Chong Nge Seng, 36, took a bold, life-changing leap into the world of frozen desserts after stints in consulting, banking, marketing and a media company. His decision to switch careers was not made overnight. “I got the spark to do this business working as a brand and product manager for a fast-moving consumer goods company,” he says.
“Through our surveys, I learnt that ice cream and gelato are mood enhancers, feel-good products associated with being happy and joyful, and celebrations. That piqued my interest as I noticed there was a gap in the market for artisanal gelato — good quality, localised and made with fresh ingredients with no artificial colouring and flavouring.”
His initial efforts to kick-start a gelato business five years ago did not materialise. “The fact that I did not know how to make gelato myself was a handicap. I planned to tie up with someone skilled but found it very difficult as the negotiations were always lopsided,” he says. Also, Chong and his wife had just started a family and against a backdrop of a slow-moving economy, financial security was another deterrent.
Over a year ago, the Sheffield University accounting and finance graduate left his full-time job and headed to Italy to pursue his passion. He enrolled in a course to be trained in the art of gelato-making, spending a month at Carpigiani Gelato University in the small city of Bologna. In a class of 30 students from South America, Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and other locations, he was the only Malaysian. “It was a full-time course, Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm — a real eye-opener. We went from beginner to intermediate and advanced levels with internship stints. It was theory followed by practical every day, and some days it was all practical,” Chong says.
“It was actually more difficult than I thought as there is a lot of science behind making gelato. Every ingredient has a function and purpose. For example, there are more than 13 types of sugars, each will have a different property.
“I was surprised to find Bologna so charming, with a beautiful town centre and a mix of modern and historical architecture, cobbled streets and gelaterias everywhere. Around 300, I was told. If you mention Italian food, the first things people think of are probably pizza, pasta and gelato. For Italians, it is not odd to eat gelato throughout the day — breakfast, lunch, tea or dinner. The consumption of gelato there is massive. Imagine having over 300 gelato shops in a small city like Bologna.”
Piccoli Lotti, Chong’s gelato shop, is tucked away in a quiet row of shophouses in the residential enclave of Damansara Kim. The space is brightly lit and features a minimalist interior design with Scandinavian and Japanese influences. In the kitchen, which is on the premises, Chong churns out handcrafted gelato in small batches (incidentally, Piccoli Lotti means small batch in Italian).
“That is what artisanal gelato makers do — make one batch at a time so it is fresh and there is attention to detail and quality. The fresher the gelato, the better it tastes. We ensure optimal flavour and texture.”
Once one has sampled Piccoli Lotti gelato, it is easy to appreciate the intense flavour and delicious smoothness that accompany every scoop, easily one of the very best (if not the best) in the Klang Valley.
“With Italian gelato, the ingredients are very important and affect the overall quality as only natural ingredients are used and not flavouring,” Chong explains. “The idea of gelato is to use the best and freshest ingredients available, which is key and that’s what I do. There is a lot of localisation of flavours that I balance with the ingredients imported from Italy, such as pistachio, hazelnut, yoghurt and a special kind of strawberries that are only grown in Italy, for instance.”
Currently, Chong serves a weekly rotation of 17 or 18 flavours, having launched over 40 flavours in total to date. One of his original flavours is the crowd favourite, pulut tai tai, a famous Nyonya kuih with blue streaks due to the use of bunga telang flowers (butterfly pea), which he was initially apprehensive about making. “Our signature was also our biggest surprise,” he says. “I was on the path of localising flavours and it was actually my wife who came up with the idea and urged me to make it, since I enjoy this local dessert so much. It took a long time in research and development to get the right balance of taste and texture. But it became an instant hit and is now one of our flagship flavours.”
Using preservative-free pandan kaya sourced from a local bakery and butterfly pea flowers, Chong’s relentless commitment to the integrity of his ingredients speaks volumes. Apart from pulut tai tai, Piccoli Lotti’s gelato repertoire is basically egg-free and made with mostly milk, cream and sugar. Gelato — Italy’s version of ice cream — is more milk-based compared to ice cream’s higher composition of cream, hence, it has less fat and a more dense texture than ice cream, Chong says.
Besides classics like pistachio and hazelnut, his best-sellers include dark chocolate, chrysanthemum with cacao nibs (another signature) and vanilla. He recommends Genmai rice cracker — an original flavour concocted with roasted brown rice from Kyoto — which tastes delectably sweet with a hint of a smoky flavour. Genmai means roasted brown rice in Japanese.
One delightful thing about Piccoli Lotti is the generous servings. Single scoops start at RM8, with an extra RM1 for premium flavours, while double and triple scoops are RM13 and RM18 respectively. Takeaway tubs are also available, together with a small selection of items like waffles and beverages.
Location-wise, Chong’s search for the ideal spot to set up his maiden gelato shop took time, effort and serendipity. “I love this area, Damansara Kim — a very established neighbourhood with a subtle charm. We wanted to be one of those hidden gems in a suburb with a central location,” he says. “It was actually very difficult to find a shoplot in this row. I found out that the tenant of this shop was in the process of selling the business and moving to another location. That was a blessing as it had really been a long search — more than six months.”
Chong says his wife’s patience and support allowed him to chase his dream and tackle the challenge of juggling family life with stepping out as an entrepreneur. “Without her blessing, this would not have happened,” he says. “My wife and I felt it was the right time as our financial commitments were manageable as our children are still very young.
“For now, I want to focus on maximising traffic to the shop. I do supply to cafés but that is not the main focus,” he says. “The plan is to do more catering or mobile catering for weddings, events, corporate functions, and private dos at home, like birthday parties and so on.”
Chong puts in long hours on a daily basis. He starts his day around 9am to 10am with gelato-making in the morning before opening the shop at noon, while his afternoons are reserved mostly for sourcing necessities, liaising with suppliers, marketing and business development. He takes time to mingle and chat with customers throughout the day to promote camaraderie and receive feedback before closing the shop at 10:30pm.
“It is a lot of work and I’m a one-man show for now — chef, marketer, HR and purchasing manager, owner, bookkeeper,” he laughs about his tightly packed schedule and multitasking as the owner of a gelato business that is garnering much praise and winning fans among dessert lovers in town.
Piccoli Lotti, 45 Jalan SS 20/11, Damansara Kim, PJ. Tue-Sat, 12.30pm to 10.30pm. This article first appeared on Feb 5, 2018 in The Edge Malaysia.