In 2015, Reynold Poernomo was hailed the Dessert King when competing in Season 7 of MasterChef Australia. He was also the only contestant in the history of the reality TV series to receive a perfect score during an immunity round with his now infamous Passionfruit Sphere and Coconut Granita with Pineapple dessert. Within five months post MasterChef, he wasted no time with the launch of KOI Dessert Bar, Sydney’s first dessert bar, with his mother and two brothers, Arnold and Ron. Four years on with over 358k (and growing) avid followers on Instagram, he shares with us the values he upholds as a chef and how he built Sydney’s first and most popular dessert bar from the ground up.
- His inspiration comes from his travels, and art galleries where he finds different concepts in art. Food, like fashion, is an art form. Go and eat everywhere. Do not take the idea; just be inspired by it.
- When you are at the peak of your business, fix whatever you need to fix —such as maintenance works like repainting, kitchenware, tables, interior fixtures. When you are no longer at the peak, you will not have the finances to fix the imperfections.
- Let your product be your voice. Use Social Media to tell your story; your journey from creating it and building it, to the concept behind it. Let people know your story. People like stories.
- It is all about products and keeping the quality up – when an establishment’s interiors and menu are wearing down, the staff morality and the integrity of the business will also follow suit.
- The five-year lifespan – If you want to maintain a restaurant as it is without too much bleeding, five years is a healthy lifespan. If you keep going and do not do evolve, there is a high chance that the business is going to start losing money.
How did the concept of KOI come about?
KOI is a family-run business, and an abbreviation for Kids of Ike. Back in 2012, my mother, Ike Malada started a business right out of our garage supplying French macarons to cafes in Sydney. In 2015, five months after my participation on MasterChef Australia Season 7, we launched KOI as a family.
What goes into the running of a dessert bar?
KOI focuses on fashionable food so, as a dessert bar, the first thing a customer sees when they walk in is the cake display with its wide array of colourful cakes. We have over 100 different varieties, all of which are handmade.
We have a central kitchen located at Rhyde where all of our cakes are made. Our cake production averages 600 cakes a day with a maximum output capacity of over 2500 cakes daily. With a much bigger space at 203 sq m, we’re able to incorporate a bigger cake display, a chocolate room, and even a classroom.
Share with us what you had in mind when you selected this location and your vision for KOI.
Kensington Street is a newly developing area with great restaurants, art, and culture all housed within an old precinct. My mum loves heritage sites so when she found this place, and the developer offered it to us, we had to jump on it. Plus it feels a lot like London.
Our vision for KOI is that ‘food is fashion’. What we wanted for KOI’s interior was a combination of elegance featuring elements of copper, black marble, and wood. The interior’s purpose is to be welcoming, and for the colourful desserts to be the highlight. We also wanted this place to feel like home so my mother inserted her personal touch with flowers around the outlet.
This is a two-storey outlet: downstairs is where we showcase our patisserie, and we built the upstairs specially for evening dining. Arnold and I work on the menus together. Here we have two different menus – a tasting menu of savouries and sweets, and a dedicated dessert menu of restaurant-style desserts; something I actually prefer creating.
How do you overcome conflicts as a family?
KOI is our first business venture together as a family. All of us have different ideas, and we try to put all of these differences in 1 place.
Though we all have our egos, this is a partnership. It is hard to tell each other when something is wrong or to point out mistakes. It takes constant practice on taking criticism well, receiving feedback, and giving different ideas; just do not cross the line. If you cross the line, it shows that you don’t believe in what they are doing. As we mature in our business, the four of us now have board meetings. We set aside our relationships and discuss the overall problems with the focus on what can be improved.
What is KOI’s Marketing strategy?
The exposure of MasterChef Australia is a key contributor. That is why we opened KOI within five months. There wasn’t any paid Marketing when we started.
What is your advice for those who do not have the benefits of TV exposure? How can a restaurant raise awareness?
- Use Social Media to tell your story; your journey from creating it and building it, to the concept behind it.
- Your product must be your primary focus. If you believe that your product is good, you do not need to hard-sell it. The most popular places are sometimes the most discreet, or at least that’s true in Australia. A good example of this is Lune Croissanterie. They don’t have big signages nor do they go big on Marketing and yet people from all over the world line up for their croissants.
Word of mouth is the most definitive form of Marketing. EVER. Always start with in-house Marketing. You cannot always come up with something new and gimmicky in F&B. You need your regulars. It can be slow at the start, but once the momentum builds, it will have a snowball effect.
Chef Reynold Poernomo, KOI Dessert Bar
What is your pricing strategy for your cakes?
A combination of costs, wages, and brand reputation. Labour and premium ingredients are the main contributors to the price.
Wages in Australia is the highest in the world and our cake production is labour intensive. Each pastry is hand-made and comprises of at least five components: mousse, glazing, filling, base, garnish. We don’t sacrifice on quality and so we choose to use the best of the best.
What inspires you and your creations?
Creativity is hard work, but we manage. We are the first dessert bar in Sydney so we must keep creating and evolving. If not, we’ll fall behind.
Chef Reynold Poernomo, KOI Dessert Bar
Going back to our vision that ‘food is fashion’, dessert cannot be monotone. Cooking is an art form, and so is fashion. I draw inspiration from my travels, I also go to art galleries to find different concepts in art. It’s in the textures, the flavours, and of course, the colours. The most important part of dining is in the experience and then the flavour. However, we do not compromise one for the other. I encourage you to GO and eat everywhere. Do not take the concept, just be inspired by it.
What makes the KOI team tick?
With my team here, I do not believe in hierarchy, or that someone only does one thing confined to their stations. Of course, we have a Head Chef to lead the team but other than that, everyone works together.
I treat my team as a family, and that is why they go the extra mile. Some of my chefs have worked at some of the best places before KOI and they come in bringing their learnings and preferences from those restaurants. That will never work here. I prefer having someone who has the experience, and is also able to fit in with the team as a family. It is not always about the pay. Here, it is all about looking after them and looking after each other. On days off we even hang out together because we are family.
Of course, you have to find a balance between friendship and being the boss. Getting the right balance is what makes a healthy business. You can guide them and show them the way through discipline and some pushing while at the same time, look after them so that they can pay their bills.
Which do you value more: passion or experience?
I will go for experience here because, with passion, not everyone has the skill. If someone is slow to learn but very passionate, unfortunately, it does not work. Now, if someone who has the passion is able to adapt quickly, quick to learn, open-minded, and can learn from their mistakes; that would be ideal.
In your experience with the F&B industry, what are your key learnings?
When you are at the peak of your business, fix whatever you need to fix such as maintenance works like repainting, kitchenware, tables, interior fixtures. When you are no longer at the peak, you will not have the finances to fix the imperfections.
If you have someone as a mentor, gather all of the knowledge but do not take onboard their philosophy. Do not try to replicate concepts as you would not know fully what works. When you follow in their footsteps, there is no one to guide you but if you had your own style, you will know what’s right or not.
Chef Reynold Poernomo, KOI Dessert Bar
What advice would you give me if I wanted to open a dessert place?
- Have the concept right, something that you are confident in. Rushing to open KOI was my biggest mistake. We rushed the opening after MasterChef because we wanted to ride on the waves while it was still fresh. The first 2 years were quite challenging because my food was not mature enough. But now it’s a lot better. Everything I’ve learned was self-taught. My food and concept have evolved, and I am happy where I am now.
- As with any business, it’s gambling, basically – you are not sure whether people will like it or not. Test it out on friends and family first before opening.
- Do not get hurt by criticism. Once you get hurt, you are going to change everything. Just stay strong and believe in your concept.
What are the biggest challenges of being in the F&B industry?
Staying afloat. On the outset, it might look pretty and rosy but not all the time. You will have dark days. You do not know what the struggles behind the kitchen are. We are not only chefs, we worry as a business too every single day. If it is a quiet day, we worry about the operational costs and whether there is enough to pay our staff while, as owners, we get what’s left at the end of the day. You have to keep positive, target the right market, and continue creating, changing and evolving as a business.
How do you decide when to close or to stay in business?
If you are bleeding too much, of course, you close it down. There were a couple of dark days for us. We were offered a space directly opposite of KOI by the landlord multiple times. Ronald always wanted to open a Japanese-Scandinavian bar. Monkey’s Corner was very quiet for the first six months and on the first week my older brother, Ron, told Arnold to think of a way to close this place down. He was very hurt, but he kept going, and then it started to pick up. We started getting regular customers. When we hit our 1-year mark, it was truffle season and we made truffle noodles. It just blew up from there. We saw 150 covers a day on weekdays (from 4 pm to 10 pm). For a 30-seater bar, that is quite a high turnover!
We were worried but at the same time, we believed in it. Believing in what you do and your concept, you will flourish. And it did flourish.
Chef Reynold Poernomo, KOI Dessert Bar
What is next for KOI and yourself?
Expansion. We want to go to Melbourne and of course, overseas too. I am hoping to build own my dream concept either next year or by 2021; a high-end focused dining experience with a 20-25 seat capacity, and with just one exclusive seating per day – think of Alinea in Chicago. That is my dream concept. We’re opening a small bakehouse on 22 Kensington street, Chippendale called Ti Ni Artisan Bakehouse. Watch this space!
This interview has been edited for clarity. Words and photography by Theresa Burhan. Edited by Lim Ai Leen. Family potrait and all dessert images by KOI Dessert Bar.