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In Singapore, First Street Food Vendor Earns A Michelin Star

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

You can get a Michelin-starred meal for less than $2, but you got to go to Singapore. The Hong Kong-style Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle food stall in Singapore has become one of the first two street vendors to earn a Michelin star.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHAN HON MENG: (Foreign language spoken).

SIMON: The owner and chef is Chan Hon Meng, and he told the Michelin awards ceremony last month that his dream is, quote, "to have more cuisine from Singapore and more of the undiscovered local hawker talent. Not just myself," he said, "but everyone else. I dream that our food can be enjoyed on an international stage." The international director of the Michelin Guides is Michael Ellis. He presented the star to Chef Hon Meng and joins us now from member station KQED in San Francisco. Thanks so much for being with us.

MICHAEL ELLIS: It's my pleasure.

SIMON: So did you have the pleasure of eating at this food stall?

ELLIS: I did indeed.

SIMON: How do you describe it?

ELLIS: The chef uses a - it's a Hong Kong recipe that he was taught 35 years ago. He marinates his chicken in soy sauce, roasts it, chops it, cooks rice with the chicken fat and then he serves it. It's something that sounds very simple, but I think in the world of Michelin, the ability to create sublime products from simple things is a great form of art.

SIMON: How'd you find out about it?

ELLIS: Singapore has an incredibly rich what they call hawker food culture. There are hundreds of hawker centers throughout Singapore, which is actually geographically quite small. Basically, hawker centers are large. They can be either covered or open air. And it's a collection of small kitchens that are open. There is communal tables.

It's not at all a posh or a fancy type of atmosphere, but it's a lot of fun. Singaporeans are arguably the world's most obsessive foodies. I mean, they are just absolutely passionate about their food. And they are absolutely passionate about their favorite hawker stalls.

So we sent our team's inspectors around Singapore, visiting many of the hawker centers and were able to come up with actually two that had one star with, of course, the Hong Kong Soy Sauce Chicken Rice and Hill Street Pork Noodle. So that was really a first for the guide, and we're very pleased that we were able to give this distinction to Singapore hawker food.

SIMON: And do you know much about Chef Chan Hon Meng?

ELLIS: I do. I was - had the pleasure of meeting him. I don't speak Chinese, and he doesn't speak English, so our communications went through a translator. But he's been doing this for 35 years. He works 17 hours a day. He's a very modest man, but he's very proud of what he does. He's of Chinese origin, originally born in Malaysia, but he's just a real icon for what the hawker food can be.

SIMON: Gordon Ramsay gets a star like this and he starts opening restaurants all over the world. What's the future for Chef Chan Hon Meng?

ELLIS: I think the - of course, the initial reaction was to form lines. I know he's gone from serving 100 chickens a day to almost double that - 180. He basically runs out of food before he can serve everybody in the line. I'm not sure that he has any plans of expanding and opening up a new stand. But I do know this - that the spotlight that Michelin Guide has the unique ability to shine on these types of establishments. I think it'll draw more people into the hawker food business or at least give it a lot more visibility on the international stage.

SIMON: Michael Ellis of the Michelin Guide, thanks so much for being with us.

ELLIS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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