Seek and you shall find, so goes the time-honoured proverb. And just as it implies in a wider literal sense how good, honest efforts will never go unrewarded, the saying holds true for those who seek as well as those who create something to be found. Such is the case for cheesemaker Ivan Chong.
Formerly the CEO of Taigaco, which owned the merchandising and licensing rights for Ultraman characters, Chong and his partners had to wind up the business — the unhappy result of several factors that included, in Chong’s own words, “cash flow problems, a lack of experience and Covid-19 being the final nail in the coffin”. Never one to sit around and mope, the plucky 34-year-old chose to refocus his energy and keen desire for business instead into a primary passion — food. Ricotta cheese, specifically.
Cotta KL officially opened on April 18, to say it has been a challenging start is a bit of an understatement. The third and brutal Movement Control Order was imposed barely three weeks after, leaving Chong to grapple with a new F&B business that could not welcome diners, surviving instead only on takeaways and deliveries. But if passion is the impetus for grit and salve to overcome tough times, Chong’s story is indeed a true testimony.
Born out of love, Chong shares how he was never a fan of the strong cheeses. “But at 26, I met this girl who reintroduced me to strong cheeses — this time, paired with wines — and I fell in love. I never saw cheese the same way again,” he grins.
For the fledgling entrepreneur, cheese is the very evolution of this emotion. “While chasing girls, my go-to move was always to invite them out for a weekend, with me preparing breakfast,” he cheekily admits. “One day, I came across a YouTube video on cheeses you can make at home and decided to give it a try. Needless to say, it was amazing — even the first time round. And so, it became ‘the thing’ that I would do. But, more importantly, I was amazed that something so simple could turn out so delicious.”
Those who have yet to visit Chong’s charming little start-up would first have to employ the aforementioned “seek and you shall find” approach. Although located in the very upscale and accessible neighbourhood of Damansara Heights, Chong chose to tuck Cotta KL away atop a kedai runcit. Access is via a staircase almost hidden amid a hodgepodge of tinned goods and bundles of provisions. Just look for a wooden sign that says “Open”, hung on a nondescript piece of clear corrugated sheet, and clamber up. Once in, it is a cosy, brightly-lit little nook where potted plants thrive and adorned with a pink neon light or two that spell out the café’s name.
Despite this being Chong’s maiden foray into F&B, it appears Klang Valley foodies and ricotta enthusiasts have already gotten wind of Cotta KL and are more than willing to scour the streets of Medan Damansara in search of the mini market with a secret stairway. The menu is minimalist but all offerings are carefully chosen and guaranteed to fortify the constitution.
There is coffee (but of course), tea and kombucha (so very good for gut health) but it is the fresh ricotta cheese that Chong serves atop crusty sourdough bread made by a buddy of his that keeps the in-the-know crowd happy and coming back repeatedly for more. At present, only three sandwiches are offered. The Classic — fresh ricotta atop sourdough with flowery Spanish honey and walnuts — is what purists would go for while the brunch bunch would prefer the Smoked Salmon Ricotta Toast topped with a sous vide egg. Those who fancy a bit of hot action should opt for the Chuck Mooris, a pulled beef ricotta toast.
“The name was decided upon and voted for by my Instagram followers,” says Chong. “I used chuck beef initially but it wasn’t fatty enough, so I switched to brisket. Fat, as we all know, equals flavour. And taking inspiration from my time in Vietnam, I also use a blow torch to give the brisket a thick char before braising it for six hours and then oven-finishing it for yet another layer of flavour. Before serving, I torch it yet again for smokiness.” Malaysians who love their spice should ask for an extra serving of Chong’s addictive chilli padi chimichurri. Sadly, he has yet to bottle it for sale.
On adopting the speakeasy approach, Chong says he “sold everything he could” to start Cotta KL. “With that, I needed to prioritise what else I needed to spend on. So, the money I saved on the signage (there is still no signboard but the friendly kedai runcit uncle will good-naturedly point the way upstairs) and whatnot was spent on more important things, like running capital. I must say, it is also very strategic being right above a mini mart. If I forget anything, I just pop down and buy it,” he laughs.
Those interested in food science would like to know how Chong uses three different kinds of milk to make his fluffy, cloud-like ricotta. “One for taste, one for texture and one for yield” while fresh local lemons provide the acid needed to stabilise the whey that he makes himself. “I get the lemons from Superfruits Valley, a local farm with a young, amazing team.”
Perusing food and gourmet websites, supermarket ricotta is often at the receiving end of snobby comments, something Chong feels the need to comment on. “There is a product for everyone. My ricotta is for people who care about what goes into their food. It is made fresh every day, just using these hands of mine, and only two ingredients — milk and locally grown lemons. That’s it. No preservatives, no fake stuff … just real food.”
When enjoying ricotta at home, Chong advises people to save their money, stressing how regular honey is a good enough accompaniment. “I don’t even need the fancy Spanish honey I use at Cotta KL for the Classic sandwich. Just plain, simple honey and a pinch of salt. That, in my opinion, are ricotta’s best friends.”
Not quite done with the subject of lemons, Cotta KL also offers a cheeky lemonade named “Sorry Anwar”. Ideal for the thirsty and politically disillusioned or those who simply want a drink worth Instagramming, Chong says the idea came about from yet another proverbial phrase. “When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade, right? Anwar, you tried but hey, look… I made you lemonade,” he says wickedly. On a more positive note, the lemonade’s birth was the result of an eco-conscious bid by Chong to further maximise his lemon supply. “We make the lemonade from the peels of the lemons used for the ricotta. We previously just threw everything away. Now, we remove the skin, keep it in a jar and place a layer of sugar on top. The sugar extracts the essence, leaving behind a gorgeous, intensely yellow syrup. We repeat the process for two weeks and, at the end of it, we turn it into lemonade.”
With a staff force that is as lean as his menu, Chong works long hours. But he remains all smiles and enthusiastically opens for business every single day. “For me, Cotta is my second chance. If you asked what I would have done differently in my last job, I am doing exactly that for Cotta KL now. Ricotta, to me, is a product of love … the blood, sweat and tears of entrepreneurship. And to see people enjoy my cheese gives me that instant validation. It feels good for the soul.”
When he finally does get to put his feet up, Chong divulges how his secret sinful snack is as quintessentially Malaysian as it can get. “Maggi Mee,” he chortles. “There is nothing more soul-filling than a hot bowl of instant chicken noodles. I am big on noodles and love anything soupy. My go-to these few months, however, is Maggi Ayam with two heaped spoonfuls of my buddy’s homemade Sichuan mala sauce called ‘Malafaka’.” Oh, if only that was available for sale too.
Cotta KL is at 49M, Jalan Medan Setia 1, Plaza Damansara, Damansara Heights, Kuala Lumpur. To book, call 011 2321 2125.
This article first appeared on Nov 8, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.