By Tan Wai Fong
Malaysian Gelato. It’s an oxymoron. Yet, 31-year-old Ong Kee Win is blazing an artisanal gelato trail from an obscure shop lot in Shah Alam. There are nasi lemak, coconut gula Melaka, tau foo fah and even turmeric-flavoured gelato. Crafted with care and perfected through trial and error. Rich, creamy and made only with natural ingredients. All these are made possible by Ong who is staying true to his passion to make the best gelato and to “create local flavours which connect emotionally with customers.”
Nasi lemak gelato (pic). It was displayed innocuously with the more familiar flavours at Cielo’s (in Italian: heavenly) gelataria at Paradigm Mall. I had to have a taste. I took a bite and was immediately transported to my usual nasi lemak hangout by the burstful of sambal and anchovy flavours. It was so good. Yet, so wrong! Who eats nasi lemak gelato?
Ong laughed out loud when I shared my experience with him. We were hanging out at his lab-cum-central production facility where he works at perfecting his recipes. “It’s a lot of trial and error. And a lot more maths and science in making gelato than I imagined,” said the former environmental engineer who once travelled the world managing carbon emission reduction projects.
Why gelato? For Ong, the journey began with a taste of Italian gelato while on vacation with his family in 2006. “It was the best frozen dessert I ever had. Unlike ice-cream, the texture was cloud-like smooth and the flavour of the pistachio gelato was intense. We brought the fond memory of Dolce Freddo (Italian frozen desserts) back home but we could never find any authentic gelato in Kuala Lumpur,” he said.
While the memory of the amazing gelato taste lingered and tantalised him, Ong made a life-changing decision in 2011. He quit his job so that he “had no safety net and had to go all the way”, packed up his bags and headed to Bologna to study the traditional methods of gelato-making. Located in northern Italy, the city is a mere 30-minute train ride away from Florence, where gelato was invented in 1565.
In 2013, The Economist commended Carpigiani, an Italian firm in Bologna that makes gelato machines, for their successful business plan. With a saturated home market, Carpigiani set up a Gelato University to teach foreigners how to make gelato. More than 15% of the students ended up buying their equipment. Naturally, Carpigiani’s revenue have increased accordingly.
Interestingly, Ong’s pride and joy is his three Carpigiani machines. The one in the middle, he said, pointing to the gelato machines at the corner of his lab, was the price of a Honda Civic. “You need that to produce good quality gelato,” he added.
Back to when he gave it all up for gelato. “I decided then it was now or never. I have always had a passion for desserts. I saw friends who gave up on their dreams of being entrepreneurs once they were tied down with financial commitments. There was also no one in Malaysia who was creating truly Malaysian or artisanal gelato. And there were no flavours that we had emotional connections with,” he pointed out.
A whole new tasty world
The three weeks Ong spent in Bologna opened up a whole new world. “I’m the limit of what flavours I can create. When I was studying gelato-making, ideas were running through my mind about the types of Asian flavours I could come up with. At the end of the day, I can make all Italian gelato but there would be no emotional connection for my customers,” said the passionate gelato maker.
In addition to Cielo’s now famous nasi lemak gelato which is available only on weekends, Ong has created mandarin oranges, barley lime, jackfruit, coconut, pandan, and even pineapple tart gelato. There are eight to nine permanent flavours, and two to four seasonal flavours available at his gelataria.
Yet, the early years were tough. It was difficult to find the raw ingredients needed. Premix dominated the market. He was so frustrated with the search that at one point in time, he actually toyed with the idea of using premix.
“I had to remind myself: what do I want to make? Artisanal gelato. It took me three to four months to do the research but I finally found the raw ingredients. Then, the major companies asked me how many tonnes of ingredients do I need? Funny. I only needed two or three bags. They then, helpfully, referred me to SMEs,” he said.
“I stumbled many times,” he admitted candidly. “The next challenge was to come up with my own recipes. The ingredients in Italy are different. You can’t follow the recipes to the T as you can’t produce the same quality gelato. So, I had to experiment. For just the milk alone, I had to experiment with 10 different types. That took me another month,” he said.
Ong’s next challenge was to set up shop. None of the major shopping centres he approached would give him a break as he had no F&B experience, no portfolio and at that point in time, no product.
“At times, it was quite demoralising but I preserved. I am grateful to the Paradigm Mall Management who took a chance on me. They offered me an odd shaped outlet and I finally opened Cielo in May 2012,” he said.
It remained an uphill battle for the gelato artisanal. “It’s not easy to make it big; we are barely surviving,” he said ruefully although he also sells his gelato at pop-up markets and restaurants, as well as to corporate clients and wedding planners.
Yet, Ong remains upbeat and optimistic. “The journey has its ups and downs. Since we are barely making it with this current business model, we have to be more innovative. We need to make a bigger mark with our soon-to-be-opened outlet in Solaris Dutamas: a unique gelato café.
“We are going to incorporate gelato in coffee, pastry and even food. It’s going to be something familiar for most of us, yet with a fun twist. I’m experimenting with the recipes right now, as we speak,” he added.
This is also the perfect time, he said, for him to let go. “Trying to do everything just by myself is extremely limiting. So, I am learning to let go, to allow others to grow and learn with us. And then, we can move to the next stage. But, this is my baby; it is not so easy to let go,” he laughed.
Any advice for aspiring entrepreneurs? “Start early! You are more daring when younger, and you have less financial commitments. Remember: really believe in what you do. Persevere. Have faith, believe and trust the people around you,” he said.
Ong offered me some gelato as we concluded the interview; pistachio and Belgian chocolate. I could wax lyrical over the nutty and fragrant pistachio gelato, as well as the rich and creamy chocolate gelato. But why take my word for it? Taste it for yourself at Cielo, LG50, Paradigm Mall, Petaling Jaya.