Finding the best of the best
M'sian host of Food Wars Asia, now living in Beijing, never misses one S'pore dish whenever she's here
Never stand in the way of her chilli crab.
Michele Lean is such a big fan of the popular Singapore dish that she makes a beeline for Red House Seafood Restaurant each time she is in town.
"People were giving me strange looks, but that's not stopping me from polishing up an entire plate all by myself," the TV host told M with a laugh, adding that she recently discovered another great place for chilli crab, the Mattar Road Seafood Barbecue.
The bubbly Malaysian was in town last week to promote her new culinary series Food Wars Asia, which airs on Tuesdays at 8pm on Food Network Asia (StarHub Channel 433).
The six-episode spin-off from US series Food Wars follows the 32-year-old as she seeks out renowned Singapore and Malaysia food establishments that serve the same signature dish.
She then pits the two restaurants against each other in a blind taste test, after which fans, the general public and celebrity guest judges decide who is the "best of the best".
Omakase Burger faces off with Fatboy's The Burger Bar in the first episode, where three judges and two fans from the burger joints decide if Fatboy's Wimpy Burger or Omakase's Applewood Smoked Bacon Cheeseburger is the best cheeseburger in Singapore.
Other episodes feature Kwong Satay versus Wu Ke Shu Satay in the satay war, and Ru Ji Kitchen versus The Fishball Story in the fishball noodle fight.
Food Wars Asia also shows Lean heading back to her hometown, Kuala Lumpur, for battles between food trucks, nasi lemak sellers and banana leaf rice vendors.
Hosting Food Wars Asia was an eye-opener for Lean, not because she had to be the mediator between the rival eateries - "everyone was gracious and there were no egos" - but she got to learn how to make the dishes and discover more about the food culture.
The foodie said she had "never tried Hainanese satay before, where crushed pineapple was added into the sauce".
"It's also good to be able to pick up tips from the owners, watching them cook... so I know how to make them now," added Lean, who was trained in classical French cuisine after she receiving a scholarship from The Culinary Trust (New York) to attend Le Cordon Bleu in Canada in 2012.
Raised in KL, Sarawak and Hong Kong because of her father's banking job, Lean credits her mother and grandmother for introducing cooking to her at the tender age of five.
The eldest of three sisters said: "Whenever my dad's bosses came from the UK and other countries, my mum had to throw these massive dinners... We sort of helped her out in the kitchen. For me, it was like 'masak masak' ('playing' in Malay)."
At 17, Lean moved Down Under to pursue a media degree at the University Of Melbourne.
She applied for TV hosting jobs in Australia but was rejected because she "didn't look Aussie or sound Aussie".
While working as a model for "commercials and some beauty stuff", she chanced upon an ad from China Central Television (CCTV) looking for a host for an English-language show, Travelogue.
Lean submitted a video, photographs and underwent some "telephone interviews" before getting an invitation to fly to Beijing for a test shoot.
"I'd been wanting to move back to Asia and I'd never been to Beijing.
"The shoots turned out well. CCTV asked me to stay and I did," she said.
That was in 2007 and Lean has called Beijing home since then.
Her hosting experience helped her get comfortable on camera and probably helped her clinch the Food Hero title last year.
Food Hero was an Asia-wide talent search for fresh on-air talent for both Asian Food Channel and Food Network.
Another reason for staying in the Chinese capital is that her French-German fiancé works there. Lean said: "We're comfortable working in any country, but I'm doing what I love now, that is to travel and eat and host, so there are no plans to relocate yet."
She hopes to have her own cooking show, "teaching people how to cook outdoors using regional food supplies or learning how to cook from different people".
"I'd love to be able to introduce people to the food cultures of ethnic groups in Malaysia or China.
"When it comes to travel and food, you don't have to be the youngest and freshest or the most beautiful person," she said, laughing. "The more important thing is that people like what you're talking about and who you are as a person."
Clash of the food titans
Food Wars Asia host Michele Lean said there were no sore losers in the battle of the best in Singapore. Let's hear it from the stall owners themselves.
BURGER BATTLES: OMAKASE BURGER VERSUS FATBOY'S THE BURGER BAR
On sizing up the competition
Mr Cheng Hsin Yao, Omakase:
(Fatboy's) will always be a reference point for everyone operating in the same segment. I quickly understood the depth of industry experience that Bernie has accumulated and am respectful of what he has achieved in his career.
Mr Bernie Tay, Fatboy's:
We have much respect for Omakase. Very few people in the industry put that much passion and soul into their work, and you can tell right from their start they brought their A-game to us.
On the judges' decision
It was illuminating to listen to their analysis and how their personal and professional experiences helped to shape their opinions.
We know what we do really well and we know our competition fairly well too. We can tell right off who will actually like our burgers and who won't.
SATAY STORIES: KWONG SATAY VERSUS WU KE SHU SATAY
On being named one of the best satay stalls in S'pore
Mr Jeremy Lee, Kwong Satay:
We always insist on using only the finest ingredients and it's great to know that all of our hard work is justified.
Mr Anon Foo, Wu Ke Shu:
We were surprised and extremely honoured.
On being pitted against each other
There has always been a healthy competition between all the Hainanese satay sellers/ manufacturers. (The competition) proves that while taste is arbitrary, there is always a consensus where preference is concerned.
It was a close fight. We each have our own regular customers so there isn't much rivalry.
Other pretty food show hosts on Asian Food Channel and Food Network Asia
GIADA DE LAURENTIIS
Giada At Home
Restaurant Redemption 2
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