Discovering his love of cooking while at university in Australia, Sri Lankan-born Rishi Naleendra started his culinary career at Taxi Dining Room in Sydney, honed his talents through a number of prestigious establishments and now works alongside his wife and restaurant manager, Manuela Toniolo, at their Singapore restaurant Cheek by Jowl where they have recently won a Michelin star.
E: You moved to Australia from Sri Lanka aged 18 to study architecture. Why Australia and why architecture?
Rishi: I wanted a change of environment and I knew that the education system in Australia was great. I have always needed to do something creative that constantly keeps me thinking.
E: While you were studying you rekindled your love of food. Had you cooked with your parents while growing up or did you have to start from scratch?
R: I had to start from scratch! Growing up I was never interested in the industry because of seeing how hard my parents worked. Missing out on that personal time together while we were growing up was another big reason why I didn’t think hospitality would be for me. However, the moment I did step into a kitchen, I felt it was right. I fell in love with the energy that’s found in restaurants, not just in the kitchen but the entire space, from the dining room, to the bar, to the guests that come in and dine.
E: How much did working at Yellow by Brent Savage influence you?
R: Every mentor that I have worked under I have learnt something from, each one of them has influenced me, but working at Yellow was the first time I had the opportunity to work as a pastry chef. I learnt how to think about composing dishes and I was very lucky to be able to work under one of the most talented head chefs, Adam Wolfers.
E: Why did you decide to move to Singapore?
R: After Sydney I wanted to move back to Melbourne but Manuela wanted to travel around Asia, so we decided to move to Singapore without knowing what the future held for us, but thinking it would be a great opportunity for us in regards to both work and travel. We arrived in Singapore over three years ago and then managed to find jobs. I had a pop up restaurant called Maca and Manuela was working at Waku Ghin as assistant restaurant manager. Then the opportunity came to open Cheek by Jowl, which in February 2018 will have been open for two years.
E: At Cheek by Jowl you cook modern Australian fare. What does that mean to you?
R: It gives us a freedom that allows us to be creative while we can use influences from different cultures, yet still being able to express ourselves through this.
E: You believe in preserving the ecosystem; are you able to source what you need in Singapore or do you have to import many of your ingredients?
R: Unfortunately, most of the ingredients that we use do need to be imported but there are some amazing products that you can get locally, for example the barramundi we use is locally farmed. We avoid a lot of products that are not eco friendly or ethical to use, such as foie gras, tuna, farmed salmon; these ingredients are never on the menu.
E: You are very creative with vegetables in your dishes; where does this concept come from and what’s your favourite way to use vegetables?
R: The work you can do with proteins is very limited, but vegetables allow you to be creative. You can turn them into sauces, you can use the skins, you can just juice them; the possibilities are never ending.
E: You spend your working day in the kitchen, do you cook at home and if so, what is your go-to dish?
R: I love to cook steak at home. Unfortunately, this is a rare occasion with our working hours as they really don’t leave much time for cooking. When I was back in Australia it was much more of an occurrence.
I love eating out, trying new places and sticking to our favourites. Food for us is comfort, so it is always a part of every day.
E: With a Michelin star under your belt, do you consider yourself a role model for other aspiring Sri Lankan chefs?
R: I don’t think like that, but I hope that they can look up to me and see how far you can go if you just work hard and keep on pushing. And every chance I get to inspire someone, not just a Sri Lankan chef but young chefs starting out, I give 100 percent to help. This industry is built on passion and you need that to get far in hospitality.
E: Any advice for couples who want to work cheek by jowl?
R: You need to have a strong relationship and complete understanding of one another, what each other’s strengths and even weaknesses are. But having that relationship is definitely an advantage in our industry because at the end of the day I know she would do anything to make this restaurant what we want it to be. We share the same vision and we will always keep working to get there.
Smoked Mackerel with Horseradish Cream
- 2 mackerel fillets
- For the curing mix:
- 200g salt
- 200g sugar
- 10g grated ginger
- 1 lime zest
- To smoke mackerel
- 100g hickory chips
- Double boiler for smoking
- 100g fresh cream
- 10g freshly grated horseradish
- 1 lemon, squeezed
- 1 bulb fennel including fronds
- Cover the two mackerel fillets with the curing mix for 30 minutes, then rinse and dry well.
- Put the double boiler on high heat. Place smoking chips in the bottom and place on high heat until smoking. Once it starts smoking, place the mackerel in the top section and remove from heat. Leave for three minutes, then place mackerel in fridge until needed.
- Mix fresh cream with horseradish, season with salt, pepper and lemon juice to taste.
- Cut the mackerel fillets into half lengthwise, ensuring all the bones are removed from the centre.
- Place the horseradish cream on the plate, place mackerel on top.
- Mix the fennel and fennel fronds together, dress with lemon, olive oil, salt and pepper then place over the mackerel.
Cheek by Jowl
21 Boon Tat Street
T: (+65) 62211911