When a 15-year-old Thomas Hilton was struggling to find his way in life and getting involved with gangs, he probably never dreamed that one day he’d be making chocolates for the British royal family.

Raised in the UK by a Jewish mother and Māori father, Thomas spent many years feeling like he didn’t quite fit in with any particular culture. In an effort to find his identity, he moved to Aotearoa in his early teens to gain more understanding of his Māori heritage and whānau, but as a light-skinned, blue-eyed boy with a strong English accent, he continued feeling isolated and struggled to integrate with his peers.

Throughout these challenging years the one consistent thing in Thomas’ life was a love of food, and in particular chocolate. As the son of a baker (and a chocoholic mum) he was surrounded by high-quality chocolate from a young age, and was captivated by the idea of making chocolate after seeing Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. “The intro of that movie was mesmerising. I never really thought it was a real job until I saw my dad do something similar.”


It was Thomas’ hospitality teacher in Northland who helped him get his life on track. She could see talent and potential in this wayward young man and convinced him to return to the UK to pursue a career in chocolate. He spent a week knocking on the door of legendary Scottish chocolatier William Curley in London, repeatedly being turned away but returning each morning, until eventually he was taken on for a two-and-a-half-year apprenticeship.

From there he went on to work with some of the world’s best pastry chefs, including a 16-month stint at 3 Michelin- starred restaurant The French Laundry in California, where he was also involved with the research and development for Thomas Keller’s bean-to-bar chocolate range.

Returning to New Zealand in 2018, Thomas worked as a pastry chef in a handful of fine-dining restaurants, including Monique Fiso’s Hiakai, where he was commissioned to make kawakawa and horopito chocolates for visiting Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Thomas had been using these traditional ingredients in his chocolate for years, as an homage to the flavours of his childhood.

“I draw on both sides of my culture. I’m proud of both my mum and dad’s sides and I don’t think I should pick one or the other. I’m fortunate to have both. And that’s what I try to do with my business – acknowledge every facet of my identity.”

In November 2021, Thomas founded Ao Cacao, a bean-to-bar chocolate company that seamlessly combines Māori culture and European techniques. The focus is on ethically traded, indigenous- grown ingredients, including cacao beans from Floris Niu’s farm in Samoa, vanilla from a friend’s farm in Tahiti and maple sugar sourced directly from an indigenous community in Canada.

Ao Cacao offers a range of beautifully crafted bars and bonbons presented in elegant packaging, but the creation of products is just a small part of what Thomas is achieving with the business. Despite only being 28 himself, he’s passionate about inspiring young people, and wants to pass on his skills to those who can’t afford to train overseas. This philosophy was behind Ao Cacao’s sponsorship of the Youth Cacao Innovators Award at the recent Pacific Cacao and Chocolate Show in Auckland, in which four contestants aged under 25 competed, MasterChef-style, to create the best chocolate dish. The winner received a week-long training course in Thomas’ kitchen, as well as a trip to Floris Niu’s cacao farm in Samoa, all paid for by Ao Cacao.

“My goal is to spark curiosity for the next generation, to make them see that ‘Oh, that’s actually a real job.’ It’s not just some Roald Dahl creation – it can be done. There’s a future in it.”

Thomas has plans for many more initiatives like this, and he’s determined to transform te ao tiakarete (the world of chocolate), not just in our lifetimes, but for many generations to come. Follow Thomas’ latest creations at aocacao.com LUKE OWEN SMITH