KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 2 — The beauty of the world getting smaller is that we now have a greater choice of cuisines from thousands of miles away. One of the cuisines we are most familiar with is Italian, from pizzas to pastas.

Which means supplying fresh ingredients needed for these dishes is a business opportunity, should one go after it.

Enter Cotta, a two-year-old restaurant and supplier of locally made ricotta, an Italian cheese made from whey, the leftover liquid by-product when curds are collected to produce other cheeses.

Located at Verve Shops in Mont Kiara, the greenery-filled Cotta is the brainchild of 36-year-old Ivan Chong, a serial entrepreneur who had previously worked in the commercial photography industry.


He recalls, "I had a realization a month before my 25th birthday that I was unhappy with my job progression and opportunities. I discovered I couldn’t make my passion into my career and I needed to take responsibility for it.”

Ivan Chong, the founder of Cotta, a restaurant and purveyor of locally made ricotta.
Ivan Chong, the founder of Cotta, a restaurant and purveyor of locally made ricotta.

Thanks to the advice of a close friend, Chong decided he wanted to become an entrepreneur. But to prepare for running his own business, he decided he needed to learn the art of selling. A two-year stint in Singapore ensued.

He shares, "Two years later, I woke up again with an epiphany and asked myself — how hard could it be to start my own business? Seven years later, here I am. Two businesses down, and here I am on my third!”


Indeed, the never-say-die attitude is both what drives and defines Chong as an entrepreneur. Past businesses that didn’t pan out weren’t "failures” but life lessons.

Stout-hearted entrepreneurs don’t waste time wondering what might have been; there is only one path and that is to look forward.

Chong says, "When I lost my second business during the pandemic — sorry for using the Covid excuse — I knew I couldn’t work for others. I needed to rebuild myself again.”

Ladling fresh ricotta into jars before labelling each one.
Ladling fresh ricotta into jars before labelling each one.

With the resources he had left, Chong decided that F&B (food and beverage) was the only feasible idea. He explains, "This was due to the low start-up capital required and I always enjoyed cooking and serving people. So I sold everything I owned. Borrowed some money from another dear friend and made it happen.”

As they say, sometimes the third time’s the charm.

Cotta only uses two simple ingredients to make their ricotta: local, pasteurised cow’s milk and locally grown lemons. Freshly made daily, the ricotta has a shelf life of around two weeks.

But why focus on making fresh ricotta specifically, given it’s not (yet) a well known or high in demand dairy product in Malaysia?

"Ricotta was the ‘fanciest’ thing I knew how to make,” Chong explains. He adds, "I’m from the ‘School of YouTube’, by the way. I believed in my ability to build a business around ricotta as it was unique, scalable, consistent and versatile.”

Staff working in a greenery-filled environment at Cotta.
Staff working in a greenery-filled environment at Cotta.

The name of his business and restaurant, Cotta, is derived from ricotta, naturally. Chong felt the catchy moniker was "love that first thought” and indeed sometimes an authentic endeavour stems from paying attention to our instincts and allowing our surroundings to inform us.

Therefore, rather than be defeated by the thought of ricotta as a less recognisable dairy product, Chong felt it was necessary to plough forward while he had momentum.

He shares, "With regards to the whole ‘strategic planning’ side — is Malaysia a cheese eating nation, is ricotta well known enough, etc. — very little thought went into the starting of Cotta.”

Instead, it was more critical to pull himself out of a funk after shuttering his second business. Chong recalls, "I was in a horrible state. The whole objective of starting Cotta was to get me out of the house, force myself back into society, stop sulking, stop dwelling on failures, do something I’m passionate about to start the ‘fire’ again.”

Given his lack of prior F&B experience, Cotta had to be a lean and agile startup. Chong says, "It had to be high gearing. Minimum wastage, No skilled talent required. Minimal overheads. Scalable and consistent.”

Fig Daddy (left) and Blueberry Special (right).
Fig Daddy (left) and Blueberry Special (right).

These were the building blocks when Chong developed Cotta and its menu, which explains his focus strongly on sourcing locally, avoiding ingredients with short shelf life.

Chong says, "The goal is to build a small but heartfelt menu. Made with love. Made with passion. Nothing pretentious. Humble.”

Imagine tasty treats such as open faced sandwiches layered with ribbons of smoked salmon or fresh blueberries, bursting with natural sweetness.

The challenge of making fresh ricotta every day is getting it consistent every single time. When they first started making ricotta, they only had a yield of 15 per cent. Chong says, "We now get a steady 30 per cent yield and this is done through working with different suppliers, developing processes at Cotta, and sanitisation processes to extend the shelf life and quality.”

During the first year, Cotta only sold three types of ricotta open-faced sandwiches (or what Chong calls "toasts”). The menu has now expanded to include seven different toasts, two types of fresh salads that are kept in a hydroponics kit and two pasta dishes.

Spreading some ricotta onto the toast is the first step to making their Smoked Salmon toast.
Spreading some ricotta onto the toast is the first step to making their Smoked Salmon toast.

This runs the gamut of flavours and textures, from the wickedly named Fig Daddy to the Gula Melaka Pecan Pie, a homage to Malaccan flavours. For a kick of creamy umami, try the Mushroom Ricotta Pasta.

If there is anything close to a signature dish at Cotta, perhaps it’s the Chuck Mooris (named after the American martial artist and actor Chuck Norris, for those not clued in on shows from the ‘80s).

Basically pulled beef paired with the homemade ricotta, the star ingredient is Australian beef slow-cooked for six hours before being shredded by hand. Add some chimichurri, extra chillies and a wobbly sous vide egg, and it’s no wonder Chuck Mooris is available as both a toast and a pasta.

Chong enthuses, "The best part is that my entire team has no F&B background and yet we’re pushing out food that we're all very proud of. I love serving my community. There was no other way for me to do this business.”

What is next for Cotta? Chong hopes to do more collaborations and cross marketing exercises with other eateries and businesses. He shares, "Like how we're doing it currently with Bray Bakery, Kofi by 77 and Huckleberry in the past.”

Adding freshly made chimichurri to finish a serving of Chuck Mooris.
Adding freshly made chimichurri to finish a serving of Chuck Mooris.

Ultimately, a business is a business. Lots of hard work involved and sometimes just a bit of luck too. There is only so much an F&B entrepreneur can do to time the market or follow the latest trends.

What Chong hopes to achieve, beyond just success in the F&B industry, is to inspire other would-be entrepreneurs to take the leap of faith and to persevere, by sharing his story.

He says, "My hope is that I can show others that it’s okay to not have a life plan and also to do whatever it takes to get what they deserve in life. While failure is scary, it is part of life and the key is to not give up and just keep on trying — as I’ve done.”

Perhaps the most important lesson Chong gleaned from his experiences was to allow himself to be vulnerable and to learn "the art of asking” for help, as per musician and author Amanda Palmer.

Chuck Mooris is also available as a pasta (left). Gula Melaka Pecan Pie (right).
Chuck Mooris is also available as a pasta (left). Gula Melaka Pecan Pie (right).

"Looking back, I did not imagine getting this far and I’m glad I did it. It is the love of the community that allowed me to make it and it is humbling to receive their kindness.”


L6-1A, Verve Shops, 8, Jalan Kiara 5, Mont Kiara, KL

Open daily 8am-4pm

Phone: 011-2321 2125

Web: cotta.com.my

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