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Singaporean street food guru KF Seetoh aims to stun New York’s palate at Urban Hawker

KF Seetoh at Urban Hawker in Midtown. Photo: Phil O’Brien

The 11,000-square-foot space on W50th between 6th and 7th avenues features an exclusive curation of Singaporean, South Asian and halal purveyors—with a few New York favorites mixed in, including Hell’s Kitchen’s Filipino favorite Tradisyon. Each 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 Sitoh as scores of 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 fly the Singapore flag for food, about 50 to 60 people immediately showed up,” he added. “Only a few have had the guts and, excuse my French, the balls to do that – it’s a lot of work. But I told them, “when you cross that river, there’s all green grass on the other side.”

A selection of dishes at Urban Hawker. Photo provided

And Seetoh knows a thing or two about discernment. “I was once a photojournalist and writer in Singapore,” he said, “where I realized that the best story to tell is through food.” He decided to start a local food guide company called Makansutra, which offers visitors “unapologetically local, raw and real’ tours of Singapore’s street food scene – known as hawker markets.

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The success of Makansutra led Seetoh to additional opportunities as an on-screen culinary personality and food critic, and his reputation as Singapore’s foremost expert on ambulatory culture grew. “Even the Michelin-starred guidebooks now recognize the traders,” he said

KF Seetoh with Anthony Bourdain. Photo: KF Seetoh Instagram

One person enamored with Seetoh’s work was the late, great Anthony Bourdain, a 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 TV show, so technically… I did it before Tony – it’s on the record,” laughed Sitoh. “His agent called me and said, ‘Hey, Tony’s filming in Singapore and he said he can’t leave without putting you on the show.’ I said, “Yeah, sure, I’m free tonight,” then hung up the phone and said to my wife, “Who the hell is Tony?!”

After taking Bourdain to a “dirty, seedy 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 should come and headline my event,'” Seetoh said. Their collaboration would continue as Bourdain offered to bring the energy of Singapore’s street food market to New York.

“He wanted to get it to Pier 57,” Seetoh said. Over time, the project’s finances fell apart, and then Bourdain passed away in 2018. But “while working with Tony, I met Eldon Scott, the president of Urbanspace,” Seetoh said. Years later, he approaches Scott with the idea of ​​reviving the forgotten street food project – and Scott jumps at it. “Eldon took two sheets of paper that I wrote my idea on to the partners at Urbanspace and they were ready to sign,” he said.

Over the past two years, Seetoh has built up its group of suppliers, assisting many of them with the paperwork required to move to the US. The support of his people – “I really protect them,” Seetoh said – is of the utmost importance to him, and some of the chefs working behind the counter at Urban Hawker’s stalls are from the same families who came up with the most popular dishes of the Asian diaspora . “They’re here and they’re smashing it. I’m here to support them and tell the story,” he added, introducing a chef named Chris as a “rock star.” Singapore’s national seafood dish, chilli crab, was invented by his father.

Tradisyon’s Joey Chanko and Frances Maborang talk to KT Seetoh. Photo: Phil O’Brien

In the case of Hell’s Kitchen favorite Tradisyon, Seetoh scrutinizes the Filipino establishment for authenticity. “I had heard about them and asked Chef Anton [Dayrit], “do you sell that fancy fusion stuff?” I have met a lot of Filipinos who cook crap,” Sitoh said. “And they said ‘No, we sell hot pork and they mentioned all the dishes that I know are Filipino street food – I said ‘Okay – I know what you’re talking about here. They cook food as authentic as it gets.”

“It’s all about the community,” said Joey Chanco, partner at Tradisyon, adding that they are happy to be a part of the Urban Hawker family. “It’s amazing to be here – there’s so much energy and great traffic,” added team member Francis Maborang.

Terry Neo drinks coffee at Kopifellas. Photo: Phil O’Brien

By bringing Urban Hawker to Midtown, Seetoh hopes to add diversity to New York’s food scene. “I’ve been coming to New York a lot — to visit Tony and do events,” he said. “I love your burgers, pizzas, pasta, bagels, but after about 400 visits I want more!”

Surveying the lively crowd from day one, Seetoh said New Yorkers are the perfect market to try dishes not usually served in the US. “New Yorkers don’t even know how curious and receptive they are to new food. They’ll come here and eat things they can’t pronounce,” he said. Asked what his personal favorite dish was, Seetoh demurred. “For me, it depends on which side of the bed I wake up on.”

This is a sign! Singapore has arrived in Midtown at Urban Hawker. Photo: Phil O’Brien

With Urban Hawker now operational (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, Los Angeles, Chicago — I have an idea of ​​how we could partner with 15 million vendors around the world and bring those flavors to America,” he said.

Surveying the array of sights, smells and tastes, he added: “All I can do is sell you the most authentic street food – the food of one’s ancestors. When you eat here, it’s as if 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 palate of the world.”

The Sling Bar is open — you can grab your drink anywhere in the market. Photo: Phil O’Brien


Urban Hawker officially opens on Wednesday, September 28, but is now in a soft launch at 135 W50th Street (between 6/7th Avenue).