used the waitstaff from the location and they were a wonderful group, but they were going out and taking orders and sending some tickets back written in Chinese." Which could be read by none of the chefs, of course.
"When you get four intense, American chefs competing for a $125,000 prize working with these delightful young people who may be more used to slinging drinks in a beach setting," he notes, "it can cause some tension."
When news broke last week that the crew of Top Chef DC flew to Singapore to film the final episodes, marking the first time in the show's seven seasons that it has gone to a foreign country to film, I was unsurprised. The country's dishes, hawker stands, and ingredients have been getting praise from American food critics, television personalities from Samantha Brown to Martha Stewart, and chefs such as Jean-Georges Vongerichten in recent years. When Anthony Bourdain picked his "13 Places to Eat Before You Die" for Men's Health magazine in 2009, a hole-in-the-wall seafood place in Singapore's red-light district was number five on the list. So it did seem about time for Padma Lakshmi, Food & Wine editor-in-chief Dana Cowin, and Tom Colicchio to be jetting halfway around the world to check out the food scene there while filming Top Chef.
Being a native Singaporean, I was curious, however. Any Singaporean will tell you that our national pride is deeply entwined with our cuisine. We don't eat to live—we live to eat. With a major American food show choosing to devote two key episodes to my country's food, I wondered whether the true Singapore that locals love would actually be on display.
For starters, I was a little skeptical that one of the final challenges takes place at Jim Thompson, a Thai restaurant by the silk-and-Asian-tchotchke retail chain that's not exactly a go-to for most Singaporeans. It's somewhat akin to filming a food show in a Disneyland restaurant and having that be the setting to showcase say, America's Southern cuisine. There were other reasons for picking Jim Thompson, however. "It's a beautiful restaurant—it was used primarily as a location," Serwatka explains.
The show does, however, go to some places that Singaporeans actually frequent and heartily recommend. In one of the episodes, K.F. Seetoh, a Singaporean television food personality and the creator of Makansutra, the country's version of the Zagat Guide, takes the contestants on a tour of the country's ubiquitous hawker centers to familiarize them with local dishes. Among the stops are the Bedok Food Centre and East Coast Lagoon Food Village—two locales that are far from the city center and filled with some outstanding hawkers. There, Seetoh says, they learned about ingredients such as belacan, a pungent shrimp sauce that's prevalent in Singaporean cooking; and blood cockles, which are often seen in fried noodle dishes.
"We showed them our hawker centers in the heartland areas, as these are the places where the local palates reside," Seetoh says, noting that while a lot of good food exists in Singapore, there are also places to avoid. "At last count—a conservative count!—there are at least 30,000 licensed eateries all over this island of about 270 square miles. Someone is touting something unctuous at every corner."
Serwatka says that Top Chef producers had been entertaining the idea of filming overseas—"Puerto Rico," where the crew had filmed before, "doesn't count," he notes—and eventually settled on Singapore because of its mingling of cultures. The country has been a hotbed of fusion food since the British set up a trading port there in the early 19th century, attracting traders from India, China, Europe, and Southeast Asia. The resulting national cuisine has ended up being a hodgepodge of Malay, Chinese, Indian, and Eurasian dishes. "It's just a cross-section of so many different cuisines," Serwatka says. "We thought that was very interesting."
And at the final dinner, the guests who pass judgment on the contestants' offerings are an international blend as well—at the table with Lakshmi and Cowin are Eric Ripert and David Chang as well as Singaporean fine-dining chefs Ignatius Chan and Willin Low, who have recently gotten the attention of international food writers.
Unfortunately, one of the more interesting meals the crew had in Singapore wasn't caught on camera. "We had one night to go out to eat, just for fun, and we went to No Signboard Seafood and we ate for about three hours," Serwatka says, mentioning a seafood restaurant that is a must for many Singaporeans. "We had black pepper crab, white pepper crab, chili crab—it was really an amazing dining experience. I wish I could eat there tonight."
So do we, Serwatka. So do we.