Rishi Naleendra, “If I'm in a band, I don’t want to just play covers”

Meet the spark behind Cheek by Jowl’s originality


Rishi Naleendra, “If I'm in a band, I don’t want to just play covers”
Dining July 12th, 2018

You live for #Friyay to post pictures of #HappyHour. Come Monday, it’s all moans and groans with the onset of #MondayBlues. Instagram hashtags have made it cool for everyone who dreads the nine to five.

Except Rishi Naleendra. The chef-owner of popular modern Aussie outfit Cheek by Jowl doesn’t believe in hating on work. “One thing everyone needs to realise is you’re going to be working one-third of every day, for at least 40 years of your life,” says Naleendra.

“If you spend the best years of your life unhappy at work, you’ll realise there’s not much life left to live after that.”

Rishi Naleendra Cheek by Jowl

Rishi Naleendra’s secret to staying fresh: Be curious and excited about things. Photo by Wong Weiliang

It’s why the Sri Lankan chef never sees the kitchen as work. He started as a young chef at Taxi Kitchen in Melbourne, “curious as a sponge”. Naleendra spent his off days creating tasting menus at home, trying things he had never put together before. Oysters would be paired with strawberries, or abalone with basil butter

“Some were successful, but there were so many days (my wife and I) couldn’t actually eat,” recalls Naleendra with a chuckle. “I would cook and the portions would either be too tiny, or the food was just f*king horrible.”

“Once, I cooked squid in a sauce that was so bad. We went out to eat Subway.”

But this curiosity is the spark to the food at Cheek by Jowl. The menu doesn’t change every month, but it doesn’t need to. Naleendra’s dishes thrill with a surprise element — sweet strawberries with salty black olives and tart rhubarb, or zucchini flowers with Sri Lankan mung beans.

“I can’t come up with dishes every day. Maybe I’m actually not that good, but it doesn’t work for me,” says Naleendra. He adds, “But when you put together two things that have never been put together before, and it works? It’s magic.” 

A lot of his ideas come from books or travelling. But they can also be a fluke. Take the cured mackerel dish. The fatty fish comes with a crust of roasted mackerel bones that were initially meant to be turned into stock. 

Rishi Naleendra

Using roasted mackerel bones as a crust for the fatty fish was an inspired fluke. Photo by Wong Weiliang

“Everyone started eating the bones when it came out of the oven. It was salty, sweet, and so delicious. We thought, why not just use them as is,” shares Naleendra.

His originality is why diners flock to Cheek by Jowl. Imitation is no form of flattery for Naleendra. “I get inspired by looking at other chefs’ dishes, but I’ve never done a dish exactly the same as theirs. I get really sensitive when people copy things,” says the 33-year-old.

“For me, if I have a band, I don’t want to play cover songs.”

The restaurant turns three this year, and Naleendra reveals plans to move out of their current space as the lease is up. The chef hasn’t found a new spot to call home yet, nor is he sure if he’ll want to keep the same menu. The only thing he’s certain of: Cheek by Jowl 2.0 will have an open kitchen, because seeing his guests enjoy their experience matters.

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