K. F. Seetoh
by Yap, Jan
Seetoh Kok Fye (b. 1962, Singapore–), better known as K. F. Seetoh, is a prominent local food consultant, photographer, writer and television host. He is best known for creating the popular hawker food guide Makansutra in 1998.
Early life and career
K. F. Seetoh was born in 1962, the fourth of five children. His father was a self-made businessman and his mother a housewife. He grew up in a pre-war shophouse in Geylang and attended St Michael’s Primary, St Joseph’s Institution (class of 1978) and Baharuddin Vocational Institute.1
Seetoh’s interest in photography was already apparent at a young age – he led school photography clubs and engaged in part-time work as a photographer. He joined The Straits Times as a photographer in 1983, but in 1990 quit to open his own studio.2
In 1997, Seetoh lodged a complaint against M1 for using his photographs without his consent. M1 had hired Seetoh in 1996 to produce images for its corporate brochure, but went on to use the images for advertisements as well. Seetoh’s claim was upheld, and he was awarded S$60,000.3
Seetoh is best known for the creation of Makansutra, a food consultancy company that produces a food guide and television series of the same name, as well as organises food events. The concept of Makansutra, meaning “eating lessons”, originated from a discussion with a French friend in 1995. The two felt that Asia, like Europe, should have its own food guide. Seetoh therefore embarked on the project to compile information for a food guide with 25 other “makan matas” (food detectives).4
The first edition of Makansutra was published in 1998 at the cost of S$40,000, written by Seetoh and edited by Lim Moh Cher. It listed selected hawker stalls along with their address and food rating. The guide used a novel chopstick rating system, with more chopsticks indicating a higher rating. The maximum score of three pairs of chopsticks carried the now-famous catchphrase, “Die, die must try!”.5
Publications and media
Makansutra has had 9 editions as of 2013. In Singapore, 25,000 copies per edition are sold on average.6 Makansutra has also expanded its range of guidebooks to cover places like Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, China and Vietnam.7
A website was created in 1999, and currently includes articles, videos, a forum and information about Makansutra’s books and television series.8 Makansutra has also produced a smartphone application that allows users to locate nearby restaurants or hawker centres and view their ratings.9
In 1999, Makansutra organised “hawker safaris” that involved participants travelling to various hawker centres to sample the food.10 In 2002, it organised a Makansutra Makan Madness tour in Queensland, planned by Seetoh and Lim for Tourism Queensland and travel agency SA (UIC) Tours. Seetoh served as the guide for this inaugural tour.11
The first television season of Makansutra was launched in 2001.12 It featured Seetoh, with his trademark hat and Vespa motorcycle, visiting various hawkers to sample and review their food. The show subsequently had three more seasons. Makansutra Raw, another series, began in 2008. It focused on unexpected visits by Seetoh to various food establishments. The concept behind Food Surprise! (2012) was similar, except that it also featured food stalls in Malaysia.13
Makansutra opened “hawker restaurant” Soul Food in Biopolis, a biomedical sciences hub, at the cost of S$1 million in 2003. It engaged famous hawker stalls to operate in a more upmarket setting. However, the enterprise eventually failed, partly due to the unsuitable location.14
Makansutra opened Glutton’s Bay, a food court, in Esplanade Mall at the cost of S$350,000 in 2005.15
In 2009, Makansutra opened the S$3 million Makansutra Asian Food Village, its first overseas food court, in Manila, Philippines. Covering an area of 18,000 sq ft, the food court seats up to 500 customers and comprises stalls selling mostly Singaporean food. Next to the food village is the Makansutra Asian Food Museum, which showcases Asian cuisine.16
Singapore Food Festival
Makansutra has also been involved in the Singapore Food Festival (SFF). As part of the 2004 festival, Makansutra opened Glutton’s Square, a night-time hawker fair, in the car park opposite the Centrepoint mall for the month of July. This was an attempt to temporarily recreate the original Glutton’s Square (1966–1978). The new version comprising ten stalls was popular with the public, and saw 12,000 visitors every night.17 The square’s opening period was extended to February due to the high demand.18
For the 2005 SFF, Makansutra organised the Singapore Hawker Legends awards in conjunction with the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) and National Environment Agency (NEA). The Legend award recognises “legendary” hawkers from hawker centres who have distinguished themselves through culinary excellence.19
In 2006, Makansutra organised the Singapore Street Food Masters awards, which are given out to exceptional hawkers. This differs from the Legends awards as candidates are chosen not just from hawker centres, but coffee shops and restaurants as well.20
Since 2007, Makansutra has organised Singaporean street food events in cities like New York, London and Shanghai to commemorate Singapore Day. This allows Singaporeans to enjoy local food while overseas.21
Makansutra organised the World Street Food Conference, supported by STB, from 31 May to 9 June 2013. The conference was held at the F1 Pit Building and Paddock area. It included a food “jamboree”, where street food from various countries was sold, two days of dialogues and an awards ceremony. Well-known figures in the food industry, such as chefs Anthony Bourdain, Claus Meyer and Ian Kittichai, as well as Saveur magazine editor James Oseland, attended and participated in the dialogues.22 80,000 visitors attended the event, though twice this number was projected and budgeted for. Despite Makansutra incurring losses of S$3 million as a result, it intends to organise the event again in 2014.23
In 2003, Seetoh played host and food guide to New York Times veteran writer R. W. Apple Jr during his trip to Singapore. Apple went on to write an article that praised the Singapore food scene.24
Seetoh was selected along with seven others by the STB as Singapore’s culinary ambassadors to the 2004 Culinary Institute of America (CIA) Worlds of Flavour International Conference and Festival in Napa Valley, California. This was the first time Singapore had sent a delegation to this conference.25
In 2008, Seetoh received the Special Recognition Award at the Singapore Tourism Awards.26
Seetoh guest-starred on the Martha Stewart Show in 2009, where he demonstrated how to make laksa.27 In 2010, he guest-starred on the US reality television show Top Chef. Seetoh served as host, guide and judge of the finalists for Season 7, who were competing in Singapore.28 He also represented Singapore at the Madrid Fusion food conference in Spain.29
In 2011, Seetoh was appointed to the New Hawker Centre Public Consultation Panel. The panel made recommendations on how new hawker centres in Singapore should be developed.30
Seetoh’s wife Patricia acts as co-director of Makansutra. They have no children.31
1983: Joined The Straits Times as a photographer.
1990: Quit to open own studio.
1997: Lodged a complaint against M1.
1998: First edition of Makansutra published.
1999: Makansutra website created. Organised “hawker safaris”.
2001: Makansutra television series launched.
2002: Organised Makansutra Makan Madness tour in Queensland.
2003: Opened Soul Food in Biopolis.
2004: Opened Glutton’s Square. Represented Singapore at CIA Worlds of Flavour International Conference and Festival.
2005: Opened Glutton’s Bay in Esplanade Mall. Organised Singapore Hawker Legends scheme.
2006: Organised Singapore Street Food Masters awards.
2008: Makansutra Raw television series launched. Received the Special Recognition Award at the Singapore Tourism Awards.
2009: Opened Makansutra Asian Village in Manila, Philippines. Guest-starred on the Martha Stewart Show.
2010: Guest-starred on Top Chef. Represented Singapore at Madrid Fusion conference.
2011: Appointed to the New Hawker Centre Public Consultation Panel.
2012: Food Surprise! television series launched.
2013: Organised World Street Food Conference.
1. Teo, P. L. (2006, March 6). The 10 per cent man. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. Teo, P. L. (2006, March 6). The 10 per cent man. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. Chong, E. (1999, January 30). Copyright violation: M1 pays $60,000. The Straits Times, p. 56. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. Teo, P. L. (2006, March 6). The 10 per cent man. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. Chow, I.-S. (1998, July 26). Food police go after the best dishes in town. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. Teo, P. L. (2005, August 9). Don't let our makan die out. The Straits Times, p. 26. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Teo, P. L. (2006, March 6). The 10 per cent man. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Tan, S. Y. (1999, June 4). Online makan. The Business Times, p. 30. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. Yeo, P. (2012, May 16). Savour these apps; take a bite out of these food related apps. Today. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
10. Take the bus for a moveable feast. (1999, July 4). The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Lum, M. (2002, June 9). Makan tours. The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Juicy bites on small screen. (2001, June 3). The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Tan, R. L. (2012, May 14). Seetoh's catch of the day. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Teo, P. L. (2006, March 6). The 10 per cent man. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Die-hard gluttons can now go to this Bay. (2005, May 22). The Straits Times, p. 28. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. Huang, L. (2009, July 8). Makansutra in Manila. The Straits Times, p. 49. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. Li, X. (2004, July 11). 12,000 throng Gluttons Square every night. The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. Gluttons Square open till next Feb. (2004, August 1). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. Lim, W. C. (2005, July 21). 15 hawkers picked as food 'legends'. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20. Teo, P. L. (2006, July 28). All hail the Street Food Masters. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. Makansutra (S). Pte. Ltd. (2013). Makansutra. Retrieved from http://www.makansutra.com/
22. Tan, R. L. (2013, May 25). Foodies take to the streets. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. Tan, R. L. (2013, June 12). Street food event loses money but will be back next year. The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
24. Teo, P. L. (2006, March 6). The 10 per cent man. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
25. ‘Die, die must try’. (2004, October 30). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
26. Taking the honours in the tourism industry. (2008, March 5). The Straits Times, p. 35. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
27. Tan, R. L. (2009, April 12). K.F. Seetoh on Martha Stewart show. The Straits Times, p. 59. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
28. Lim, R. (2010, September 10). Local food stars in US reality show. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
29. Tan, R. L. (2010, December 4). Five to take part in Madrid Fusion. The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
30. National Environment Agency. (2011, December 2). 19 members appointed to the New Hawker Centre Public Consultation Panel [Press release]. Retrieved from http://cms.nea.gov.sg/news_detail_2011.aspx?news_sid=20111202835098760951
31. Teo, P. L. (2006, March 6). The 10 per cent man. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Apple, R. W. Jr. (2003, September 10). Asian journey; snacker's paradise: Devouring Singapore's endless supper. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2003/09/10/dining/asian-journey-snacker-s-paradise-devouring-singapore-s-endless-supper.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm
Makansutra: Eating lessons: The five star guide to no frills hawker food in Singapore. (1998–). Singapore: Makansutra Publishing.
(Call no.: RSING 647.955957 MEL -[DIR])
Tan, R. L. (2009, May 14). Seetoh's laksa floors Martha. The Straits Times, p. 54. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
The information in this article is valid as at 28 January 2014 and correct as far as we can ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.