By Emily Claire Reese
Fifth Dimension Chocolates is a chocolatier and caramelier based in London, UK. Russell Pullan and Albert Chau focus on unique flavor combinations inspired by their travels and have won numerous awards, including the International Chocolate Awards, Academy of Chocolate Awards, Great Taste Awards, and BBC Good Food Champions.
We talked to them about their backstory, their innovative flavor offerings, and the relationships they have in the European and global chocolate community.
Q: How did you get started with Fifth Dimension Chocolates?
Russell: I used to work in media and started making chocolate as a hobby. I was making individual chocolates and never intended to start a business. Everything has grown quite naturally thanks to my and Albert’s travels. We travel quite a bit and enjoy trying the local foods, which led to us trying to recreate the same flavors in chocolate. We’d go to restaurants and see cooks using several ingredients, and we’d ask ourselves, “Will these ingredients really work together?” And then we’d eat the meal and realize that it all really worked! We wanted to do the same thing with chocolate. The company represents what we’ve always been about: travel, food, and interesting flavor combinations.
Albert: I come from a data science background in the healthcare industry. So neither of us come from the food industry, and that’s why we believe anything goes when it comes to flavor; we don’t have any preconceived notions. Everything we make is something both Russell and I love. If there’s something I like and he doesn’t, or vice versa, we won’t release it. Everything we make is a glimpse into how we see the world.
Q: You pay great attention to where you get your chocolate from. Can you tell us more about how you learned about cocoa itself?
Albert: Very early on in our business, we wanted to set ourselves apart by using chocolate that we like and working with suppliers that we can learn from. One company we chose was Casa Luker from Colombia. Within six months of using them, we asked if we could visit them in Colombia, and we spent four days with them, learning the whole process, from planting the cacao beans to the chocolate bars coming out in the factory at the end. We even got to plant several trees! We’re not bean-to-bar makers, but as a chocolatier, it is crucial for us to understand every step of how chocolate makes it from the cacao plant to the couverture that we use.
We also went to Kew Gardens in London two years ago, where they have cacao. We got to cut and taste some pods with their staff members, and eventually got to take 14 beans home with us to farm in our greenhouse. We were hoping that, of the 14 beans, one or two would grow. But then all 14 grew because of the heat wave that summer. Suddenly we had too many of them [laughs]. Luckily, many of our friends were keen to adopt the plants and have a go at caring for them. Growing cacao allows us to appreciate the different steps in growing and caring for the plants close-up.
We have both taken the chocolate-tasting courses from International Institute of Chocolate and Cacao Tasting (IICCT), which help us in understanding the quality of cacao and chocolate. And when we go on holiday now, we usually try to do a side-trip to visit a cacao farm or two. Earlier this year, we visited cacao growers in Taiwan and Japan! It’s interesting to learn how they do things differently from other countries such as Colombia and Peru.
Q: What are some of your best relationships in the chocolate industry?
Russell: As Albert mentioned, we have a great relationship with Casa Luker, and we also have an excellent relationship with Felchlin in Switzerland. With both companies, if we have any questions, we write to them directly, and they answer us straight away. We really appreciate their transparency and openness. We can always talk to them about anything. They educate us, which allows us to educate our Fifth Dimension customers.
Albert: In the chocolate industry, there are many people who are helpful and open. When we have questions, we can ask fellow chocolatiers or chocolate makers, and many of them will know how to help us. We try to help others in the same way too. Whether it’s tempering or getting hold of certain ingredients or challenges in new recipes or even packaging, we always find someone with whom to exchange ideas.
Q: How do you build community as an online seller? I noticed you reply to almost every comment you get on your Instagram posts, whether it’s about ordering or even about how to temper chocolate.
Albert: We don’t have a physical shop in London, so the main ways we interact with customers are online and at chocolate events. We manage our own social media too. It’s the best way for us to build personal relationships with our customers.
FCIA relationships are also part of our community. We’ve met great folks at FCIA events, where we’ve recognized people in person with whom we’d already interacted online. It feels like meeting old friends even though it’s your first time seeing them!
Q: Did you have any mentors on your self-taught journey?
Russell: I took an Ecole Chocolat online course and a basic chocolate-making-related course but am otherwise entirely self-taught. At the beginning, I was afraid to go to chocolatiers and ask to do apprenticeships because I didn’t know anyone at the time! When I look back, this approach had some positive elements. It probably took me longer to figure out certain things. But on the other hand, I don’t have tunnel vision or set ways of doing things. I knew what I had to start with, and I knew what I wanted to make. I had to figure out how to do it on my own and was able to think outside the box. I probably didn’t have limitations that I might’ve picked up from more typical training. For example, when I see people making caramels, I think, “That’s not how I make them!” But our caramels are pretty good, so I don’t know what I’m doing wrong or doing right, but it works -- which is what matters!
Q: How big is your team?
Albert: It’s just the two of us! We still operate from home. We remodeled the whole kitchen two years ago and have a lot more space. Half the house is chocolate-related. We have some people helping us for package design, copywriting, or giving us a hand at shows, but it’s mostly just us.
Q: How have your non-food backgrounds helped you in chocolate?
Albert: My pharmaceutical background is quite useful because there are transferable skills. Temperature control, customs, shipping, and regulation all come into play in both industries. Regulatory documents don’t scare me! [laughs]
Russell: If I had to read all the regulatory texts, I would’ve given up! [laughs] That, and the nutritional info, are quite complicated.
Albert: You can either calculate nutritional info yourself or send your products to a lab. Sending a product to a lab would cost hundreds of pounds. We have the tools to calculate it ourselves -- while still respecting the very tight regulations, of course. If we change a product, it allows us to be more agile. I get the updated recipe from Russell, crunch the numbers, and update the nutritional info for the product. It can be useful to have a background in another field before getting into chocolate so you can be more autonomous on certain tasks like this.
Q: Fifth Dimension offers really interesting flavor combinations, like curry and coconut white chocolate or Arctic thyme and caramel. When you’re traveling and you want to create an interesting flavor combination based on something you ate, how do you source those ingredients?
Albert: In London, we have great access to many ethnic supermarkets. But Cambodian curry was quite an interesting challenge. There are many different curries in southeast Asia, so I studied a variety of them to understand the ingredients in each of them and whether there’s a common theme: there’s lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime, etc., all of which I can get in London! The challenge is more getting the right proportion of each so that the curry flavor works in chocolate. We got down to the nuance of making 5% adjustments on ratios between the different ingredients to really nail the combination.
For our New York chocolate with caramel and calvados, we now get the calvados from France after finding it was superior to what we could get in the UK. For the World Final, we made that chocolate and did two batches: one with a calvados available in the UK and one that is only available in France. The difference was so immense. Ingredients matter!
Also, for our Arctic Thyme Caramel chocolate, we can’t get the Arctic Thyme in London. We get it from Iceland. Even restaurant chefs have asked us where to source it!
Russell: Some herbs, like basil and mint, are grown in our own greenhouse and garden. We have some ingredients that we really need to look for, but living in London does make things easier.
Q: Plant-based and vegan options are becoming more common in pastry and chocolate. At Fifth Dimension, you offer several. What’s your approach to plant-based alternatives to dairy?
Albert: We don’t set out to make vegan chocolates intentionally. It just happens that some things we make fall into this category. We focus on flavor first. For example, our “Penang” chocolate has coconut and pandan. Pandan is not a well-known flavor in the UK, and we use coconut as a way to introduce a lesser-known flavor. As a result, we decided to try using coconut cream instead of dairy to make the ganache. At the same time, we discovered coconut milk-based couverture from Felchlin. The flavor profile of the couverture matched so well with the coconut and pandan, and that’s how one of our vegan chocolates was born.
We have two other vegan bonbons: our “Grytviken” chocolate is a whiskey water ganache. Whiskey on the rocks requires the ice, so using water instead of dairy naturally worked with the whole story, and the water ganache brings out the flavor of both the couverture and the whiskey even more. For our “Turin” hazelnut chocolate, we had feedback that what we were making was too milky and sweet. We substituted the milk chocolate with dark chocolate and studied the different hazelnut paste. Within a few months, our improved “Turin” won at the International Chocolate Awards in Italy in 2018.
Russell: We always focus on a story before we make the chocolate to tell that story. The ingredients we choose help us tell whatever the story is, and those ingredients don’t always include dairy products, which means some of our chocolates end up being vegan.
Another related subject is sugar. Some chocolatiers use sugar substitutes, which I don’t necessarily agree with. Personally, I think if you want to eat chocolate, you shouldn’t be thinking about reducing the sugar so you can eat more of them. It’s a luxury treat, and that’s how you should eat it.
Q: How can people follow you online and order your delicious chocolates?Albert: They can visit our website at www.5dchocolates.com. On all the social networks, we’re @5DChocolates. This includes Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and more. Apart from the UK, we also deliver to Europe and the USA between September and April -- when the weather is not as hot!