LAS VEGAS – What’s it take to bring authentic street food 9,000 miles from hawker stalls in Southeast Asia to a new resort on The Strip?
A kitchen with a laptop, webcam and chefs eager to learn.
That’s what’s happening behind the scenes at Resorts World Las Vegas, where the hotel-casino is preparing to launch Famous Street Eats — a 24,000-square-foot food market filled with dishes from Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and beyond.
In normal times, hawkers would have boarded a plane in Southeast Asia and flown here to teach Vegas chefs the secrets to perfecting the dishes.
COVID-19 made that kind of journey impossible, but the resort opening on June 24 used the power of technology to transfer all that culinary know-how to the Nevada desert.
Here’s how Resorts World found the dishes overseas and transported them here.
A search for street food
The idea driving Famous Street Eats is a simple one, according to Andrew Li, CEO of Zouk Group, the Singapore company behind the concept: Go to the source.
“In Asia there are all these amazing food cultures,” Li said, “and they come from these mom and pop shops. They’re not in hotels, they’re not in malls. They’re on the side streets, and they’ve been perfecting these recipes for decades.”
The hawker recipes coming to Resorts World have been passed down from generation to generation. Some of the chefs behind these dishes have been crafting them for more than five decades.
Famous Street Eats will be a place tourists and foodies will find dishes they won’t find anywhere else that are cooked with techniques they’ve never heard of, Li said.
One of the dishes from Singapore is called Char Kuey Teow, rice and egg noodles fried with fresh seafood on a charcoal-fired stove to produce a smoky aroma called “wok hei” –– or “dragon’s breath.”
The man behind this hawker dish is Chef Ah Guan. Because he wears goggles while cooking to protect his eyes from searing hot oil, he is known as the “Googgle Man.”
“The fire you need to cook these noodles is so hot,” Li said. “They want it so hot you can almost taste the burn –– that char taste of the noodle. Things like that will be very interesting to educate people about and share the story.”
But how are chefs like Googgle Man teaching Las Vegas chefs how to cook dishes?
Every week, alongside two assistants, Famous Foods executive chef Kevin Hee takes a video lesson. His teachers are 9,000 miles away in different parts of Southeast Asia.
Hee is learning the street food alchemy of the menu coming soon to The Strip. Every lesson begins with a recipe.
“We first try it on our own until we feel we’re at a level where we’re not ashamed to show the proprietor,” Hee said. “Once we get to that level, we set up a video call, and we will do our rendition of whatever dish we’re doing.”
Hee is now working on roti canai. The flatbread item comes from Springleaf Prata Place, a family-style shop in Singapore serving South India cuisine. Roti canai is difficult to make, as the dough must be stretched so thin it’s almost transparent.
It’s so difficult, in fact, that Hee and his team are now in a second round of lessons.
During the video lesson, the Las Vegas cooks go through each step of making dough for roti canai. Meanwhile, the proprietor watches, offering tips and tricks along the way.
When they’re done with their rendition of roti canai, the proprietor’s team shows them how they do it.
“The show us what corrections we can make while flipping the dough,” Hee said, “and it’s a back and forth from there.”
There haven’t been many language barriers, as almost every hawker speaks English and Hee’s team speaks Mandarin or Cantonese.
When proprietors approve how each dish looks, the plate must pass a taste test.
“We have several executives that have lived in Southeast Asia that are familiar with the flavor profiles,” Hee said. “We have them try the dishes to see if the flavor profiles fit.”
Once each dish has a final blessing, Hee and his team will teach a bigger team of chefs how to cook the menus at Famous Street Eats.
Along the way, he’s learned techniques that made his own kitchen game better.
“Just getting the dough to not stick to the pot itself takes a lot of technique. That was the hardest part to master,” Hee said of the roti canai. “I’m just lucky to learn new things.”