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A Chef Elevates Chocolate to an Art Form

Designer-chocolate darlings talk passion, process and what they’ve got cooking

By Gregory Furgala
Photography by Naomi Finlay

“Babe, I bought a chocolate shop.” Brandon Olsen and his fiancée, Sarah Keenlyside, had talked about opening a storefront together, but plans were never more tangible than those conversations. She runs a documentary production company and he wanted to get his own restaurant off the ground first – another business on top of that would be painful. But Olsen, a chef, is “kind of” impulsive, according to Keenlyside.

She’s learned to trust his instincts, though, which he’s sharpened through stints at Napa Valley’s The French Laundry and Ad Hoc, as well as calling the line at The Black Hoof. A spell at Bar Isabel, the lauded Spanish taverna, clearly inspires one milk chocolate variety at Chocolates by Brandon Olsen: Port-like Andalusian Pedro Ximenez sherry with cream-mellowed cocoa – a reconstruction of a classic pairing. Less expected is a holistic flavour study of raspberry, rosewater “and hey,” as Olsen asks, “why not fennel?” Eating these confections is bittersweet, though – they really are gorgeous.

CXBO - Brandon Olsen

Each unlikely duo or trio of flavours is uniformly encased within a geodesic dome, an idea that emerged out of Keenlyside’s brief obsession with Expo 67 and R. Buckminster Fuller. The disparate colours are signs of what’s within – fuchsia and tonal splatters of bubblegum pink for Luxardo cherry-vanilla; a dimpled, yellow stucco crust for yuzu-sake. With few exceptions, they’re unapologetically bright, a sight for sore eyes in the too-brown world of chocolate.

CXBO Boxes

Whatever the batch, the process goes like this: First, Olsen prepares the veneer by “Jackson Pollocking” coloured cocoa butter into the moulds, then airbrushing a base coat of coloured cocoa butter. Next, he tempers, pours and sets premium Cacao Barry couverture in a thin layer to form the shell, before piping ganache into each one and covering it with another layer of chocolate. Then, two or three days later, the moment of truth: he gently dislodges each piece. Even the boxes, designed by Ryan Crouchman, are hand-painted. And so, it adds up: The always-available nine chocolate OG Classic Collection – those aforementioned flavours included – costs $20.25. Olsen also cycles through seasonal one-offs: this winter’s Polar Collection is splatter-free, Lawren Harris-inspired iceberg chocolates filled with variations of mint-flavoured ganache.

Despite the hours of endlessly filling and emptying moulds, studying architecture and prints, they’re both ecstatic with the result and have no plans to slow down. In fact, instead of putting Olsen’s restaurant plan on hiatus, they recently gave it a name: La Banane. Opening later this year at 227 Ossington Avenue, there is little doubt that impulsiveness will be at play at this address, too.

Chocolates by Brandon Olsen, 1132 College St [Note: has since moved to 193 Baldwin St][CXBO is Permanently Closed]

Categories: Local Act


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