Coming from a decade-long career in the IT industry, Ikmal picked up the precise art of making Neapolitan pizzas for his wife in a wood-fired oven he built himself.
The wood-fired pizza industry in Malaysia isn’t new, but Ikmal told Vulcan Post that the Neapolitan pizza one was, when he first started WOP Pizzerria 5 years ago.
But before they became the version sold today, his pizzas have gone through a couple of evolutions.
Making The Dough
Ikmal’s always had a passion for authentic food, with a core focus on preparing them from scratch.
During the first year of his venture, Ikmal told Vulcan Post that the pizzas he sold were actually similar to those already in the commercial market. Think Pizza Hut and Dominos, but baked in a wood-fired oven.
His pizzas quickly became popular as customers were charmed by its homemade element.
The first evolution WOP went through happened accidentally, when Ikmal refrigerated the dough for longer than usual.
After baking it, its crust came out with some burnt spots, which received mixed reactions from customers. While a cohort of patrons appreciated its improvements, others didn’t like it and never came back.
“It was a learning experience for us and customers. We did a lot of explaining to customers and had to manage expectations for new ones who walked in,” he said.
Over time, he learnt about making Neapolitan pizzas with sourdough that had a crust in between a crunchy and chewy texture.
He learnt that to get that perfect crust, the dough had to be fermented for 48-72 hours before baking in an oven with a temperature between 430-480C°.
As sourdough pizza is also moister than other types of dough, it required a gentle yet strong hand to handle its stretching.
It would then be balanced with sweet hand-crushed San Marzano tomatoes and the acidity of fresh buffalo mozzarella before it’s baked in the oven for 90 seconds.
“Every pizza that comes out of the oven is my artwork combined with many years of hard work,” chimed Ikmal.
This self-taught pizza connoisseur has since made 200,000 pizzas to date with no training, although the biggest cost factor was all the mistakes made along the way, resulting in throwing away dough, mozzarella, etc.
Firing It Up
When I heard that Ikmal made his pizzas in a self-built oven, I thought he was just very particular about everything that went into his pizzas—or what his pizzas went into, even.
But there’s a more practical reason behind that too. He built them himself because he just couldn’t afford to buy locally made wood-fired ovens that would cost at least RM25,000.
So, he researched and built an oven on a trailer that was pulled by his car, enabling them to move their operations around.
They’ve gone from selling at weekend food events to setting up tables and chairs outside his family’s home. He later rented a small corner in a restaurant and opened his first pizzeria in Shah Alam.
To date, he’s built a total of six wood-fired ovens, each increasing in size to accommodate more pizzas at a time.
Rekindling The Flames
In May this year, Ikmal had to close down their Shah Alam outlet due to the MCO. Because the pizzas were best when fresh out of the oven, despite offering deliveries, WOP faced an 80% drop in sales.
But an unexpected turn of events happened when one of their fans, who happened to be SOCAR’s CEO, Leon Foong, decided to partner with the brand.
From thereon, the newly registered business bought over most of the assets from their old restaurant and relocated to Plaza Damas in Sri Hartamas. Now with enough funding, Ikmal was able to buy a wood-fired oven from Naples.
“Building the oven myself is a lot of fun but the oven professionally built by Gianni Acunto is way better,” he said.
In light of this new partnership, Ikmal hopes to bring in more regular customers and eventually host masterclasses to teach others the craft of pizza and cheesemaking.
And because of his obsession with ingredients on WOP’s menu himself, he’s also looking forward to starting his own charcuterie (French for a shop selling cold cut meats) very soon.
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Featured Image Credit: Ikmal, founder of WOP Pizzeria