Love for food and cooking runs in the family of Pavel Pavlov, a 34-year-old Bulgarian chef and renowned chocolatier. As a child, he would find himself sleeping on top of a fridge in his parents’ restaurant in Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia, when they were working late. His sister and he would often help with chores in the kitchen. It came as no surprise that both siblings followed in their parents’ footsteps in the culinary business.
“I cannot even imagine doing something else outside of the restaurant business,” said Pavlov. But his pivot to desserts and chocolate came as a surprise even to him. He describes himself as a “chef who has a passion for pastry and chocolate.”
A graduate of the first class of HRC Culinary Academy in Bulgaria, Pavlov spent most of his career abroad. As part of his internship, he worked in restaurants in the Netherlands and the United States. On his way back to Europe, he stopped in Norway to see his sister who managed a restaurant there. He extended his stay to give her a hand with the work. Little did he know that the “stay” would run into several years and Norway would become the country where his cooking career would really take off.
In just a few years, Pavlov climbed the culinary ladder, working in some of Norway’s top restaurants and sharing a kitchen with leading chefs. He was the first foreigner to join the Norwegian National Culinary team.
In 2013, his restaurant urgently needed a pastry chef, and he rose to the occasion. Not without mistakes, he quickly mastered the art of pastry and desserts.
Five years later, he and some colleagues branched out to start their own venture — La Table, a catering service offering fine dining experience at clients’ homes, and La Fève, premium chocolates encouraging Norwegians to try new flavor combinations.
Shortly after he launched La Fève in Norway, his bonbons started receiving praise both by satisfied customers and by critics. Since then, his chocolates have won dozens of prestigious awards.
Back to Bulgaria
After more than a decade in Norway, Pavlov moved back to Bulgaria in the summer of 2021. He saw the pandemic, which hit the restaurant industry hard, as an opportunity to change course.
“Working in a fine-dining restaurant really opened new doors for me,” he said. It also helped him realize that Bulgaria has a lot of untapped potential. “We have a lot of locally grown and fresh ingredients, but we are not taking advantage of them.”
His plan was to relocate La Fève to Sofia, but he needed a business partner. He did not have to look long, as he knew exactly whom to call — Daria Rusanova, a 40-year-old pastry chef, entrepreneur, and friend who had recently moved to Sofia.
Back in 2011, Rusanova opened a fast-food joint in Ruse, a Bulgarian town on the Danube. Two years later, she switched to pastry and desserts. Rusanova was the first in town to offer chocolate truffles. She remembers the cakes and desserts her grandmothers used to make in Rusanova’s childhood, and the family recipes inspired her when creating her own desserts.
While this is the first time Pavlov and Rusanova work as partners, she has supported him since the start of his chocolate journey. They met in 2016 when attending a pastry course. Back then, she knew much more about chocolate and desserts, and he was the one calling her, asking for advice.
“Pavel had not touched chocolate when we met. I was more confident back then because I was already making truffles,” she said. “But just in a few years, he has advanced immensely.”
Over the years, they half-jokingly made plans that one day they would start a venture together. In October 2021, that dream became a reality, as their chocolate atelier in the outskirts of Sofia opened for customers.
As business partners, they are a perfect match: Daria deals with administration, accounting, and customer relations, while Pavel is the creative mind behind the chocolates. However, they are both in their element when making bonbons.
Chocolate making involves much more science and precision than most chocolate lovers realize. A difference of only one degree in temperature could prevent the chocolate from cooling down properly; it might cause it to develop white spots or to get grainy and clumpy.
“We must follow the exact measurements,” said Rusanova, adding that even a little deviation from the recipe could ultimately ruin the end product.
Taste of Success
La Fève’s beautifully sculpted chocolate creations are not just a delight for the palate but also a feast for the eyes. Handcrafted and made with premium chocolate and cocoa butter, La Fève’s pralines and bonbons are a gamechanger in the Bulgarian chocolate market.
In addition to classic flavors like vanilla, caramel, and nut-infused chocolate, La Fève offers more unusual pairings like rose and raspberry; yogurt, honey, and walnut; or tangerines and cardamom. As a tribute to his home country, Pavlov came up with a shiny dark green bonbon with a geranium-infused ganache center. (Geranium is ubiquitous in Bulgaria.)
The duo uses only quality products, including natural flavors and colors, and their bonbons contain less sugar than mass-produced sweets.
“If you work with chocolate, you need to be a perfectionist,” said Pavlov.
On multiple occasions, people have tried to dissuade them from starting an artisanal chocolate line, suggesting that there was no market for such a high-end product in Bulgaria. Time and again he heard the skeptical question: “Who would pay two levs for a chocolate here?”
It turns out a lot of people are willing to pay more for premium chocolate. La Fève’s sales and success so far have defied the initial grim predictions. What is more, over the winter holidays, they had to shut down the workshop several times, as they sold out of chocolate.
“We have not spent a single lev on advertising,” Pavlov said. Even so, the orders started pouring in.
In fact, demand has been so high that around Christmastime the two chocolatiers spent 15 hours a day in their workshop. There were days when Pavlov did not even go home for the night. Since they opened last year, they have turned around two tons of chocolate into handcrafted glossy-looking bites, shaped like jewels.
“Quality is king, and we are not ready to make any compromises,” said Pavlov. “I think people see that.”
The team is quite pleased that people from the neighborhood are becoming regulars. Soon after they opened the store, a 70-year-old neighbor dropped by and bought a geranium chocolate. Then she came back for another one, and later she treated herself to a whole box.
The biggest challenges their business faces are delivery delays and red tape. For example, a delivery of imported chocolate or another key ingredient for their business takes two months to arrive, instead of two weeks. Bulgarian authorities require too much paperwork and there are too many regulations for a small business owner to handle.
Despite the challenges of starting a new company, Pavlov’s and Rusanova’s love for chocolate is what keeps them going. They already have five people on the team and are planning exports to neighboring countries.
The chocolatiers’ inspiration to reinvent chocolate and play with new tastes seems inexhaustible. The team is using the summer months — usually a slower period for chocolate makers — to renovate their workshop in Sofia and experiment with some new flavors. On a whiteboard in their workshop, there is a list of flavor combinations Pavlov would like to try out, including quince and fig pralines. One customer even requested pickle-juice chocolate. In August, they are planning to launch 20 new flavors, including some with black garlic, bacon, as well as peach and lavender.
La Fève is on a mission to develop people’s appetite for quality bonbons. “I would like to change people’s idea of what good chocolate is,” said Pavlov.