Rishi Naleendra used to dream about getting a Michelin star. Now that he’s had one for a couple of years, he’s decided to give it up and start all over again.
Not that it was a decision made on a whim. “Of course I’m nervous – I’m paranoid,” says the 34-year-old owner of Cheek by Jowl about closing down his acclaimed and highly successful eatery. But after landlord issues with the Boon Tat Street premises turned out to be a blessing in disguise, Chef Naleendra now has the chance to create his own dream restaurant and he’s not about to pass up on this opportunity.
To think that as recent as last October, he had been weighing his options when the building that Cheek by Jowl was in was sold. Rather than continue with the new landlord, he was toying with either looking for a new space or returning to Australia with his wife Manuela (the duo make up the Cheek and Jowl of the restaurant’s name). “We’d already been in Singapore for five years, when we originally intended to stay for two,” says the affable chef. But his partner Loh Lik Peng (of the Unlisted Group) “told me to look at a space on Amoy Street” and it was love at first sight.
There would be another twist to the story. The owner of the Amoy Street space ended up buying the original Cheek by Jowl space too, so now, chef Naleendra is tasked with running both.
He has since converted Cheek by Jowl into a bistro simply named Cheek, serving a simple menu of familiar favourites and comfort food like steak and chips.
But it’s not the casual eatery that’s giving him the jitters. It’s the thought of finally opening the restaurant of his dreams – a 26-seater designed to his specifications that will be the culmination of his personal journey as a chef over the past 16 years.
He doesn’t want to reveal the name or concept of the new eatery just yet, but it will be refined, yet accessible, and “different from anything you’ve seen in Singapore”. He hopes to open sometime in June.
The food and concept will be a reflection of his progression as a chef and his journey of self-discovery, says the man who left his native Sri Lanka at the age of 18 to study architecture in Australia but ended up in a kitchen instead.
“I was working as a dishwasher in a cafe where the chef was Sri Lankan, and he told me that, instead of studying seven years in architecture, why not spend two years in cooking school so I could get my PR and after that, ‘your life will be easier here’,” says Chef Naleendra. It made sense, so he did just that. He got his PR and citizenship, found a job immediately after, and met and married Manuela Toniolo.
His career has been ‘charmed’ with opportunities, from the time the couple landed in Singapore where he first worked at Maca before being talent-spotted by Mr Loh to take over the space left by the defunct Sorrel. “I had 12 days to open Cheek by Jowl,” he recalls, while also battling naysayers and suppliers who refused to sell him produce because of the debts accumulated by his predecessor. But it was through sheer hard work that the couple pulled it off, and the restaurant was making money within its first year.
Much of the restaurant’s success can be attributed to the chef’s down-to-earth, heartfelt cooking as well as the couple’s humility and sheer work ethic.
“I think people can tell if you’re genuine or not,” he reckons. “I don’t have the most glamourous CV, or a fancy (cooking) philosophy. I’m just a guy who takes an opportunity and uses it to the max. At (Cheek by Jowl) I don’t know if the food was that good when we opened, but people kept coming back. It was comforting and not formal fine dining, and I want people to feel comfortable. My ultimate goal is to let someone leave the restaurant happier than when they came in.”
It’s something he wants to replicate in his new place, albeit at a much more refined level, in terms of the design – think antiques and colonial-inspired decor – and the produce-driven menu.
He also doesn’t want to be boxed in when it comes to cuisine style. “People often ask me why I don’t put more Sri Lankan elements in my food. But I’m not here to sell my heritage. I don’t want to use that to get more marketing or attention in the way that a lot of chefs are doing these days because heritage is such a big thing now. I want my work to define me. And I’m still trying to figure that out.
“The easiest thing for me to do would be to keep our name and retain the star. But how would I find out what my weaknesses and strengths are, and how hard I have to push? Of course it’s scary to start again. But I was happy with what I was doing before I got the star and even when I got it, I’m still the same person. I haven’t changed.”
So yes, while there’s always some doubt and nervousness in a new business, “it’s a good thing,” he says. “We just have to do the right things and keep the consistency. Someone once said, ‘if you’re not doing something different, then you’re not doing anything at all’. So that’s what I’m trying to do.”
This article was originally published in The Business Times.