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Lonely Planet named Singapore its top country destination for 2015 - an island city state that appears as a tiny dot on the world map. Singapore has only 5.5 million people, but when it comes to tourism, Singapore punches well above its weight with about 15 million people visiting the island in the last year. Thanks to a long-term plan by the Singapore government, many of those visitors come for the food. Carole Zimmer reports.
CAROLE ZIMMER, BYLINE: It's dinnertime at the old airport hawkers center in Singapore; a sprawling compound of 100 stalls under one roof.
EVE FELDER: Ten pieces of chive dumpling and two orders of jao long bow.
ZIMMER: That's Eve Felder, director of the Singapore branch of the Culinary Institute of America, who spends many of her evenings sampling the local fare of these vendors who serve Singapore's famous street food. It's a mix of Chinese, Indian, Malay and Indonesian dishes known as chicken rice and rojak.
FELDER: Rojak means mixed up, and it is jotiow, which is fried dough that has been grilled over charcoal.
ZIMMER: The next morning, I followed Felder to her day job where she supervises students as they learn to prepare a very different food - classical cuisine in the European tradition.
FELDER: Good morning everybody.
CLASS: Good morning.
FELDER: How are ya'll?
CLASS: Very good.
FELDER: What are ya'll doing today? Brines and cures?
ZIMMER: Felder came here four years ago after the Singapore government decided to make culinary training part of its plan to turn the island into a world-class tourist destination by creating a pool of talented local chefs. Felder says the Culinary Institute's Singapore program features the same curriculum as its other branches in the U.S.
FELDER: There is not a difference in terms of technique, and so part of our initiative being here - it's really to professionalize and teach the whys of cooking so it's not haphazard. The difference is in the flavor profiles.
ZIMMER: Those flavor profiles run the gamut from learning to prepare Asia's classic dishes to making pastry cream.
YVONNE RIPERTI: I've got milk, sugar cornstarch, eggs, some butter, salt and vanilla.
ZIMMER: Nineteen students in tall chef's hats are gathered around teacher Yvonne Riperti as she lines up the ingredients for mixing pastry cream. Pastry and baking is part of the 18-month course. Singaporean Jan Is-kan-ar is one of 200 applicants who vied for 33 places in the Culinary Institute's fall semester.
YAN ISKANEAR: Singapore cuisine is a mixture of so many cultures, so many traditions. So with the CIA here, we get the expertise and we elevate ourselves to hopefully be on par with the other bigger culinary countries in the world.
NATHANIEL JODIN: Everybody calls themselves a foodie. They go around and eat. They critique the food.
ZIMMER: Nathaniel Jodin, a Singaporean who graduated from the Culinary Institute in 2013, is now the head chef at GastroSmiths, a restaurant in downtown Singapore that borrows from cuisines around the world. Jodin says his parents were not happy with his choice to become a chef rather than a doctor or a lawyer.
JODIN: There's no future. You won't get good pay. It's a very Asian culture kind of a thing. They want you to get good grades. They were you to get good paying jobs. But they don't see the culinary arts as being one of those avenues.
ZIMMER: Back at the Culinary Institute, Eve Felder says her program is training students to land high-paying jobs and to earn accolades from the passion they display in the kitchen.
FELDER: We are in the hospitality service industry so we teach them to be able to really make people's dreams come true. A kitchen is high-pressure. It's hot. Your hands smell like shrimp or whatever, but you must do it with grace. It is grace under pressure.
ZIMMER: Singapore hopes that grace under pressure will help make it the gastronomic gateway of Asia. For NPR News, I'm Carole Zimmer.
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