Under normal circumstances, launching a restaurant is already a bold, colossal undertaking. Opening one during a nationwide bar on dining-in for restaurants? It perhaps takes a little cheek — and a whole lot of grit — to do just that.
Chef Rishi Naleendra should know. After opening several restaurants in Singapore, including acclaimed venues such as Cloudstreet and MICHELIN-starred Cheek Bistro, Naleendra was set to welcome guests into his new venture serving his native Sri Lankan cuisine, Kotuwa, in April.
Having built up extensive restaurant-opening experience over the years, Naleendra thought that “for the first time in my career and in my life, I’m going to have a smooth opening for a change”.
“We knew the location… We had so much time on our hands, we were ready in advance, we a full team ready to go," he said.
Until the global pandemic threw a spanner in the works.
Interrupted but not deterred
Thanks to his team’s forward-thinking, contingency plans were already being developed since late January, as news of COVID-19's rapid spread across Asia weighed on their minds over the Chinese New Year holiday. Naleendra shares, “I had a feeling, when the rest of the world started closing up... At some point, we knew [the restriction on dining in] would happen.”
Naleendra and his team decided to temporarily halt operations at Cloudstreet, given the challenges of translating the fine-dining experience into takeaways, and operated Kotuwa out of the former's premises instead.
Even this pivot was not as easy as it sounds, according to Naleendra. As Cloudstreet is set up to serve a small group of 26 people at any one time, its kitchen was only equipped with a grill and two induction stoves. Grills and gas cylinders had to be brought into the Cloudstreet space to meet Kotuwa’s specific food preparation requirements. The kitchen pass — once Cloudstreet's crowning glory strewn with ornaments and lavish flower displays — also had to be removed to make way for the array of spices required for Kotuwa’s recipes.
Over at Cheek Bistro, the team started discussing takeaway plans with online platforms, and introduced takeaway dishes even before the Circuit Breaker was even announced.
“I’m very lucky. I have one of the best teams...We were very, very fast,” says Naleendra. After joining the food delivery platform Grab, his team began picking out food that would travel best, like lamb ribs, fish and chips. They also started offering alcohol and bottled cocktails online.
The online offers attracted many new customers who had never been to the 30-seat Cheek Bistro before, and who were discovering his menus for the first time, prompting many to enquire about portion sizes. In response, his colleague suggested creating sets for two, and four people, to ease the decision-making process for customers. This initiative launched on Mother’s Day has been “very successful”, according to Naleendra.
Reflecting on the challenges he faced during the Circuit Breaker, Naleendra draws strength from his 18-year journey from a pot-washer to where he is today. "I don’t think anyone who has come this far in our industry has had it easy," he said. "Most of us are very used to having hard times."
"No matter what happens there is always a way to survive," he said, adding that he counts himself "very lucky" to be in Singapore . "Hopefully this brings the best out of all the restaurants. We learned to go past hard times and again this will be that," he said.
Though temporary measures and innovations have helped his restaurants tide over the Circuit Breaker period, nothing can replace serving customers in-house — something he is looking forward to now that the restrictions on dining in restaurants have been lifted on 19 June.
Naleendra shares that he had been a “very anti-social person” growing up, but working behind the open kitchen counter at Cloudstreet and talking to people there changed him. “It’s not just cooking, you’re hosting someone. Someone is at your restaurant, you are looking after them, getting to know them, and most of our customers became our friends.”
Even as a seasoned chef, he says that he still gets nervous every night when the first customer walks through the doors. But that is exactly the feeling he has missed over the last two months.
He adds: “I can’t wait to feel that again.”
This article is the first in a 4-part series that looks at how Michelin restaurants in Singapore have banded together as a community, pivoted their businesses and introduced new innovations to continue raising the bar for exceptional dining experiences during the city's efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19.
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