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A new horizon: Rishi Naleendra and fellow chefs on new career paths
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.”
FREDDIE LEE AND PURDEY POON
YOU MIGHT REMEMBER them from Infuzi – a modest, semi-fine dining French eatery in Biopolis started by husband-and-wife team Freddie Lee and Purdey Poon in 2004. Despite its location, they earned a loyal following for a good decade before changing customer tastes, the dawn of Instagram and a general malaise in the F&B industry led to them closing their doors some three years ago.
“We were quite disillusioned,” recalls Ms Poon, 39, of the final days of Infuzi. “We lost the focus of just what good food is. We were always about good, honest cooking, but Instagram is all about pretty (and trend-driven) food.”
The duo were originally from Les Amis, where Mr Lee, 51, was part of the opening team at the flagship French restaurant. It was also where he met his wife, who joined in 2001. They left in 2004 to set up Infuzi. But they maintained a friendship with the group’s management and when the latter heard Infuzi was closing, offered them a joint venture to convert the restaurant into a Peperoni pizza branch (the only outlet that is not wholly owned by the group).
It was a turning point for the couple – who were new parents at the time – as the pizza outlet drew “eight times (the number of people) we got at Infuzi,” says Ms Poon. They were turning a profit, while Chef Lee supervised the kitchen with its standardised menu of pizzas and pastas. While things were going well, in his heart he still longed to cook – as in the process of experimenting and creating new recipes, which he didn’t need to do at Peperoni.
The chance to make a comeback came at the end of 2018, when the Les Amis group decided to close its Bistro du Vin outlet in Zion Road. After consulting with the couple, the idea for a friendly neighbourhood izakaya was born.
“Freddie is the kind of guy who likes to do different things and he’s always been fascinated with Japanese manga and food,” says Ms Poon. Also, as an izakaya, as opposed to ramen or Japanese food per se – the cooking can be more versatile. “Izakaya can be more playful.”
His French cooking background comes in handy as he riffs off the techniques for some of the dishes he’s developed for the new menu. For example, Inaniwa udon and prawn tempura, is served in “a prawn broth that is light but flavourful”; while ox tongue is not simply grilled but has previously been slow-cooked till tender before being finished off over charcoal. He’s also serving his own version of a katsu sandwich – a thick cut of crumb-crusted beef smeared with Pommery mustard between tender slices of toast.
Chef Lee is clearly relishing the chance to get creative in the kitchen again, while his manga obsession is also expressed in the decor of the 35-seater eatery. The walls are covered with whimsical Japanese cartoon drawings done by a young artist - the daughter of their assistant manager at Peperoni. The coziness extends to the name they’ve chosen - Yujin, which means ‘friend’ in Japanese. It’s also a nod to Les Amis, which also means ‘friends’ in French.
“We came out, went around and came back home,” says Ms Poon of their relationship with the Les Amis group. “We hope this will be a place for friends too.”And while they will still be overseeing their Peperoni outlet, the couple will be based in Yujin, where they will no doubt be rekindling old friendships, and making many new ones.
56 Zion Road. Tel: 6235-0429. Opens Mar 15
SINGAPOREAN JIMMY LIM is nothing if not a chef who knows exactly what he wants. Even if it frightens investors like the one behind his Taiwan restaurant JL Studio, who he says “nearly passed out” when he decided to switch concept from modern European to mod-Singaporean cuisine one month before opening.
That was two years ago, when he faced a tough crowd of diners in Taichung who didn’t understand nor cared about the food he grew up with, or other Southeast Asian food, for that matter. And worse, were “offended” by the pungent smells and flavours of shrimp paste, fish sauce, durian and the like.
But his hard work has paid off. JL Studio now has an ardent following among the Taiwanese and diners from around Asia and beyond. And he has also received validation from his peers as the 2019 recipient of the Miele One to Watch award as part of the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
Although well-versed in Western cuisine, “I felt that the European dishes lacked soul to me – I couldn’t feel the connection with the flavours,” he says of his risky decision. “Also, there are already so many Euro-centric restaurants in Taiwan, so I wanted to offer dishes that allow me to share my growing up experiences, my memories and my roots with my diners on an intimate level.”
One of those memories is nasi lemak, which he associates with his grandfather, who would take him to a park to fly kites and treat him to the simple rice snack after that. The kite and nasi lemak would evolve into a visually stunning version that incorporates all the elements of the dish arranged on top of a miniature bonsai, served with a rice-based dipping sauce.
Chef Lim, 37, left Singapore despite a promising early career after graduating from SHATEC. In 2006, he won a gold medal at the WACS World Young Chef Challenge. He also clinched a gold and the Best Apprentice Team awards at Singapore’s FHA Two to Tango Competition and was named one of the “50 Young People to Watch” by The Straits Times that year.
But he went through a rough patch when his father – whom he credits for steering him towards his career, passed away. “He used to own and run a Chinese restaurant. He and my Grandma were such good cooks they must have planted the seed in me without my knowing.”
When Taiwan came calling, he grabbed the opportunity to join a new restaurant, Le Moût, in Taichung. Within seven years, he worked himself up to the position of Chef de Cuisine, his rapid rise mirroring the growing fame of the restaurant itself. Le Moût – now defunct – was headed by the award-winning chef, Lanshu Chen, and had been in the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list for many years.
When he arrived in Taiwan in 2008 Chef Lim – who has staged at restaurants such as The French Laundry, Per Se, Noma and Geranium – found a new learning curve awaiting.
While western cuisine was still new in the dining scene then, “I was exposed to the way the Chinese live and eat. They’re very focused on balancing yin and yang, especially with the change of seasons. They even go deeper into micro-seasons where the lunar year is not divided into four seasons but 24, for more accurate study into yin and yang nutritional needs. You don’t find this in Western cuisine and I’m incorporating this into my cooking.”
Now that he’s won over his clientele, Chef Lim is actively using Taiwanese produce in his cooking too. He’s been lucky on that front as there is a farm near his restaurant growing Southeast Asian herbs.
With his new-found status on Asia’s 50 Best list comes new responsibility as the spotlight is now on him and his work on Singapore cuisine. Will he consider moving back home or even open a restaurant here?
“I’m keeping my options open – I’m always looking for new challenges and experiences.”
No. 689, Yifeng Road Section 4, 2F Nantun district, Taichung, Taiwan. Tel: +886 4 2380 3570