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KF Seetoh is a born storyteller with a chef’s soul. The veteran journalist, culinary entrepreneur, television personality, Anthony Bourdain confidant and food critic who believes that “the best story to tell is through food” has just written his next tale — bringing his Singaporean street food empire to the new Midtown food market Urban Hawker, which soft-launched yesterday (Wednesday).
The 11,000 square-foot space on W50th Street between 6th and 7th Ave features an exclusive curation of Singaporean, South Asian and Halal cuisine vendors — with a few New York favorites mixed in, including Hell’s Kitchen’s own Filipino favorite Tradisyon. Every vendor was personally selected by Seetoh, who told W42ST in a walk-through on the market’s opening day that when it came time to select the 17 vendors for the space, he already had dozens of interested parties from around the world.
“My nickname in Singapore is the Street Food Guru, so I know a lot of people,” laughed Seetoh as multiple fans stopped him to ask for a photo. “When I mentioned that I was looking for vendors to come to the US and set up a market here and carry the Singapore food flag, we had around 50 to 60 people immediately show up,” he added. “Only a few had the gumption and, pardon my French, the balls to do this — 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.’”
And Seetoh knows a thing or two about having gumption. “Once upon a time, I was a photojournalist and a writer in Singapore,” he said, “where I realized the best story to tell is one through food.” He decided to start a local food guide company called Makansutra, which serves up “unforgivingly local, raw and real” tours of the Singaporean street food scene — known as hawker markets — to visitors.
The success of Makansutra led Seetoh to further opportunities as an on-screen food personality and food critic, and his reputation as Singapore’s foremost expert in hawker culture grew. “Even Michelin Star guides are now recognizing hawkers,” he said
One person enamored by Seetoh’s work was the late, great Anthony Bourdain, New York culinary legend and advocate for exploring hyperlocal cuisine around the world. “When he came out with his first book, I was already a rock star in Singapore with my own food television program, so technically…I did it before Tony – it’s on the record,” laughed Seetoh. “His agent called me and said, ‘Hey, Tony is filming in Singapore and he says he can’t leave without having you on the show,’. I said, ‘Yeah, sure, I’m free tonight,’ and then I hung up on the phone and told my wife ‘Who the hell is Tony?!’”
After taking Bourdain to a “dingy, run-down seafood restaurant in the red light district,” the two immediately hit it off. When Seetoh created the World Street Food Congress — a multi-day, global showcase for street food vendors in 2013 – “I said, ‘Tony, you owe me a favor, you have to come and headline my event,’” said Seetoh. Their collaboration would continue as Bourdain proposed bringing the energy of a Singaporean street food market to New York.
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“He wanted to bring it to Pier 57,” said Seetoh. Over time, the project’s finances fell apart and then Bourdain died in 2018. But “in the course of working with Tony, I was introduced to Eldon Scott,” the president of Urbanspace, said Seetoh. Years later, he approached Scott with the idea of reviving the forgotten street food project — and Scott ran with it. “Eldon took two pieces of paper that I wrote my idea on over to the partners at Urbanspace and they were ready to sign,” he said.
Over the past two years, Seetoh has built his cast of vendors, assisting many of them with the paperwork required to move to the US. Supporting his people — “I really champion them,” said Seetoh — is of utmost importance to him, and some of the chefs working behind the counter of Urban Hawker’s stalls are from the very families who invented the Asian diaspora’s most popular dishes. “They’re here, and they’re smashing it. I’m here to support them and to tell the story,” he added, introducing us to one chef named Chris as “a rock star. The national seafood dish of Singapore, chili crabs, was invented by his father.”
In the case of Hell’s Kitchen favorite Tradisyon, Seetoh was careful to screen the Filipino eatery for authenticity. “I had heard of them, and I asked Chef Anton, ‘are you selling that fancy fusion stuff?’ I’ve met a lot of Filipinos who were cooking nonsense,’” said Seetoh. “And they said ‘No, we’re selling hot pork, and they mentioned all the dishes I know to be Filipino street food – I said, ‘Good – I know what you’re talking about here. They are cooking food as authentic as it comes.”
“It’s all about the community,” said Anton Dayrit, the chef at Tradisyon, adding they were happy to be a part of the Urban Hawker family. “It’s amazing to be here – there’s such high energy and high foot traffic,” added team member Francis Mabborang.
By bringing Urban Hawker to Midtown, Seetoh hopes to add variety to the New York food scene. “I’ve come to New York a lot — to visit Tony and to do events,” he said. “I love your burgers, pizzas, pastas, bagels but after about 400 visits, I want more!”
Looking around at the bustling day one crowd, Seetoh said New Yorkers were the perfect market for trying dishes not commonly served in the US. “New Yorkers don’t even know how curious and receptive they are to new food. They will come here and eat stuff that they can’t pronounce,” he said. Asked what his personal favorite dish was, Seetoh demurred. “For me, it depends on what side of the bed I wake up on.”
With Urban Hawker off and running (about 70 percent of the vendors are fully operational and have just received their liquor license), Seetoh has already set his sights on opening markets in other cities. “We’re looking at opportunities on the West Coast, LA, Chicago – I have an idea for how we could partner with 15 million vendors around the world and bring these flavors to America,” he said.
Looking around at the smorgasbord of sights, smells and flavors, he added: “All I can do is my best to sell you the most authentic street food – the food of someone’s forebears. When you eat here, it’s like someone in your family is cooking for you.” Seetoh is determined to take his street food show on the road: “I love to dazzle the world’s palate.”
Urban Hawker officially opens on Wednesday September 28, but is in soft launch now, at 135 W50th Street (between 6/7th Avenue).
-Authentic Nyona cuisine from Daisy’s Dream
-Traditional prawn noodles with a modern twist at Prawnaholic Collections
-Singapore Chili Crabs from Wok & Staple
-Hainanese culinary delights at Hainan Jones
-Singaporean coffee shop KOPIFELLAS
-Indonesian specialists Jakarta Munch
-Singaporean and Indian flavors from Mamak’s Corner
-Gourmet Singaporean hawker burgers from AshesBurnnit NYC
-Hainanese curry rice from Smokin’ Joe
-Poke bowls and salads from YumYubu
-Southeast Pastry Shop Lady Wong New York
-Lunchtime favorite Mr Fried Rice NYC
-Egg noodles and satay from Padi NYC
-Hell’s Kitchen Filipino cuisine Tradisyon
-Brothy Rice and noodles from White Bee Hoon Restaurant