Seventeen years ago, Rishi Naleendra was washing dishes in a Melbourne café. Now based in Singapore where he co-owns two restaurants, he's coming back in March as one of the stars of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival.
"It's crazy! It's pretty unreal when you think about it. It's not normal," he tells SBS Food, laughing.
When he was growing up in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where his parents had a catering business, he never thought of becoming a chef. "I always liked eating but didn't want to get involved with restaurants, especially seeing how much my parents had to work and how stressful it was," he explains.
Sri Lanka’s favourite street food brought to Margaret River Australia. It’s now an Australian dish. A pair of stainless steel paddles are pretty handy for cooking this dish, but you can also use 2 wide spatulas. Peter Kuruvita's Coastal Kitchen
He moved to Australia at 18 to study architecture and started washing dishes in a café. One of the chefs there, also from Sri Lanka, suggested switching his studies to hospitality management so he could get his permanent residency more quickly.
"It's the first time I thought about cooking," he says. "When I started school, I had to put on a chef uniform and start chopping things and cooking. I just knew right away."
"What's on the menu has to be mine, it can't be a copy of somebody else's."
He began working at fine-dining restaurants Taxi Dining Room in Melbourne, and Tetsuya's and Yellow in Sydney. He started missing Melbourne, but his wife, front-of-house gun Manuela Toniolo, had grown up in Australia and wanted to live overseas. London and Singapore were both contenders, but the latter won.
"We both really like beaches, and for some reason, we thought there were a lot of beaches in Singapore because we never visited before. We got there and there weren't really many beaches, at least not like in Australia," he says, laughing.
But it still struck a chord and the couple decided to stay in the Lion City. Naleendra opened modern Australian restaurant Cheek by Jowl (now Cheek Bistro) with partner Loh Lik Peng in 2016. The year after, they were awarded a Michelin star.
Last year, he opened another restaurant, Cloudstreet with Gareth Burnett of Amaru. There, things got a lot more personal.
Naleendra says, "When I was at Cheek by Jowl, I tried to stay away from Sri Lankan influences because I didn't want to be known as the Sri Lankan chef, I wanted to be known as a chef. When I opened Cloudstreet, that mindset had changed a lot. If I had to prove a point, I had done it.
"Now it's not about proving a point, it's about doing what I want to do and enjoying it," he says. "Obviously, Sri Lanka is a massive part of me, it's almost half of my life I lived there so it's really me, I'm Sri Lankan."
The food Naleendra makes at Cloudstreet is a true reflection of his personality; his Sri Lankan heritage, his time spent in Australia, and what he's learned travelling and working at restaurants like Tetsuya's.
"What's on the menu has to be mine, it can't be a copy of somebody else's, not even my mum's food," he says.
One of his favourite dishes on the menu is a Sri Lankan curry of king crab served with brown butter chutney, and a coconut and lemongrass broth.
He also uses a lot of native Australian ingredients like marron and finger lime.
The lamb with jackfruit, mint green chilli and coconut chutney is his take on the classic Australian roast. "Growing up in Sri Lanka, as a vegetarian or pescatarian, most of my life, I had lamb for the first time in Australia. There's something about Australian and New Zealand lamb. It's very clean, not too strong, I've always liked it," he says.
However, Cloudstreet's menu can't be pigeonholed - it also showcases Naleendra's interest in Japanese and European cuisines.
In April, the chef will open a new restaurant, Kotuwa, dedicated solely to Sri Lankan cuisine. You can expect staples like crab curry, kottu and fish cutlets.
Cloudstreet at Sunda
When he comes back to Melbourne in March, Naleendra will be cooking two dinners with Khanh Nguyen at Sunda as part of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. "I'm super excited to be back. I’ve never cooked my own food in Melbourne. It's where it all started for me," says Naleendra.
While the menu is still being finalised, he told us that diners would most likely be treated to marron curry, as well as beef tartare with native lemongrass.
You can also catch the chef performing a free demonstration at Queen Victoria Market during the festival.
The Melbourne Food and Wine Festival is happening across town from 19 to 29 March. You can find out more about events and book tickets here.
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