They are the Oscars of the culinary world. Being awarded a Michelin star is an honour most chefs can only dream of. In June this year, Rishi Naleendra became the first Sri Lankan chef to receive a Michelin star. The 32-year-old, now an Australian citizen received the accolade for his Singapore restaurant, ‘Cheek by Jowl’ which he runs with his wife Manuela Toniolo.

Rishi was in Sri Lanka last week for the opening of a new restaurant at Fairway Colombo and a library at the MJF Charitable Foundation’s culinary school for the empowerment of aspiring chefs.

Born and raised in Sri Lanka, though brought up in a family engaged in the catering business, Rishi chose to take up architecture leaving to Australia for his higher studies at the age of 18. But while working in restaurants and cafes on a part-time basis, he had a change of heart and switched to culinary studies. “My parents were ok with it. It meant I got citizenship faster. The agreement was that I was to finish up architecture after I got my citizenship,” he says somewhat sheepishly.

But having chosen to embark on this journey into the culinary world for pragmatic reasons, along the way Rishi fell in love with it. “I love being able to be creative with it,” he says.

He cut his teeth in award-winning establishments in Australia including the Taxi Dining Room in Melbourne, Tetsuya in Sydney, and Brent Savage’s Yellow, and moved to Singapore to head the restaurant Maca. It was there that he was discovered by the owner of the Unlisted Collection (a Singaporean company that owns several boutique hotels and restaurants in the region). This chance meeting led to the opening of Cheek by Jowl in February last year.

At Cheek by Jowl, it isn’t Sri Lankan food on the menu but rather modern Australian fare. His choice of contemporary Australian cuisine means Rishi is breaking the stereotypical mould that an Asian chef can only excel in Asian cuisines, especially outside his own country. Though proud of his rich heritage he doesn’t want to be identified for Sri Lankan fare alone, but rather be known for producing good food. “You can’t appreciate just one type of food,” he says, stating that though he deals with modern Western cuisine and Australian produce, when he comes back to the island he enjoys tucking into kottu from the famous ‘Plaza’ in Colombo, or snacking on short-eats from Perera and Sons, unequivocally stating that he loves anything that tastes good.

The food and beverage industry in the island, though, he feels is still stuck in the 1960s and 70s and needs to update. “We have 45 years to catch up on. We can’t play this catch up game (and) upgrade from the 70s to the 80s. We need to jump to the 2000s,” he states emphatically. It’s not just the food but the service and the perception surrounding the dining experience that is outdated, he believes. He points out how the notion that guests are superior to those who serve them is still prevalent here. “Customers aren’t better than the server or the guy who washes dishes .Customers are there to be part of what we do and we will count them as one of us. They are coming into our lives for a couple of hours,” he says matter-of-factly.

Perhaps this condescending attitude towards those in the service industry is explained through the misconception the general public has regarding the capabilities and intelligence of those working in the industry. “There is a school drop-out perspective about chefs in Sri Lanka,” says Rishi, noting that chefs too have to constantly learn and that knowledge has the ability to change lives. Which is why he chose to donate books to the ‘Empower Culinary and Hospitality School’ run by the MJF Charitable Foundation founded by tea magnate Merrill J. Fernando to empower young people through culinary education.

Rishi first got involved in the project when he met Dilhan Fernando at the Sri Lankan night he hosted at Cheek by Jowl. Having donated the earnings from the event to relief efforts for Sri Lankan flood victims in 2016, Rishi was looking for ways to give back to the country. Chatting with Dilhan Fernando, a director of Dilmah and the son of its founder about their culinary school, he was eager to help. But the Foundation believing that charity must come from within does not accept monetary donations. So instead it was suggested that Rishi share his expertise with the students and as part of this, he donated 140 books on cuisine, worth USD 5000 to the school. “Knowledge changes your life. You can’t put a dollar value on it,” he says; he hopes these books will inspire the school’s young chefs and help them bring the food and beverage industry in the country into the 21st century.

Meanwhile Lankan foodies can have a taste of Rishi’s culinary skills too – he has partnered with Cantaloupe &Co to open up the bistro- bar ‘Botanik’ on the rooftop of Fairway Colombo in Fort. The produce in the country is amazing, he says and he hopes to highlight it in all his dishes.

His hope is to give Sri Lankan diners a modern Western dining experience, and perhaps herald a change. “Food is like fashion, it needs to be updated,” he says.

Please click here to view the Source Article in the Sunday Times

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