Chef Rishi And The Michelin Star

by Tia Goonaratna

@tiabuffy

Head Chef Rishi Naleendra of Cheek by Jowl, an Australian restaurant based in Singapore, just received a Michelin Star in the 2017 edition of Michelin Guide Singapore, making him the first Sri Lankan chef every to ever be awarded this title.

Rishi grew up in a family that loved food in Sri Lanka, and attended Mahanama College. When he was 18, he moved to Australia to study architecture, but later changed it to Commercial Cookery’. As he became an Australian citizen at the age of 22, he joined Taxi Dining Room as Demi Chef, and his story just began from there. In 2012, Chef Rishi was the Chef de Partie at the world-renowned Tetsuya’s. ‘I decided to move to Sydney to work at Tetsuya which had always been a dream of mine when I first started cooking. My last stint in Australia was at Yellow with Brent Savage as a pastry chef. After that, we decided to move to Singapore.’

Rishi has managed to create amazing gastronomical spreads, while still adhering to his morals and ethics. ‘Chef Rishi believes in preserving the ecosystem by using organic and ethical practices to raise livestock and grow crops. In addition, his unique vegetable forward approach to creating new dishes shines light on his intriguing thought process of crafting each dish around the versatility of vegetables.’ In his free time, Chef Rishi enjoys painting, reading, dining out, and experimenting with new flavour combinations. His wife, Manuela, is also an integral part of his life and his work, and together, they seem to have the definition of ‘partnership’ clearly laid out.

How did you meet your wife, and how is she involved with your day to day dealings?

I met Manuela at a restaurant where I used to work in Melbourne 12 years ago. Next January will mark our eighth anniversary together. We’ve always dreamt of having our own restaurant, and we’ve finally fulfilled that dream together.

Manuela is very involved in the business and is always involved in the operations. More than just a restaurant manager, she is also the sommelier who curates our list of organic and biodynamic wines and recommends them to our customers. She also does the reservations, events, inquires and assists me with organising my schedules.

Tell us a bit about your experience on receiving a Michelin star.

Receiving a Michelin star is the biggest highlight in my career. I think it’s every chef’s dream to get a Michelin star at some point in their career, and I was very happy that it happened to me at a very young age.

It has been alot of hard work not just for me and Manuela, but the whole team as well. Without the energy that my team brings, and the support from my partner Loh Lik Peng, this achievement would have been impossible. My partner, Peng, is one of the best in the business. He gave me the freedom to follow my culinary vision, and this star is a result of that. Having the right customers makes a huge difference in what we do at Cheek by Jowl, as they have seen how we have evolved over the last 18 months.We have a very strong regular clientele and I’m sure most of our customerswould feel like they are part of receiving this award as well.

 

What does it feel to be the first Sri Lankan to ever win this?

It’s an amazing feeling that you don’t get to experience often in your life. The amount of Facebook messages and emails I received from fellow Sri Lankans was very heart-warming. I grew up in Sri Lanka and I’ve taken so much from Sri Lanka.We hardly pay anything for our education and I feel very lucky to be part of a very rich culture which taught me what true hospitality is.The generosity of Sri Lankan people has to be up there with any other cultures in the world. Being able to give something back to Sri Lanka is a great feeling.

Do you think the pressure is more on you now to keep performing?

In this industry, there will always be pressure to keep performing. It’s the consistency and continuous dedication that keeps restaurants alive. Whether I have a star or not, as an industry professional, I’ll keep performing and strive to improve my craft. Apart from that, my team and I are always looking at ways that we can take the experiencefor our guests to the next level.

How do you find inspiration for your dishes?

It’s a lot of RnD. We work really hard to come up with new ideas, and we are always discussing about how we can improve our dishes and flavours and how we can develop new techniques.My passion is to be creative and being able to be in that element helps alot. I thoroughly enjoy any process that lets me be creative.

Do you ever combine different cuisines from different countries?

I think the fact that Cheek by Jowlis amodern Australian restaurant gives me the freedom to bring flavours from different cuisines, as Australia is also a multi-cultural country. In Australia, we have influence from all around the world, with Asia being a huge part of this influence.

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