Most kids would relish staying up late, but not so for Rishi Naleendra. As a five-year-old kid, he would often fall asleep by 7pm, only to be woken by the delicious smells of his parents cooking in the wee hours of the morning.
“I would wake up and see my mum preparing food like spicy tuna croquettes over a wood-fire in the kitchen,” says Naleendra, whose parents ran a catering business from their home in Sri Lanka. This became his very first food memory.
“I remember the spices my dad would use – ginger, garlic, curry leaves and green chilli – to enhance the freshness of the tuna. He hated using curry powder because he said it would overwhelm the fish,” says the Colombo-born chef.
Yet for Naleendra, being constantly surrounded by food became too much of a good thing. “I saw my parents working so hard, and thought I never want to be a cook too because you have no time for anyone,” he says. So, at 18, he packed his bags and moved to Melbourne, Australia to pursue another interest – architecture.
It was while working part-time as a kitchen hand at a café in a suburban district that Naleendra had his first experience with Western cuisine and rekindled his love for good food. “I remember looking at a chicken Parma for the first time and thinking, wow that looks delicious,” he says. The buzz of a fast-paced kitchen, along with the realisation that attending two years of cooking school meant a quicker route to being an Australia citizen instead of seven years studying architecture, led to his decision. Naleendra began clocking hours in the kitchens of pizzerias and a Greek restaurant, and trying foods like sashimi and salads dressed in vinaigrette for the first time.
“Vinegar was a big eye opener for me. In Sri Lanka, we use so much lime – in our salads, in seasoning, we even drink lime juice,” he shares. “I love acidity in food; it really wakes you up when you eat.”
But it took a run-in with the head chef of now-defunct Wildflower restaurant in Melbourne that made him knuckle down and train to be a good cook. “Up until then, I always thought I was doing pretty well (as a cook),” says Naleendra, who had applied for a position of chef de partie. “He [the head chef] sent me home mid-way through the trial because I had no idea what I was doing. I cooked a piece of fish without seasoning it.” He continues: “That was the last time I ever felt comfortable about my skills as a chef. I’ve never felt comfortable since then.”
Still, Naleendra has come a long way. The 31-year-old has added decorated names like Taxi Kitchen in Melbourne and Tetsuya’s in Sydney to his resume. He came to Singapore over two years ago in search of new challenges, where he headed modern European outfit Maca at Tanglin Post (the restaurant has since shuttered) before he was talent-spotted by prolific hotelier-restaurateur Loh Lik Peng to helm a new modern Australian concept at Boon Tat Street.
Cheek by Jowl is where diners see Naleendra’s experiences all come together. In his kitchen, staff are allowed to crack jokes and get creative like he experienced at Taxi and Yellow restaurant in Sydney by acclaimed chef Brent Savage, yet each dish sent out has to be precise – a discipline picked up from his one year stint at Tetsuya’s, where even garnish had to be the same size for consistency.
Though, at first sight, he appears to be a mild-mannered chef with a fondness for mutton briyani after a hard day’s work, Naleendra’s creativity knows no bounds when it comes to churning out new ideas for dishes. Take dessert for instance, where all preconceived notions of sweet endings are thrown out the window with coconut ice cream paired with a bold laksa leaf in place of the usual mint. Chopped nuts, pomelo and green chilli sauce add texture and some heat. Or, a dish of smoked mackerel lighted dusted and placed next to a dollop of horseradish cream and pickled cucumbers that are a salute to Naleendra’s fond memories of vinegar.
“With my food, there’s no philosophy. It’s really just logic – a bit of heat here, some acidity there,” says Naleendra. Like a magician who conjures up surprises, he injects a refreshing take with dishes that speak right to your heart and soul.