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Building a Pizza Oven on a Tuk-Tuk Is As Impossible as It Sounds

Three years ago, four friends had a dream to open Cambodia’s first wood-fired pizza oven on a tuk-tuk. Today, after numerous rebuilds and one moped crash, Katy Peri Pizza is a favourite Phnom Penh street food.

by Nathan A. Thompson
Jan 2 2016, 1:00pm

On Street 51 in Phnom Penh, between the Golden Sorya Mall and the notorious Walkabout bar, are the clubs. Every night it's a hot mess. People staggering and shouting, street kids darting around, and prostitutes negotiating with sex tourists in socks and sandals. Catering to the denizens of this nefarious realm are a row of street food stalls. Among them is Katy Peri's Pizza.

READ MORE: Phnom Penh's Happy Pizza Left Me High and Dry

Katy Peri was the first street food stall in Cambodia to have a wood-fired pizza oven on a tuk-tuk. Back in 2012, when they pulled into Street 51 for the first time, the other vendors gathered around astonished by the hulk of an oven and the four young men who had built it themselves.

katy-peri-pizza-oven-tuktuk

"We spent all our spare time on the internet," explains Yaya Chhai, one of the founding members. "We learned about different [portable pizza ovens] and how people put them in minivans, cars, and in their yards so we thought we could put it on a tuk-tuk."

The founding four met while working at a bar. Keen to make more than their meagre salaries (they were all earning less than $200 per month), they spent their breaks dreaming up business ideas. At that time, the bar owner was toying with the idea of installing a pizza oven but it never happened. Ly, one of the four, took the idea to his friends.

Samnang was a chef and knew how to make pizza so together, they borrowed $2000 and bought a tuktuk, moped, and materials. The four started building their oven in Samnang's front yard. Chhai and Ly had experience working in construction and slowly, beneath the hot sun, they built their oven from bricks and cement.

tuktuk-katy-peri-pizza

Ly, one of the four founders of Katy Perri pizza.

The sledgehammers came down a week after they finished. It was too heavy for the tiny moped to drag the distance from Samnang's house on the outskirts of town. They had to start again.

"For the next one, Samnang thought of using a concrete pipe," explains Chhai. "So we bought a large pipe from the water works company and made a thin shelf about a quarter of the way up." Burning wood was placed in the space below.

pizza-katy-peri-tuk-tuk

The second oven bit the dust beneath Veng Sreng Bridge—a twisted hellhole of an intersection involving a steep climb to pass over crowded boulevards. The incline was too much and the turning too sharp. The oven teetered for a second and fell. Chhai had just enough time to jump free.

"We were going to give up," he remembers. "It was too much and we had too many problems but [when we finally got the oven to Street 51] we were OK and people came."

tuktuk-katy-perry-pizza

Today, they are on their third homemade oven. This incarnation is smaller and safer to transport. Katy Peri's Pizza is now run by Ly and Samnang, the others having left due to creative differences but remaining friends. After a slow start, at which point they made just $15 or $20 per night, they are now earning up to $2000 per week serving pizza to grateful, wasted clubbers.

"It was slow for the first year," says Ly. "After that, we got more and more people coming. I guess they knew from word of mouth."

I order a pepperoni pizza which, according to Ly, is their most popular variety. When it arrives, my tragically wheat-intolerant partner sniffs longingly. It's cheese-heavy but the dough is light and fresh from the oven, evening it out. And for $5 a pizza, you can't complain. They even do free deliveries.

katy-peri-pizza-cambodia

And the name? MUNCHIES tried to contact Katy Perry but received no reply.

"Yes, we tried to contact her too," says Ly. "We tweeted her but didn't get a reply."

Does she know that in the Phnom Penh night, her name is helping sell pizza? We can only speculate but Ly remains a fan. "I like her music and she is famous," he says.

READ MORE: Why I Really Hate Pizza

One person who will always answer a call from the Katy Peri boys is Eve Watling, editor of Phnom Penh culture magazine, Milk.

"Katy Peri is amazing because they are cheap, the pizzas have an inch-deep covering of cheese," she says. "They know where my house is now without me having to give them an address."

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Beneath the glow of the red lights, Ly hands a boxed pizza to his assistant who speeds off on a moped. Watching him go is Tin Hoeurn, the shambleton rocker and lead-screamer of the now defunct Cambodian deathcore band, Sliten6ix. He tugs a mozzarella string from his gob.

"It's fucking delicious," he says. "It's affordable and, of course, it's brilliant when you are out drinking and twatted at 3AM."

This post originally appeared on MUNCHIES in June 2015.