Albert Chau and Russell Pullan are the co-founders of Fifth Dimension Chocolate and I am very pleased to say we get to hear from both of them on the majority of my interview questions! I’ve been lucky enough to try their bonbons twice. The first time, they were on a visit to New York and posted me a box of bonbons from there. The second time the lovely ladies of Dormouse Chocolates brought over a box for me when they were visiting Seattle, WA at the Nov. 2018 Northwest Chocolate Festival. Fifth Dimension bonbons are all amazing, but my favorite is New York with Apple and Calvados Caramel.
Albert and Russell each came from different professions prior to starting Fifth Dimension Chocolates. Many of their caramels and bonbons are award winning products, they have participated in chocolate judging with the Academy of Chocolate Awards and they use single-origin chocolates to make their bonbons adding a complex layering of flavors to their creations. While they are based in England, their bonbons are often inspired by their world travels.
Read on to find out the time it takes to create a new bonbon flavor, how they approach chocolate judging versus eating chocolate for pleasure, tips on growing cacao trees at home, why they find it important to use single-origin chocolate in their chocolates and more!
Russell Pullan and Albert Chau of Fifth Dimension Chocolates
Victoria Cooksey: How did you each get interested in making chocolates?
Russell Pullan: It first started many years ago one Christmas, when I made some simple chocolate truffles as a finale to a big Christmas dinner for friends. The reaction was so positive that I then continued making chocolates as a hobby for many years, experimenting with different styles and fillings as I gained more experience. Then in 2013 I decided that I no longer enjoyed working in the media, and wanted a complete change in career and be my own boss, and the natural step was to go into making chocolates.
Albert Chau: I am pretty adventurous when it comes to food. So when Russell was making chocolates as a hobby, we always ended up talking about unusual flavors and fillings that we could put in chocolate. We just love experimenting with different ingredients when it comes to cooking.
VC: Why do you find it important to use single-origin chocolate in your creations?
RP: Every single-origin chocolate has its own particular flavor, and this is more interesting than just bulk chocolate with a flat “chocolatey” flavor. When we create our bonbons, we like to pair the filling with the most appropriate chocolate couverture.
AC: Apart from the flavor, using single-origin chocolate also makes it easier for us to track back where the cacao comes from. The traceability is important not just for the chocolate, but for all the ingredients that we use. We prefer to work with suppliers who are transparent in what they do, align with our thinking and belief, and can work with us collaboratively.
Russell Pullan Fifth Dimension Chocolates
VC: What inspired you to create flavors that match cities around the world?
RP: When we go traveling, we enjoy trying out the local food and learning about new ingredients and flavors. Sometimes one dish would really stand out during our holiday and that’s how we would associate the dish to that city – for example, every time we have an apple pie, our conversation always end up talking about the most delicious apple pie flambeed with Calvados that we had in New York, and that’s why our Apple & Calvados caramel is named “New York”. Every city has a story, and we want to tell it in chocolate.
AC: There’s nothing better than eating some food that evokes the memories, whether it’s some favourite childhood food, or an exotic dish from a nice holiday. We want to share our culinary experience in the form of chocolate.
VC: I certainly consider your bonbons luxury chocolates. In your opinion, what attributes elevates chocolates to the luxury level?
RP: It has to start with good quality ingredients, whether it’s the chocolate couverture or the ingredients we use to make the filling. You simply cannot substitute high quality fresh ingredients with anything else – the ingredients list gives an indication on whether the chocolatier uses the fresh ingredients (vs flavoring oil or essence instead). Good quality chocolate is key too. You want to be able to taste every component of the filling as well as the chocolate, and want to taste them as one continuum.
AC: The presentation of the bonbons plays a part too – remember that we all eat with our eyes first. The thickness of the chocolate shell plays a part too – it’s difficult to bite into a bonbon with a very thick shell, but at the same time if the shell is too thin, you don’t get much taste of the chocolate. The texture is an important attribute too – it doesn’t just affect the mouthfeel, but it would also affect how the flavor is delivered.
VC: On average, how long does it take to find the correct balance of ingredients and flavor for a filled chocolate? What’s the longest it’s taken?
RP: Usually it would take 3-6 months to develop a new flavor – obviously we don’t spend every minute developing it, but we sometimes would make a small batch, taste it and then spend some time researching on the ways to improve it. It is not just the ingredients and flavor – we also have to consider the texture and even the shape of the chocolate which will affect the flavor also. The longest time to develop a new flavor must be our Brie chocolate – it’s taken us 3 years (on and off) to get it right! Pairing this soft cheese with the right chocolate in the ganache is not easy anyway, and then we really have to develop our own methods to overcome various challenges along the way – for example, it’s taken us a few months to figure out why certain development batches have gone gritty which gave an undesirable mouthfeel, even though the flavor was right.
AC: Some flavors don’t take long to find the correct balance, especially when we are familiar with all the ingredients. Being perfectionists, we would keep tweaking the recipes until we are convinced that we can’t do any more. Sometimes this would mean we would return to the first or second recipe as that might be the best anyway.
VC: Any tips on tasting a bonbon for the best flavor experience possible?
RP: Make sure you are not trying to do a tasting straight after a spicy meal! If you can, find an environment where you are sitting comfortably and not get distracted by surrounding noise or smell.
AC: Don’t just put the whole thing into the mouth and start chewing. Bite only half of it and make sure you eat that slowly, and only finish the other half when you have swallowed the first piece – you will hopefully find new flavor appearing over time. If you have several different bonbons to taste, you may want to proceed to the different bonbons using the same method after eating the first half, and then return to the remaining half of the first bonbon – you may find that certain flavors become more accentuated or even discover new flavors in the second bite!
Fifth Dimension Chocolates
VC: When you have participated in judging chocolate, how does that change what you look for in a filled chocolate versus eating one just for pleasure?
RP:: Like Albert, I like to try new flavor combinations that I have not experienced before. To eat chocolates for pleasure, I tend to go for the ones made by chocolatiers whose work I am familiar with already and enjoy. Otherwise for all other chocolates I eat, I am evaluating them.
AC: When we eat chocolates just for pleasure, we would usually only go for flavors that we like or we really want to try. When it comes to judging, we have to put personal preference aside, and judge each entry fairly based on technique as well as taste. What I love most is when I come across a flavor that I usually don’t like, but the chocolate has been perfectly executed and I actually have the urge to grab another piece. It’s a bit like a talented chef cooking a dish containing ingredients that you don’t usually like, and he/she manages to give that wow factor.
VC: Any behind the scenes info about chocolate judging you can share in regards to something you thing would surprise people? Or something you think they should understand about it?
RP: Each chocolate judging session lasts 2-3 hours and you can taste about 25-40 pieces of chocolates in one session. Of course, not every piece tastes perfect – figuring out exactly why you don’t like it (putting personal preference aside) and then suggesting how to improve it potentially is not so easy.
You may think that after eating this amount of chocolates, you would not want to see any food for a long time. On the contrary, the first thing we always want to do after chocolate tasting is a nice big meal with lots of flavorsome savoury food.
AC: While in the judging it’s supposed to be blind-tasting, sometimes we would come across entries that we recognize (either the product itself or the style of the maker). You may think that it would be easier because you already know the product and you can just come up with a score straight away, but you really have to wipe out any preconception and judge the product as if it’s the first time your try it.
VC: Besides chocolates, what do you like to make with chocolate at home? Any tips for home cooks wanting to incorporate single-origin chocolate into their own cooking or baking?
RP: We like making ice-cream at home, and we have even made ice-cream using chocolates from different origins to see if we can still detect any difference. And of course there are differences! We also like to put chocolate into savoury dishes – try putting some chocolate in curries to give a richer and more full-bodied taste. We also love shaving extra-dark chocolate onto bacon and eggs when we treat ourselves to a nice cooked English breakfast at home!
Fifth Dimension Chocolates
AC: To use single-origin chocolate in cooking or baking, choose one that has a complementary flavor profile as the rest of your dish. For example, if you are going to make a dessert with berries in it, you may want to consider using a single-origin chocolate that has more red-fruit flavor in there. Alternatively if your are making a Japanese curry, use a chocolate that has a bolder flavor or with a coffee note perhaps.
VC: What’s your favorite component when it comes to tempering chocolate?
RP: The favorite part is hand-tempering the chocolate on the marble surface – it’s rather relaxing and therapeutic. The least favorite part is when I get distracted and then the tempering is not done properly! you’d be surprised how 1 degree in the chocolate changes how it sets.
Siem Reap Cambodian Curry Bonbon
VC: Do you prefer to have chocolates on their own, or do you like to pair them with other foods/beverages? If so, what are your favorite pairings?
AC: We like to just have chocolates on their own, maybe with a cup of tea (we usually go for hot oolong tea), if we are just enjoying them for pleasure. We have run some events and workshops on pairing with different beverages, and this can be fun because a particular drink may work with certain chocolate bars or bonbons, but not the others – it really all depends on how well the flavor profiles work with eat other. If we are doing any serious chocolate tasting, then we would switch to water (unflavored sparkling water is best).
VC: You have posted pictures and IG stories of growing cacao trees at home. What are the challenges with growing them? Any tips you can give on growing them at home to others who would like to try?
RP: Cacao is usually grown within 20 degrees from the equator – being in England means that we are really in the “polar region” for cacao. Keeping plants in a warm place (never drops below 16C and make sure the temperature doesn’t fluctuate too much) is hard enough – in the past winter we have put them on the window sill just above the radiator – they seem to love the spot there! Watering them daily (they drink a lot!) and feeding them with tomato feed or seaweed-based feed helps them grown too. Keep an eye on the soil and leaves – and get rid of any pests as soon as you find them.
VC: Since starting Fifth Dimension Chocolates how has your relationship with chocolate and chocolate making changed?
RP: Every day I learn something new about chocolate. You would never imagine before you begin working with chocolate how much there is to learn. And with the way we play with ingredients and pairing with the chocolate for bonbons, we are always discovering new things also – it’s fascinating!
AC: It has certainly opened our eyes to the chocolate world. As we were both coming in from a non-chocolate background, we have had a steep learning curve to climb. We have learnt a lot about cacao growing and chocolate production. Whilst chocolate has been eaten for many many years, there are still many things in the science of chocolate waiting to be discovered.
Thank you for this interview Russell Pullan and Albert Chau!
*Fifth Dimension Chocolates are not available to order in the USA yet at the time of this interview, but they are working on adding that shipping option in the future.
Fifth Dimension Chocolates: