Kishin RK of RB Capital interviews Rishi Naleendra of Cloudstreet: “You need to let go of things sometimes. If you have everything, you can never improve”

kishin x rishi

What happens when the boss of one company interviews another? Welcome to Like Minds, where we sit two industry icons down to chat

It is a joy watching the CEO of RB Capital do my job for once. Kishin RK, an astute player in real estate, is working today’s interview. He founded RB Capital in 2006, a forward-thinking property developer whose portfolio includes the rejuvenation of the Robertson Quay neighbourhood. Only 36, he’s constantly on the search for the perfect plan, clinching land and injecting new life into real estate. Very soon, you’ll be hearing him announce a venture into the food tech space.

He’s also perpetually searching for good food. Cloudstreet, a fairly new restaurant on Amoy Street, is a steadfast favourite of his. Run by Rishi Naleendra, who began his career at Taxi Dining Room and ran the refined, modern Aussie restaurant Cheek by Jowl, Cloudstreet is close to perfect on many counts. Everything about him is precise, from the plating and the height of the flames, right down to the last emerald tile behind the open kitchen. But as a restaurateur, how do you get that precision right? How does one not go under in the first year? And are stars everything? Kishin speaks with Rishi to get to the bottom of it.

Kishin RK: So you moved to Australia from Sri Lanka and began cooking. What was it in your mind that allowed you to think you could be the best chef in Australia?

Rishi Naleendra: I’ll do anything to win. Not in a bad way, but I hate losing. I’ll do everything that I can do to make sure I don’t lose. It is why my friends hate playing sports with me.

KR: What’s your management style?

RN: Let’s just say it’s easier to have one voice in a business. You can’t have too many opinions around you, and there are times when Manuela (his wife) has to step in.

KR: What’s your relationship with the back of house and front of house operations? What’s the kind of relationship that you think is important?

RN: We don’t have a back or front. We all work towards one door. I don’t think there should be a division at all. After all, it doesn’t matter if it’s food or service, all we want is a happy customer who keeps coming back.

KR: How do you execute this perfectly at Cloudstreet?

RN: It doesn’t matter who comes in. We still talk to them exactly the same as how we would talk to anyone at all.

KR: What inspired you to design the sushi counter?

RN: Probably because of my love of Japanese food. But I haven’t been to Japan yet. I wanted to go this year, but Manuela wanted to go to New York.

KR: So the wife’s the boss?

RN: Yes, hahaha. Happy wife, happy life, am I right? I’m really chilled outside. Most importantly is I get to do what I do at work, and when I’ve got time off, I’ll do anything she wants.

KR: So tell me, where are we in terms of the restaurant scene? We have seen so many changes happening across the years. Where do you think we are on a global level today?

RN: On a global level, it’s getting really challenging because it is one of the most unsustainable industries. Working 18 hours a day used to be normal, but not anymore. I’ve always believed that sustainability shouldn’t always come through just what goes on a plate. At the end of the day, it’s a business. It needs to be financially sustainable and that said, you’ve got to look after your staff. Again, happy wife, happy life. Similarly, if you don’t look after your staff well, you can’t expect them to look after customers right.

KR: I agree with you 100 per cent that at the end of the day, service is personal. Like a football game, it’s teamwork, and it’s tiring.

RN: It is tiring. There are days where it feels like you have been penalised twice and in two hours. It is intense, but people don’t see that part.

KR: What do you think of restaurants being business-minded? There are a lot of people I meet from the industry, and their passion overrides the cost. All they want to make sure is to do their best with the best ingredients.

RN: I do not agree with that. I love what I do. I love restaurants and I love creating, but if one can’t get the percentages and numbers right then that’s just stupid. What’s the point then. If I have all the freedom to spend that much money without worrying about cost, creativity goes away because you’re not thinking anymore.

KR: So you think creativity comes with the necessity to balance business and passion?

RN: Yes, not having boundaries within boundaries is what makes it. Breaking rules doesn’t mean having the free flow of things, but making sure you do the unexpected. For instance, we don’t do truffle course after truffle course, uni after uni. The moment cafes start using such ingredients, you know it’s time to stop.

KR: What do you think is the ingredient of tomorrow?

RN: Vegetables. 100 per cent. People will spend money to eat vegetables.

KR: Your profit margin must be very high.

RN: You’d be surprised to know how much we spend on vegetables. They are bloody expensive. Our vegetables cost as much as our proteins, and most of them are organic and come from Holland, France or Italy. Of course there are certain things we use that are local; I’m all out to support local farms and stuff, but if it’s not the right quality, I’m not going to use it for the sake of it being local.

Vegetables are the future, but we just need to get used to not eating perfect vegetables. When you go to the supermarket, everything looks exactly the same, and that’s not normal. If you find produce that looks like it has been eaten by insects, it’s good. If the insect can eat it, we’re good to go.

KR: Ok. Now what do you think of Michelin stars? Are you one of those who think they aren’t important?

RN: My life changed when I got my first Michelin star. That was the pinnacle of my career, to be honest. The exposure it gave me was crazy.

KR: Has it influenced your cooking?

RN: No, it did not. I think that’s why we got a star. We didn’t cook for them, and we didn’t change anything for them. We did what we felt was right, and we did it for fun. We had nothing to lose and it is why it was so real when it was given to us. You can have all the stars in the world, but if that’s not enough, you’ll always feel like you’re on the losing team because you can’t just win one thing.

KR: What do you think of white-tablecloth dining? When you think about Michelin stars and fine dining, you always think of the white tablecloth.

RN: The sad thing is people still believe in it. I mean, we need to think what the white tablecloth brings. What do you feel when you sit down at a table with a piece of white cloth. Formal, right? But does it have to be so formal? With good food, wine, company and service, I don’t think so. I’ve never liked it, I’ve never had it in any of my restaurants and I don’t think I ever will.

It just doesn’t feel personal, but a transaction. We have done everything to not make the place feel like a transaction, and that’s why you don’t see any commercial label when you walk in. Instead, it’s like you’re at someone’s house.

KR: Is this restaurant a dream that’s achieved?

RN: No way, I’m only 34. I’ve just started, and I’m nowhere near what I want to achieve. If I’m settling down with life at 34, what am I gonna do when I’m 65?

KR: What do you want to achieve?

RN: It’s so hard to put it on record, to be honest. Frankly, one day I want to sort of move away from everything that I have built. Hopefully, there will be a point where I can give everything back. I think that’s the ultimate goal. There’s something missing in this industry. People still don’t see how far one can go in cooking and being a service staff, and it would be nice if I can actually get more people to perceive and achieve that. But at the end of the day, all I want to do when I’m old is paint. I want an art gallery and maybe cook for 12 people a night, four days a week.

KR: In the next five years, what can we see you do?

RN: I think it’s very important that I learn how to run a sustainable business, because cooking and creativity are two things I’ve been working on the last 16 years. Since we have Cloudstreet and Cheek Bistro, I have to learn how to teach people to not just cook but run a kitchen. To help them think about it as a whole business and give them a sense of ownership. Creating a support system and making people believe in what I believe will be the hardest thing to do. If I can build a sustainable business formula in the next five years, I think I’ll feel like I’ve actually achieved something.

That said, at Cloudstreet, I think I’ve found the balance between formal and casual dining. A lot of people thought that it was a stupid decision to close a perfectly running restaurant (Cheek by Jowl) with a Michelin star, but I would like to think I made the right decision. I mean, you need to let go of certain things sometimes. If you have everything, you can never improve.

KR: Where do you see Cloudstreet in 10 years? Two stars, three stars, how many stars do you want?

RN: I won’t say the stars aren’t important. It’s a business, and it helps, but that doesn’t mean I’m gonna slave myself to get one. I always tell my staff: as along as what we put on the plate is worth a Michelin star in our hearts, we are in a happy place. In 12 months, if this dining room is still filled for lunch and dinner, it will be sustainable. The most important thing is we know we are working hard enough.

KR: Do you have every piece of the puzzle sorted?

RN: You will never have every piece of the puzzle sorted, and that’s what keeps it exciting. You’ll never put it together in a perfect way, and it’s just a matter of putting them in a manner that works, if that makes sense.