Meet the Perth geek who ditched her high-flying career to make gelato in Hillarys

Cheryl Lim, owner of The Milk Barrel gelato store in Hillarys.  Picture: Martin Kennealey.
Cheryl Lim, owner of The Milk Barrel gelato store in Hillarys. Picture: Martin Kennealey.

IMAGINE being dux of your high school, working to achieve a 99.8 ATAR score, scoring a cadetship at PKF Chartered Accountants straight out of high school, becoming a manager with esteemed accounting firm KPMG and then… dropping it all to make gelato.

It might sound like a far-fetched movie script about a Hollywood dreamer, but it’s actually what Cheryl Lim did right here in Perth.

She put her budding accounting career on hold, went to gelato university in Italy to learn the craft and now owns her own award-winning gelato store, The Milk Barrel, in Hillarys.

Community News reporter Blair Jackson spoke with Ms Lim about her unlikely career move, winning the Champion Alternative Milk Gelato category at this year’s Perth Royal Food Awards and how gelato has brought out her creative side.

How do you go from managing lots of money, to wanting to study gelato in Italy?

Though I enjoyed my job, I always found myself experimenting with different dessert and gelato recipes after work to unwind and being inspired by the endless possibilities when it came to creating new flavours. I had already spent nearly a decade working in public practice accounting and was ready for a change. I eventually made the decision to take a career break to follow my passion, travelling to Bologna, Italy, to study at the Carpigiani Gelato University.

What made you decide to make this career change?

I knew from the beginning that my passion was sweets and desserts, and gelato especially. I had also never been to anywhere in Europe before, but heard about the Carpigiani Gelato University and how it was a mecca for gelato lovers. I thought it would be a bit of an adventure to go to Italy to study there, and it turned out to be an amazing experience. There is nothing better than being able to study something you truly love and are passionate about. And there is virtually no limit in terms of what types of flavour combination you can come up with.

Carpigiani Gelato University in Bologna, Italy. That sounds like something out of a film. What was it like?

I love Bologna so much – in fact I will be heading back there again this August. I was only there for a little over a month initially in order to complete the gelato courses, but it left such an impression on me. It’s a much smaller city than the usual tourist hotspots like Venice or Florence, and with the friendly locals, I felt right at home from the beginning. Its nickname of La Grassa, La Rossa, La Dotta (the Fat One, the Red One, the Learned One – a reference to its rich culinary and architectural heritage, and the fact that it houses Europe’s oldest existing university) is well earned. I spent my days in gelato classes, and my free nights and weekends exploring the city and surrounding towns, eating far too much delicious food, and of course, tasting as much gelato as I could.

What did your family say when you told them you wanted to hit pause on your accounting career?

Coming from quite a conservative Singaporean Chinese background, when I first told my parents what I planned to do, they were quite frankly, absolutely horrified. I had a stable job that I had studied and worked hard for, and they thought I was insane to want to give that up to make gelato. Even my sister was sceptical, asking me just how much I knew about making gelato and running a store. I said that if I was going to take this risk, I was going to do it right and put everything into it, hence why I decided that I had to go to Italy to learn from the masters. It definitely took a while, but over time, my family have slowly come around to it, and now they are as supportive as they have always been.

Tell me more about your background?

I was born in Singapore and am Singapore-Chinese. My parents, sister and I moved to Perth when I was 15 and my sister 13, as my parents wanted a more balanced lifestyle for us all and loved the Australian way of life. I have great respect for my parents for moving us to Perth, especially my Dad, who had to change his career completely and sacrificed a lot for us.

We are a very tight knit family and spend a lot of time together. In particular, as we are all passionate foodies, it’s not uncommon for us to spend a free weekend planning for a meal, shopping for it and then cooking all together all day long before sitting down to enjoy it. My Mum is an amazing cook and has always made home cooked food for the family, instilling us with a love of good, honest food. My sister is also an accountant, but loves cooking in her spare time. She is currently working in Amsterdam and travelling around Europe.

Run me through your schooling in Perth.

I completed year 11 and 12 at Duncraig Senior High School with a TEE ranking of 99.8 per cent and was named Dux upon graduation. I was a bit of a math and music geek in school, and was involved with the Jazz and band ensembles. My other main focus was on economics and accounting.

After high school, I was accepted into the cadetship program with PKF Chartered Accountants and started work with the accounting firm while completing my Bachelor of Business degree at the University of Western Australia at the same time. After completing my degree, I then undertook further study and qualified as a Chartered Accountant with the Institute of Chartered Accountants Australia.

And then you got a job at KPMG, one of the most recognised accounting firms in the world?

I actually met my boss when I was a cadet with PKF Chartered Accountants. In my last year at university, my boss was offered a position as a partner in KPMG, and asked if I would be interested in going across with her. I said yes, and started at KPMG not long after. Nearly seven years later, I had worked my way up to a manager position. Aside from looking after my client base of mostly private owned businesses and high net worth individuals, I provided specialist tax advice and was also responsible for mentoring/supervising junior team members.

And now it’s all about gelato and you have The Milk Barrel at Sorrento Quay in Hillarys. Tell me about your gelato store.

I came up with the name after looking at some of the old wooden barrel and bucket contraptions that were used to churn gelato and ice cream way back when. My Dad actually remembers using one of these when he was a little child making ice cream with my grandmother. The barrel really invoked that feeling of the traditional methods of making gelato, and having a respect for using fresh ingredients and treating them right to produce the best possible product. We are committed to sourcing the best possible ingredients, local as far as possible, and handcraft small batch artisanal gelato from scratch, made fresh on premises using traditional Italian methods.

How have your parents been involved?

They are my taste test guinea pigs. They provide moral and financial support and to this day are still the first people I know I can call on when I am in a bit of a tight spot – be it needing some last minute supplies or some advice on a new flavour or recipe. They still pop into the store every weekend.

Will you be expanding to a second store any time soon?

We do get plenty of requests from customers to open more stores, we currently don’t have any plans to do so. The overhead costs associated with running a shopfront are our biggest expense and as a relatively young business, we want to make sure our current store in Hillarys is running as smoothly and optimally as possible before branching out further. But who knows what will happen in the future? Outside of the Hillarys store, we currently also attend various markets and events, and our upcoming significant events are the Good Food and Wine Show at the Perth Exhibition and Convention Centre at the end of August, and we will also be in the Dairy Pavilion at this year’s Perth Royal Show.

What do you love about food?

While I love food and everything about it, I am honestly not a really good savoury cook. Desserts are more of my thing. In fact, we have a running joke at home that the savoury dishes are best left to my sister, while at the same time she shouldn’t be trusted to bake anything sweet! Whenever we have guests or friends over, we would always split the tasks. In all honesty, I find making food, learning about it, and discovering new things about it relaxing and exciting all at the same time. Most of my friends would describe me as being absolutely food-obsessed.