Tom Hilton has probably achieved almost everything one could hope to in the culinary world. In fact, he had done most of it by the age of 23. But after a journey that took him to the highest of highs, and lowest of lows, Hilton has gone back to his roots – literally and figuratively – to reignite his love of chocolate. And he hopes to take many others along for the ride.

“The original 1964 version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was my favourite movie growing up. And growing up in a family where my dad was a baker and my mum was Jewish, you could say being a foodie was in my veins – I think I learnt how to cook my first roast dinner when I was six years old,” Hilton explains.

But it almost wasn’t to be. Born in Surrey, England, Hilton’s dad is Māori, so he always felt a strong pull to New Zealand. As a young child he came to visit his whānau and when secondary school in the UK wasn’t going so well, he returned for a longer stay to do Year 10 NCEA – where he discovered he was severely dyslexic. By then it was almost a case of ‘too little too late’ for education, however the one saving grace was his hospitality class, with a teacher who took a shine to her talented student.

“She had Māori heritage and had a lot of stories I could resonate with. Her support and encouragement was the reason I still went to school. But one day she and my dad sat me down and said that I was probably not going to pass my end of year assessments and did I know what I wanted to do with my life?”

A keen basketballer who had played to representative level, Hilton very nearly chose a career in sport. However at this turning point he shifted his focus to food, and with that packed up and moved back to the UK to live with his mum, with the intention of training at one of the top culinary schools in London.

“I didn’t have a plan specifically, but I do remember Googling the best chef I could work for – aside from Gordon Ramsey. Then I was watching this documentary on TV called ‘Willie’s Wonky Chocolate Factory’ about chocolatier William Harcourt-Cooze. He visited another chocolatier called William Curley, who ran William Curley Patissier Chocolatier and when I discovered that you can actually work with chocolate for a career, I instantly knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

Instead of taking the traditional route of getting a job at the patissier, Hilton went right to the source. Tracking down Curley by knocking on the door of his kitchen in London, and returning three days in a row (taking a four hour return train journey each time), Hilton was finally offered a work trial.

“Initially he thought I was joking and said no. But I just wanted an opportunity to prove myself – even though I had no idea what I was doing.

“I went in and for about 10 hours I did the washing up as their porter was away sick. But when Curley came in and saw I hadn’t even been given a proper trial, he had a go at the head chef and I finally got my chance. I loved it, smashed it out of the park and got the job.”

Hilton said yes to starting the following week, despite having nowhere to live and not much more than the clothes on his back and a few in his suitcase at his mums. But it’s how he describes much of his approach to his career, using grit and determination to get to where he wants to, saying yes and then figuring it out later.

The next few years were a whirlwind, taking Hilton to patisseries in Paris and Michelin Star restaurants in the US. But at just 23 he felt at a crossroads with his life and career, returning home to New Zealand to work out his next steps.

And while he continued as he always had – earning himself a reputation in a number of high profile food establishments as the consummate professional – something ended up giving out from underneath Hilton. After opening a famous Māori fine-dining restaurant, it compounded years of working 120 hour weeks, and he ended up being admitted to hospital.

“I was suffering from severe burnout and my body was done. Mentally I didn’t want to be here and I vowed to never go back into the kitchen. I disconnected myself from social media and the industry as a whole. And while I had trouble going cold turkey and doing nothing, it was also a blessing.

“I spent the next year working on myself, going to therapy and even went back overseas to touch base with where I had come from and the people I had worked with. Eventually I started to find the love again.”

Hilton returned to New Zealand at the start of 2020, and a short foray into being a life coach for helping chefs to recover after burnout actually healed Hilton more than anything. The experience led him to hire his own mentor, who said to him ‘you’re unique and you have a talent with chocolate, why don’t you do that?’

Hilton said yes and his new chocolate venture began in November 2021, with a Christmas pre-order where he was expecting to sell around 15 to 20 boxes to friends and family. 200 boxes later, delivered to customers all over New Zealand, Hilton had exceeded all of his expectations and in the process, found a new direction that finally felt like his life’s purpose.

Ao Cacao
Ao Cacao Tablet Bars – Small batch, indigenous grown and made tiakarete (chocolate).

“People think chocolate is ‘just chocolate’, but it is so much more than that. It actually has a very important history for indigenous peoples. I want to create a chocolate brand that is authentic, knows which tree the beans came from and pays the farmers above what they ask for, which is the way it should be,” says Hilton.

Acknowledging it’s more about a movement rather than a business, Hilton explains that while luxury and ethics don’t always go hand in hand, that for Ao Cacao they absolutely do.

“Ao Cacao is a timeless brand of chocolate that is high end from an indigenous lens and for the conscious consumer this means investing in a chocolate that has been loved, cared for and empowers a community – whilst bringing the mana back to what chocolate truly is.

“My vision is for my descendants to live in a world where slavery and child labour doesn’t exist in the world of chocolate, and where cacao farmers are respected, and honoured. Ao Cacao aims to become the standard of what ethical conscious chocolate should be, with indigenous producers being the thought leaders and driving force of the industry. Which currently, big chocolate companies do not do.”

Further to this, Hilton has bigger plans than just making the chocolate, with aspirations to teach young people how to become chocolate makers too, along with a road map of how it can provide a high income skillset to take them around the world, as he did. And thanks to Kōkiri, an accelerator programme that helps Māori-led startups on their journey to business growth, he can get there a lot faster.

“I found out about Kōkiri the week before applications closed and had to do a pitch, even though I had never done one before! I was so happy to get in, even though I didn’t quite know what I was getting into, but it helped me to become a business owner. It was hard, because I thought I had it all figured out, but turns out I didn’t, and that is a good thing as I learnt so much,” Hilton explains.

“I have loved the journey and it also set the tone for bringing back my past work ethic and critical thinking. And now I’m getting export ready to launch to the global market.”

So what’s next for Ao Cacao? A retail store, production kitchen and school should be open in Auckland early 2023. And the goal after that, the world stage – not for Hilton himself, but for his chocolate and the story that goes into every piece made.

Story by Erin Harrison. In partnership with Kōkiri.

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