I used to dream of being a pastry chef. I wanted to make macarons and old-fashioned chocolate cakes for a living. I wanted to be the next Pierre Hermé and David Lebovitz. To fulfil that dream, I needed more than just my KitchenAid. So I enrolled myself as a poorly paid apprentice at a large dessert company that was popular at the time. 

Big mistake. It made me hate the one thing I loved. While waking up early each morning was no problem, in that kitchen, I was an outcast. An outlier. People were unfriendly, uncompassionate and single-minded. I spent one month piping macarons before swearing I’d never to do it again.

Perhaps I gave it up too easily, but years later, I found myself back in the kitchen. This time, at Cheek by Jowl, which is popular for its refined, modern Australian cuisine with an Asian flair. Favourites include a salt-baked beetroot and a laksa leaf ice cream that’s dressed with pomelo and green chilli. I had dinner there one night and loved the food so much that four glasses of wine later, I convinced the chef to let me work for just one day. I didn’t know what I was thinking (the wine certainly did), but it wasn’t as bad as history made it out to be. Not because I was there as a writer and that people had to be nice, but people were helpful and they were real. I saw friendship and a kind of brotherhood that one doesn’t easily find.

“What’s the point of being nasty?” says Rishi Naleendra, head chef and husband to the restaurant manager, Manuela Toniolo. A little background: he flew to Australia to study architecture before switching to food. It was an express ticket to residency, and there began his career starting at Taxi Dining Room (now Taxi Kitchen). Most chefs employ fear to command and control their cooks. Others are a little more empathetic and compassionate. Rishi (let’s just call him that) borders on the latter, but is fierce when he has to be. It takes a chef like him to manage a troop of cooks and to iron out any kinks that might pop up.

During lunch service, as I stand out of everyone’s way, scraping the dirt off salted duck eggs, I enjoy the rhythm of the kitchen between the hot and cold stations.

“Boys, can we do a chicken liver and two oysters for him?”

“Coming up!”

“Service, please!”

I meet everyone but the sous chef, who was away on honeymoon. It’s a male-dominated team, not because there is a conscious effort to exclude women but because, for some odd reason, there hasn’t been any girl applying to cook. Among the team is Dylan, a heavily tattooed chef formerly from Tippling Club, as well as a couple of university graduates – Marcus, nicknamed Junior, is a psychology graduate who went against his parents’ wishes to become a chef, and Shane is an engineering graduate who earned his stripes at the At-Sunrice academy. Everyone works well together and there is little to no ego in the kitchen. Rishi is lucky.

“But secretly I crave for a little drama. A little dash of Gordon Ramsay, perhaps.”

But secretly I crave for a little drama. A little dash of Gordon Ramsay, perhaps. It’s been raining a lot and the crowd isn’t consistent. Rishi hates it. People either don’t show up or arrive late because of the weather and service gets staggered. This is when mistakes are made. Just then, a bunch of freshly burnt kale arrives at the plating station. An established dish would have been betrayed by that bit of last-minute sloppiness and the sight enrages Rishi. He turns to the culprit, Oppa, a young Korean saucier who looks fairly oblivious to what he is in for.

“Can you do the kale again? It looks f**king burnt!” Rishi barks. “Do this again and you can just f**king go home!”

“Yes, chef,” Oppa replied, visibly stiffened.

It happened like dominoes. Joshua, the commis, had plated the charred kale in a frenzy, Jimmy, the guy in charge of the roasts, times the steaks wrongly, and Rishi, already hopping mad, has trouble getting sauce out of a bottle. As he puts the bottle down to look for another, it falls into a plate, smudging whatever that is already plated. “F**k!” He cries, kicking the counter hard. “Oy Oppa, it’s your f**king fault. Hey, I have to work here! Will you serve f**king burnt leaves to your family? It’s no f**king joke! And Joshua, if it looks like sh*t, don’t put it on the plate!”

Rishi had allowed himself to get angry, but simmers down shortly after before turning to me. “I forgot you were here. Every now and then I do lose my temper, and they have learnt what not to do that would upset me. This is why we created this system of me plating every single thing that goes out. I hate not seeing things. I want to see the dining room and I want to see my staff. Maybe I’m a control freak, but I like it, because otherwise, things can go wrong.” It is why Cheek by Jowl runs an open kitchen concept, but when you’re cooking in front of an audience, you want to keep embarrassment to a bare minimum. If something goes wrong, the head chef is to blame.

Now, it is the deep fryer’s turn to act up. “Get the induction stove and a big pot of oil. Set it up,” Rishi orders, this time, maintaining his cool. “We have to toss it. Repairing it is not going to be worth it,” he sighs. All right, enough drama, I figure. It is a good thing we are just about to break for dinner. Everyone takes turns to cook and today, Jay makes laksa, the perfect dish for a rainy day.

When Cheek by Jowl opened a year ago, people didn’t have high expectations because the previous establishment, Sorrel, had been a flop. Cheek by Jowl was seen as merely a “rebranding exercise”. Rishi had planned to leave MACA, and Loh Lik Peng, founder of the Unlisted Collection, was looking for a chef. He wanted Rishi. It was a match made in heaven and the restaurant had a very good start. They were the unexpected.

Will they win a star this year? “Stars aren’t so important,” he insists. “As long as I have a good team and I make enough, I am excited to serve anyone who loves food. Life is so simple. Just enjoy the people and things around you.”

I suppose that as the years in one’s profession stack up, you will find yourself caring more about the wellbeing of your employees and your customers, more so than simply cutting-edge cooking. For example, a solid, quality breakfast is compulsory. “It’s important. We take them out to dinner too. When it comes to tips, they are divided equally among the team, including the kitchen helper,” Rishi shares. “He wears a chef’s jacket, so he feels like he is a part of the team. I like to be democratic. Everyone is always welcome to share their own ideas. They can try to make things and feel like they are a part of the business.”

At the end of the day, I was disappointed to have spent most of it doing easy prep work – squeezing juice out of lemons, portioning crab meat and carefully extracting pomelo pulp without squishing the sacs. But I knew that too many cooks spoil the broth and who am I to jeopardise a kitchen for a story. I might not have done much, but I did learn what three things are essential in a kitchen: empathy, patience and discipline. Chefs are meant to build better cooks, and to be a great chef is to be human, even if you have to start at the bottom, squeezing lemons.

Images by Ronald Leong

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Going Back in the Kitchen
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