Richie Pratadaja Rekindles the Fun in Chocolate

by Cindy Julia Tobing
1st December 2022
For Richie Pratadaja, his pivot to the culinary scene was an unexpected but welcomed leap. Now he heads Crio, a restaurant in Menteng that showcases his imaginative chocolate creations, catapulting him as one of the city’s most promising chocolatiers.

When it comes to Richie Budiharto Pratadaja’s chocolate creations, there’s really nothing to hide. For one, the kitchen at his Menteng restaurant, Crio, is exposed through a big glass window where his coveted chocolate snack bars and bonbons are crafted—from manually tempering the chocolate to give it a glossy finish to painting the bonbon moulds to look like a blanket of stars. Essentially, a window into Richie’s artistry and craftsmanship laid bare for every diner to see.

When we visited Crio on an idle Monday afternoon back in early November, Richie, donned in a casual blouse and fedora hat, was in the middle of carving a sculpture made out of chocolate blocks. Through the glass window, we can see a lone mushroom almost half his size, sturdy in its position and still naked without details. 

“I started this a couple of weeks ago,” announced Richie shortly after we exchanged greetings in the dining room. Curious, I asked what it was for. As it turned out, he was chocolate sculpting for fun. “There’s something relaxing about sculpting. I find working with chocolate very soothing.” 

Within Jakarta’s varied and fast-moving culinary scene, the 38-year-old chocolatier stands out like the new kid in class with a stellar report card. After 15 years in the United States, he returned home to Jakarta in 2019 bagging impressive skills and experience in his portfolio, from working as a baker at The Bellagio in Las Vegas to a sous chef under Swedish master chocolatier Håkan Mårtensson for nine years at FIKA in New York City.

“There’s something relaxing about sculpting. I find working with chocolate very soothing.” 

Richie took this wealth of experience and singular vision further at Crio, which he opened early this year after nearly two years of preparation. “With Crio, I want to introduce people to good quality chocolate and show a new level of enjoying them,” said Richie. “Here, I also encourage my staff to create with the standard and level that we have maintained. We always have new flavours every month because we push ourselves to create.”

Crio buys chocolate from all over, locally as well. Because to Richie, sticking to only one type of chocolate would be a missed opportunity due to the varied flavours that cocoa beans could have, from bitter, sour to fruity, depending on each bean’s terroir. “For dark chocolate, we use 60 to 80 per cent. Milk chocolate, 50 per cent. I don’t like to eat or make desserts that are too sweet.” 

And this is where a lot of people get mistaken: as a chocolatier, Richie doesn’t actually make chocolate. “That’s a bean-to-bar maker, where they source cacao beans directly from farmers and process them into chocolate bars,” he explained. “As a chocolatier, I buy chocolate and combine it with different kinds of ingredients like fruits, spices, herbs and creams to make confections.”

Surprisingly, Richie’s career in the chocolate industry—and culinary in general—was not part of his life plan. He didn’t grow up with a particular passion for chocolate or cooking (“My mom loves to cook, I love eating it”) nor did he have any intention of becoming a chef (“I wanted to be an interior designer”). It was after spending a good amount of time watching “Ace of Cakes” on the Food Network channel that Richie, then a design student at Mesa Community College, started to open up to the idea.

“I’ve always wanted to create something that can make people happy, and I can see how food does that,” said the Jakarta-born chocolatier. Inspired and determined, Richie decided to enrol at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Scottsdale, Arizona, in 2009 where he majored in baking & pastry arts.

“With Crio, I want to introduce people to good quality chocolate and show a new level of enjoying them.”

The first day of class, where he was tasked to make a roux (a natural thickener usually used in sauces and stews), turned out to be the definitive moment that solidified his newfound dream. “I asked left and right, not knowing what to do. But through that process, I can see myself creating something,” recounted Richie of the 8-hour class. “From the chaos of not understanding anything to finally making something that people can enjoy—that first class changed my life. From there, I knew I wanted to be in the kitchen.”

Richie was an active student, soaking up every knowledge and experience he could get his hands on. Through volunteering and assisting notable pastry chefs like Stéphane Tréande at events like the World Pastry Forum, Richie soon realised his affinity for chocolate-making. Gradually, after involving himself in international competitions and exhibitions where he got to make life-sized chocolate sculptures, Richie’s goal became as clear as his tenacity: to become one of the best chocolatiers in the industry. 

“I fell in love with chocolate and [its craftsmanship] in the five days I spent assisting a senior chef during a chocolate showpiece masterclass,” disclosed Richie. “Usually people start with pastry before choosing a specialty. I dived into chocolate first, then learned pastry afterwards.” 

An hour into our conversation, Richie was telling us of his experience working in New York kitchens, which includes working as long as 16 to 18 hours during the Christmas season. I asked if he ever wanted to give up and his answer seems to reflect his own unshakeable spirit—from a curious student that didn’t know what to do in his first cooking class to building Crio and carving himself a position as one of the city’s most promising chocolatiers.

“It’s tough for sure. Sometimes, you give your 100 per cent and you’re still not being appreciated. But the same industry changed my life and I have never felt betrayed by it. Fifteen years working [in this industry], and I enjoyed every second of it.”

As we got to talk about life in New York City, Richie’s episode of bar-hopping to 52 bars slipped into the conversation, a peep into a ‘rebellious’ side of him outside his chef’s robe. Even through the good, bad and ugly, it was clear from his expression and the beat of his voice that he misses the city.

“There were a crowd of young talents and I felt their great spirit and enthusiasm towards the local chocolate industry.”

“Inspiration is everywhere there. I lived in Queens, a known hub for Asian communities. I also lived in Brooklyn, which is more on the hipster and unique side.” Richie detailed. “The city is so dynamic with such diverse backgrounds and cultures. It’s like you can walk around with a diaper and no one would bat an eye—it’d be just another story of the day. There’s a sense of freedom in their way of life.”

The weekend before our interview, Richie had just participated as a judge at the first Indonesian Bean To Bar Chocolate competition held at Jakarta International Expo. Judging with fellow chocolatier Christophe Morel from Canada and culinary storyteller Ade Putri, Richie was more than glad at what he saw. “There were a crowd of young talents and I felt their great spirit and enthusiasm towards the local chocolate industry,” he observed. “The problem here is the lack of support and opportunities to nurture these skills. I want to help and guide them through the experience I gained abroad.” 

It’s with this spirit of sharing and openness that Richie leads his team at Crio, and by extension, the local chocolate industry that he wants to help develop. “I’m never afraid to share my knowledge. Many feel like they have to keep their recipes well-guarded, but why? I always say to my staff,  ‘My recipe book is there, feel free to learn from it’.”