SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Singapore is cooking up new methods to find the next wave of hawker sellers amid fears the city state's signature street-food delights could fall off the menu with chef retirements.
Singapore has more than 100 hawker centers and 6,000 stalls selling popular multi-ethnic meals for as little as S$2.80 ($2), but enticing new chefs to the small, basic kitchens is proving tricky against the riches offered by modern restaurants.
Chen Fu Yuan, a 72-year-old hawker that has been cooking Char Kway Teow (fried flat rice noodles) since 1969, is struggling to find anyone to take over his stall after his children and grandchildren took up other careers.
"I will definitely be very heartbroken," Chen said. "It is a waste that no one wants to take it on."
In April the government set up an advisory Hawker Center 3.0 Committee, charged with sustaining a trade that is a source of pride for locals and regularly draws visiting celebrities, like British chef Gordon Ramsay.
The government will open 10 new hawker centers over the next 12 years but many of these venues come without the government subsidies that have kept some monthly stall rents as low as S$320 ($238). New rates can be S$1,800 a month.
"We can build hawker centers but who is going to man them?" Singapore food blogger, author and Hawker Center 3.0 Committee member Dr Leslie Tay asked.
Tay said most hawker stall owners were in their 50s and 60s with a wave of retirements expected in the near future but new initiatives to find replacements were showing signs of promise, such as pairing aspiring hawkers with experienced hands.
"I was holding a pen and a laptop a year ago and a year later I'm holding on to this knife," 30-year-old Derrick Lee said after giving up a career in oil and gas to learn alongside a hawker master.
"I believe there are still people out there who are interested to take over."
($1 = 1.3447 Singapore dollars)
Additional reporting by Edgar Su. Writing by Patrick Johnston.