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In Singapore and Hong Kong, couples who cook together stay together

Working side-by-side up to 16 hours a day, six days a week in high-pressure Michelin-starred kitchens can exact a toll on a relationship. But these four couples have managed to survive – nay, thrive – despite the challenges.

In Singapore and Hong Kong, couples who cook together stay together

Celebrity chef Sam Leong of Forest at Resorts World Sentosa named his restaurant for his beloved wife of almost three decades. (Photo: Forest)

Even in the most perfect of marriages, it happens. You're standing stirring your carefully-crafted pasta sauce when your beloved pops in behind your back to “check on the seasoning”, before adding a little something of their own. Cue glances. Possibly words.

There can be something slightly territorial about domestic kitchens – especially in Asian cities where there's often barely room to fry an egg, let alone cook dinner for friends. So imagine the intensity and pressure of working together 16-hour days in a full-service restaurant, one where diners are paying top dollar and expecting the very best – every time.

Yet some culinary couples not only willingly do this – but also thrive on it. Maybe it's fuelled by adrenaline – or masochism – but having a better half working in the same industry, or better yet the same restaurant, often leads to fertile grounds for romance.

It figures, when you're spending three quarters of every day together, six days a week.

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Cloudstreet in Singapore is where Sri Lanka meets Australia to dazzling effect in the form of husband-and-wife team Rishi Naleendra and Manuela Toniolo. Needing little introduction to the city's diners, Cloudstreet has built on the foundations of their first joint restaurant, Cheek By Jowl which celebrates Modern Australian cuisine, today in its current incarnation as Cheek Bistro.

The husband-and-wife team of Rishi Naleendra and Manuela Toniolo. (Photo: Cloudstreet)

Today Naleendra is the chef and Toniolo runs everything in the front-of-house, but their story goes back much further, however, as Toniolo explained.

"We met in a small family-run restaurant in Victoria, Australia, 17 years ago. I was there full-time as a supervisor, and Rishi was still schooling at that time, so he joined as a part-time pizza chef. At first, we didn't like each other very much – we were very different. Rishi had long hair, he liked to party – so we didn't have much in common at that time. But we became friends six months after we joined the restaurant.”

After an admittedly inauspicious start to their relationship, romance blossomed and they worked together for three years in two restaurants down under before making the move to Singapore.

When we asked Naleendra whether it has been difficult living and working together, he was candid and revealed why they work so well as a team, where their different skills and approaches complement one another.

"It has been a smooth journey for us, fortunately. We have very few disagreements because what we are good at are completely opposite, and we support each other's decisions (most of the time).

The Cheek Bistro team. (Photo: Cloudstreet)

“Our working styles are very different. I take care of the kitchen and am the one who is more creative and comes up with new ideas. Manuela manages the front-of-house and operational happenings, is more detail-oriented and likes things properly planned out and in the right order. So we both bring different aspects to the restaurant. It's a good balance.”

Smooth and successful restaurant operations are often likened to a ballet or orchestra where everyone knows their roles and expectations are clearly defined. "We don't get in each other's way and are able to marry the service and food experience seamlessly for the diners,” said Naleendra.

Once they're home after a long day of service, however, Toniolo explained that work stays firmly at the door. "At home, we don't talk about work. We feel it's important and healthy to have that break and time away from thinking about work. We work long hours and it's key that we relax, wind down and get quality rest before the next day."

One question that always intrigues among culinary couples is who does the cooking at home, but Naleendra explained that – understandably – it isn't high on their agenda. "If we do, I usually cook and Manuela helps to wash up. We usually have a barbecue with friends on Sundays, or we go out a lot of the time – mostly to drink wine and eat."

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In the always-on Soho district of Hong Kong, where the streets are filled with socially-distanced diners and drinkers, neo-Parisian restaurant Belon has already won acclaim since relaunching in a new space designed by Joyce Wang Studio.

Chef Matthew Kirkley and his wife, Lauren. (Photo: Belon)

The new-look destination from Black Sheep Restaurants is now helmed by new chef Matthew Kirkley, while the general manager is his wife, Lauren. The American couple met when working in a Chicago restaurant called Rhapsody – an appropriately named spot to start what has since become a marriage with three kids.

It wasn't the most auspicious of first meetings, however, as the missus explained: "When I met him the first day, I thought he was 35 and married because of the way he carried himself. He was so professional, he knew what he was doing. I was like, 'I don't know how to break down this chicken' – and then I cut myself. There was no first aid kit in this tiny little spot so I asked if I could go and get one. And he said 'No, we have to finish. You'll be fine’."

Kirkley quickly interjected, "Not my greatest managerial experience!"

Belon's interior. (Photo: Edmon Leong)

She then added that they were both in relationships at the time, but "We started a connection with one another and eventually our [respective] relationships ended. Everybody would go out for drinks once a week and we always found ourselves talking to each other."

Romance soon blossomed and they worked across some of America's finest restaurants – so it's surprising that Belon represents their first time working together since their first meeting.

"We've been married now for nearly 11 years and have been with each other almost 14, but this is our first time back in a restaurant together since Rhapsody. Our paths have kind of crossed as far as the restaurants we've worked at, but it was never at the same time."

Signature dishes such as a shamelessly decadent salade gourmande with green beans, veal tongue and black truffle have made Belon one of the hardest tables to book in town. (Photo: Belon)

Despite the intensity and challenges, they're clearly relishing the opportunity to work side-by-side. As Kirkley put it, he has the ideal GM in place.

"It works really well for us on two fronts. One is that I'm really lucky to just have a general manager, my wife or not, who has real fine dining back-of-house experience. She understands what the line cooks need, what they're doing, what changes in the front-of-house and how that impacts the kitchen.

“Secondly she's also really accomplished – she was a cook at places including Charlie Trotter's (a legendary two-Michelin-starred Chicago restaurant)."

The French cuisine that the husband-and-wife team presents is impeccably executed and picture-perfect – but never loses substance behind the serious style. Signature dishes such as a shamelessly decadent salade gourmande with green beans, veal tongue, and black truffle have made Belon one of the hardest tables to book in town.

But of course, not everything runs smoothly all the time.

"Every night brings its tense moments with heightened expectations... the irony in fine dining is that we're asking perfection of ourselves, which is impossible. So inevitably there are difficult moments on any given day. But it helps that again Lauren and I have a really healthy relationship. You also think, if she's pissed off at me now, she's going to be pissed off with me at home too!"

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Sam and Forest Leong. (Photo: Forest)

Celebrity chef Sam Leong of Forest at Resorts World Sentosa named his restaurant for his beloved wife of almost three decades. He met Forest, herself a trained chef and culinary teacher, back in 1989 while working in Bangkok.

"Forest was 18 and studying food and beverage, doing a six-month placement in the Thai kitchen. I interviewed her and she joined the kitchen doing Chinese desserts. Every three months I left Bangkok [to renew my] visa and on one trip we went together to a disco. She loves to dance and asked me to dance – we fell in love, became boyfriend and girlfriend but secretly! At the time, husbands and wives couldn't work together due to the hotel’s policy, so sometimes in the kitchen we didn't talk at all!"

Charismatic and talkative, Leong, who beat cancer in 2016, laughed as he admitted that their relationship had colleagues speculating: "After a year we decided to get married. The whole hotel wanted to know who I was marrying as I had a bad name as a playboy!"

But ultimately it was clear that they were made for one another.

Ultimately it was clear that they were made for one another. (Photo: Forest)

"She understands my working hours in F&B. If she's not in the industry, she could ask why I work until midnight and rarely have family days. She gets it."

In 1993 the whole family moved back to Singapore, a big move with two boys. "She was 22 years old, a wife and mother, leaving her family, friends, culture, food and language behind. Her dream was to open a restaurant, but I told her how hard it was in Singapore. She then started running cooking classes and private dining sessions in our own house. She created her own name here and aunties and uncles soon followed!"

As their fame grew across restaurants and cooking classes, Forest would join Sam at events and promotions. They would interact with clients together and ended up cooking side by side at the health-forward spot Tangerine at Resorts World Sentosa – now under chef Ian Kittichai.

A decade ago, Leong set up a business consultancy, partly to ensure that he could spend more time with Forest after working notoriously long hours and shifts. He is crystal clear why husband-and-wife teams work so well, especially in smaller, more modest operations.

"Most successful small restaurants are husband-and-wife teams – usually the husband cooks, the wife works in front and they click very easily – their goals are the same," said Leong. (Photo: Forest)

"Most successful small restaurants are husband-and-wife teams – usually the husband cooks, the wife works in front and they click very easily – their goals are the same. If you take a hotel, the chef and the manger are not related. One reports to the executive chef and one to the F&B director, so you don't work like a family.

“If you work in your own free-standing restaurant, as husband and wife, it's very easy to get things done. You can make good, quick decisions. If the guest isn't happy, talk to them! Waive the bill, call them to come back, you can solve things immediately."

Of course he also has his take on cooking at home, when two chefs live together.

"Most of the time Forest has cooked at home, since the kids were young. Some chefs love to cook at home on their days off, but I'm like, why do you cook on your one day off?! I want to go outside and not eat home-cooked food!"

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Finally back to Hong Kong and one-Michelin-starred Roganic, where Ashley Salmon and Teigan Morrison (known as TJ) are head chef and senior chef de partie respectively – and in a relationship now for 18 months. Consistently lauded as one of the city's finest and most relaxed places to dine, Roganic is home to cuisine celebrating largely British and local Hong Kong produce.

Ashley Salmon and Teigan Morrison. (Photo: Roganic)

Thirty-year-old Salmon was born and raised in Manchester and started training as a chef as a teenager, before joining one-Michelin-starred L’Enclume in 2015. The restaurant from Simon Rogan in England's Lake District is renowned for its sustainable ethos and embrace of locally-sourced produce.

Teigan trained at the Australian Patisserie Academy in Sydney before moving to the UK where she added to her experience at Le Cordon Bleu and worked as a demi pastry chef under renowned British chef Marcus Wareing.

Working together at Roganic in Hong Kong, Simon Rogan’s first overseas restaurant venture, has bought long hours but great recognition for the cuisine they have crafted. As Salmon explained, being in a culinary couple involves balance.

"There are obvious challenges, as kitchens can be quite intense! We work long hours and have to remain disciplined, but to be honest it's never a problem. Perhaps because we are in a relationship, we tend to share the same view on food most of the time and we can complement each other’s ideas, which only makes us stronger. Also, if and when the restaurant receives accolades, it's amazing to be able to share that experience together."

The duo's salted caramel custard tart has already become a firm favourite with diners and on Instagram feeds across Hong Kong. (Photo: Roganic)

One area where the magic can really happen is when dishes are crafted together. Case in point: An insanely photogenic salted caramel custard tart that has already become a firm favourite with diners and on Instagram feeds across Hong Kong.

"We work on all the dishes together but especially the pastry as TJ trained more as a pastry chef. The salted caramel custard tart with Kowloon Dairy milk ice cream is a favourite on our lunch menu. We wanted a classic, comforting dessert, especially given the times the world is going through – and we both love it!"

Given the notoriously long days worked by chefs, you'd be forgiven for thinking that food would be the last thing on their minds when it comes to time off – but far from it. In common with so many in the industry, the passion for cuisine runs deep, as Morrison explained how she and Salmon spent time when the restaurant was forced to close during dining lockdowns.

"We discovered some local artisan producers like Two Moons, one of only two producers distilling gin in Hong Kong, and Conspiracy chocolate, who make delicious craft chocolates."

Their current food dream is to travel and eat around Japan, something they meant to do last year. Dining at Restaurant Frantzen in Stockholm, Sweden is also high on the agenda. They consider it "the best restaurant in the world [right now] – everything about it just looks incredible." (Bjorn Frantzen has restaurant Zen in Singapore).

When at home, of course, that key question naturally arises: Who does the cooking? Morrison responded, quick as a flash: "Ash is the boss at work – but everything outside I decide! I definitely get him to do all the cooking – and the cleaning!"

With balance like that, they seem like another culinary couple with a very bright future.

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Source: CNA/ds