Reynold Poernomo on KOI, His Inspirations and Life after Masterchef

Reynold Poernomo on KOI, His Inspirations and Life after Masterchef

Poernomo saw Masterchef as a playground to hone his creativity; now, he bears the fruit of it. 

28-year-old Reynold Poernomo may have moved on from his MasterChef Australia days, but the world certainly will never forget the contestant who urged even the infamously austere Gordon Ramsay to soften and dub his dessert—White Noise—“breathtaking”. Watching Reynold on screen was akin to viewing a sporting event, where you are constantly rooting for him with foam fingers and pom poms because you marvel at his skill and aspire to have his courage and creativity. That is the impact the young chef has had on the world. Some might believe that his time on MasterChef catapulted Poernomo to success. Maybe it garnered him popularity, but not success; that was a result of pure hard work.

At such a young age, Poernomo is already running a successful business—the KOI Dessert Bar—and has participated in the cooking reality show MasterChef Australia twice. His muscle memory allows him to play around almost nonchalantly, and rather intimidatingly, with liquid nitrogen, sugar bubbles and tempered chocolate. He built an image of someone resilient, creative and a little bit unhinged for pushing the boundaries as he did. Off-screen, he is the same, although somewhat mellowed by the realities of the business world. That hasn’t stopped him from thinking big, though. 

We get on a call following his trip from Japan (pleasure, not business), and he has already hit the ground running, having his hands full getting KOI ready for Christmas. Poernomo is always on the go—a sign of his passion and the pressure to succeed. 

In this interview, he shares what he has been up to since his time on MasterChef Australia.

Sprucing up his family-run business, KOI

KOI is Poernomo’s family-run dessert bar experience based in Australia. His mum, Ike Malada, started it all, thus the name KOI—short for “Kids of Ike”. He says, “She was a chef at a steakhouse working to secure the family’s PR [permanent residency]. Once that happened, she stopped working for some time.” 

When Malada returned to cooking, she decided to focus on pastries. This grew into a small business, called Art Plate, running out of the family’s garage. She supplied to a chocolate café around Sydney. In a few years’ time, this business moved to a commercial kitchen, which her sons transformed into the KOI Dessert Bar in 2015 following Poernomo’s appearance on MasterChef. It was during this transition that the café stopped ordering from Ike. Thankfully, that wasn’t a tough blow as KOI’s success, in part bolstered by his popularity on MasterChef, was enough to sustain the family.

Using their own funds, Ike and her sons Reynold, Ronald and Arnold came together to create this business to highlight Ike’s pastry skills and creativity alongside Poernomo’s. “Our motto is ‘food is fashion’, and we don’t want to do the same things twice or over and over. So we try to evolve and create different things. With our cakes, the design comes first, and then we think about the experience,” he explains.

Dreamy as it sounds, working with family is far from a cakewalk. He divulges, “When you’re working with someone new, you need to find each other’s boundaries and specialty,” he notes. And they have excelled in doing so.

Moving forth from his MasterChef Australia days

Visit KOI’s flagship store, and you’ll find that some of the most beloved (and visually arresting) desserts Poernomo made on MasterChef are on the menu for you to enjoy. “Down the Rabbit Hole” and “Moss” are two of them. For Christmas, he is planning on recreating “White Noise”. 

However, when asked about his MasterChef journey, he says, “I try not to think about that area a bit too much.” He adds, “The reason why I went on MasterChef, not just once, but twice, was solely to push myself outside of my comfort zone and be put in an area where it’s high stress, high pressure, and where you need to produce creativity every single day.” 

Poernomo shot to fame after creating style-forward desserts on MasterChef in the 2015 and 2020 seasons. For him, life since has been quite interesting. He asserts, “I’ve been trying to balance the publicity and really focus on the heart and soul of KOI.”

Will the beloved Harry Potter-inspired dessert “The Snitch” ever make it to the menu? He says, “Maybe. I don’t often revisit things I’ve done already.” When it comes to creativity, Poernomo is all about evolving and exploring what lies ahead instead of recreating history, though he is not entirely opposed to it. 

Making it big the Poernomo way

Since MasterChef, the chef has undertaken many successful creative pursuits besides KOI, from launching his own book, The Dessert Game, to running his YouTube channel, where he is super comfortable embracing his mistakes, deceiving people into believing that becoming Poernomo is not so unattainable after all. Maybe it isn’t.

Advising chefs who want to make it big in the industry, he says, “Find your niche.” He points to the story of his colleague, who has been in the industry for about two years. She runs a profitable cookie business and works with Poernomo to learn and understand how he works. “I always tell her, look, you need to find your niche and understand where you want to go in your career, especially with someone that’s quite young.” 

In the food industry, he feels that one needs to understand that you can either be a leader or a worker. Obviously, he underscores that there is nothing wrong with being a worker, but it is imperative to think about your end goal. If your goal is to run a restaurant someday, he says, “You need to think outside of what you do day to day to observe and absorb what’s around you instead of what’s in front of you.”

At KOI, Poernomo is building future leaders. And one of the crucial things he is teaching them is humility. “Last week, I was short by three staff members due to COVID, and I was grinding away and washing dishes. You should never be at a point, especially as a leader, to be too good for anything.” Funnily enough, no one gave him such advice when he entered the industry as a self-taught chef fresh out of a popular TV show. He expounds, “Some would say that’s kind of a shortcut. But every day, we’re learning from our own mistakes.”

What inspires Reynold Poernomo?

“Finding inspiration can be quite hard,” he admits. Creativity is not an easy pursuit, not even for Poernomo. He finds inspiration through his travels and heritage. But not every voyage serves as a bouncing-off point for creativity. For instance, he says, “If it’s Japan, it’s purely just for food, just to eat. There are no fancy restaurants. I can’t make sushi, but I love eating sushi. I can’t make ramen, but I love eating ramen.” For inspiration, he likes to dine at restaurants where he wants to see his food go. That could mean places in Europe and Singapore, at high-end places where people perceive food differently and they “push the boundaries of food”. 

Another source of inspiration is his heritage. He reveals, “As an Asian, I love a lot of Asian flavors. We use influences and ingredients from the culture and cuisine within the product range.” For him, the biggest compliment an Asian can receive when it comes to desserts is that “It’s not too sweet,” he laughs.

He does acknowledge that inspiration alone is not enough to carry a business through. He details, “Creativity is more than just the food. We have to think about the business as well and what can we do to evolve and adapt to the environment and what the trend is now.”

What does he plan on doing next?

With his manager, Johnny Bhalla, Poernomo—characteristically—has been carefully curating his next steps. Using Instagram Reels, the duo is bringing Poernomo’s creative process to the fans. Explaining the idea behind these reels, he says, “What I realized is, when you’re filming something, it’s not necessary to break down every single step in the recipe. It’s just to show a little glimpse of how it’s done—the creative process.” 

As for the brick-and-mortar side of things, he has been focusing on expanding the KOI experience beyond Sydney. He reveals, “I’ve been working on a Melbourne store that’s still under work.” It is in the planning stages, navigating a few hiccups, typical of most new business undertakings. Currently, KOI’s business in Melbourne is intertwined with its sister venture, Monkey’s Corner. He wants to transform everything, even KOI’s branding, when introducing the new store to Melbourne. 

He knows that it will take a lot of work, especially given that most of his team is small, comprising young, ambitious chefs. From what the world knows of him, Poernomo is not afraid of a challenge—he was also a young, ambitious chef once who found his footing in the public eye, becoming renowned as the pastry chef to watch. 

As he charts out his plans for the Melbourne store, he is looking to shed his pastry chef image and depart from traditional desserts altogether. He will be treating many cuisine foods with pastry techniques. Poernomo concludes, “I want to push boundaries within this country and turn my vision into reality by not just being seen as a pastry chef or someone that’s known for desserts.”

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Header Image by KOI

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