Chef Rishi Naleendra dishes on why he runs his restaurant empire like a family business
Discover why the acclaimed Sri Lankan chef and restaurateur shut down his Michelin-starred restaurant, Cheek Bistro, during the pandemic, only to expand his other restaurant, Cloudstreet, and develop two additional dining concepts, Fool Wine Bar and Kotuwa, and place his talented team at the helms.
When Rishi Naleendra did the unthinkable and closed his Michelin-starred Singapore restaurant, Cheek Bistro, early on in the pandemic, many wondered whether the Sri Lankan chef was making the worst move of his career. After all, he had attained one of the highest accolades in the dining industry with the concept, and people clearly loved it. Still, his staff members were feeling overworked from the long hours and how busy the restaurant got on a daily basis, and many of them quit amid the uncertainty of COVID-19.
Going with his gut, Naleendra shifted his priorities from profits to the loyal team members who stuck with him during those tumultuous times. He cut down the hours of operation at his establishments and empowered his staff to take more control in the everyday operations. He even relinquished command of the kitchen, along with the prestigious title of head chef, to his executive chef, Mark Tai, a promise Naleendra made initially in semi-jest, saying he would do so if the restaurant ever won a Michelin star. It took just one year to make it happen.
Not only that, Naleendra tripled down by developing a duo of new dining concepts and expanding his other one, Cloudstreet, into a bigger operation. He started by transforming Cheek Bistro into something different entirely—a wine bar he dubbed Fool as a play on his and his staff members' can't-ever-take-ourselves-too-seriously personalities, imbuing it with a cheeky vibe that allowed them to show their truest selves through the menu and design. Then, he opened Kotuwa—named for the central business district in his home country's capital—a lively, modern, and casual restaurant serving traditional Sri Lankan cuisine, featuring food he ate and adored while growing up.
Kotuwa was built to embody Sri Lanka's vibrant and generous dining culture for Singaporean diners, with bright, creative dishes consisting of Sri Lankan snacks, known as "short eats," and a myriad of curries, housemade sambols, and preserves. The name also means "fort" in Sinhalese, a reminder of the ancient landmarks built by Sinhalese kings and the Portuguese, Dutch, and British settlers that have influenced Sri Lankan history, food, and way of life.
As Naleendra says, "[Building a restaurant is] one of the easiest things to do if you have money," but you can't truly succeed without passion and the right people on your team. That's why Naleendra decided to step back from managing the minutiae of the kitchen to focus more on the business side of his restaurant empire and let his talented team of cooks, bartenders, and hospitality professionals take the helm. The results have been nothing short of astonishing.
Even with the closure of his Michelin-starred success story, Naleendra's new ventures and the expanded Cloudstreet have managed to bring in more business, and he and his staff are working fewer hours than ever before while putting out the same level of exquisite food and drinks. Naleendra credits these accomplishments to knowing when to trust in others and not overthink things. While he may feel nervous about some of his decisions, he's quick to emphasise that he isn't scared, because if a feeling of fear were to overtake him, he wouldn't be able to do certain things.
If you ask those who work for Chef Rishi Naleendra to share their thoughts on their boss, they'll be the first to tell you how much they love and respect him. Naleendra's leadership style is rare and admirable, as he understands and is willing to place the needs of others above his own. He sacrificed himself in many ways so that he could create an environment for others to grow and excel. By doing so, he inspired others to dream, learn, and become leaders themselves.