Tom Hilton has worked with some of the best pastry chefs in the world, and in a Michelin-starred kitchen, yet he says nothing beats his dad’s homemade pavlova. “Dad’s pav is iconic in our family. I’ve made it a couple of times over the years but it never tastes as good as his,” Hilton laughs. “As a chocolatier, I’m all about creating nostalgia through taste, using my family memories, my whakapapa.”

Hilton was raised by his English mother in Surrey, not far from London. His dad is Māori, and Hilton always felt there was a missing piece of his identity back in Aotearoa. At age 16, he moved to Takahiwai (around two hours’ drive north of Auckland, near Whangārei) to live with his dad and reconnect with his roots. “It was a massive culture shock,” Hilton, who is of Ngā Puhi, Ngāti Whātua and Whakatōhea descent, tells Broadsheet. “I remember meeting my cousins for the first time, and I’d never spent any time with my tupuna, my dad’s mum, either. We became close and she taught me a lot of what it means to be Māori.”

Hilton’s father was a baker and his grandfather was a navy chef, so his culinary skills are something of a family inheritance. “I think learnt how to cook a roast dinner at six years old,” he recalls. At high school, a hospitality teacher spotted his talent and encouraged him to pursue a career in chocolate-making overseas. “She told me all these stories about her time living in London, travelling Europe, and all the fine dining over there. It really sparked my curiosity,” he says.

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That curiosity led Hilton to return to the UK and seek out legendary Scottish chocolatier William Curley. He remembers knocking on the door of Curley’s London shop for three days straight – until he was offered a work trial, and soon a three-year apprenticeship.

In 2016 and 2017, post-apprenticeship, Hilton honed his skills as a stagiaire at Michelin starred-restaurant The French Laundry in California’s Napa Valley. He returned to New Zealand in 2018, eventually delving into his love of chocolate closer to home.

It started in late 2020, with a small line of Christmas bon bons. Hilton expected to sell 20 boxes to family and friends; 250 boxes later, with orders personally packed and delivered to addresses all over the country, it was game on.

Hilton launched Ao Cacao in November 2021, a bean-to-bar chocolate company that pairs European techniques with Māori culture and indigenous ingredients.
He uses Pacific cacao beans from Ms Sunshine Organic Farms in Samoa, vanilla from a friend’s farm in Tahiti, and maple sugar from a community farm run by Indigenous women in Canada.

“I thought being Indigenous myself, Ao Cacao should be about supporting Indigenous producers with ethical practices,” Hilton says. “In Europe, they talk about provenance. I think we have whakapapa, so [I want to tell] the whakapapa of our cacao and educate people about where our chocolate comes from so they can make a conscious choice.”

The Pacific Islands have a long history of growing cacao but they compete against large players such as West Africa, where 70 per cent of the world’s cacao is produced. “Only a tiny amount of the world’s cacao production is from the Pacific. It’s become such a life force of their community over there. As Pacific neighbours, it makes sense for us to work together and show the world what we’re doing down here,” says Hilton.

Among the range of small-batch bars, caramel sticks and bon bons, a festive new bon bon collection is inspired by Hilton’s memories of family desserts at Christmas time. Flavoured centres include boozy banoffee pie, steamed pudding with kānuka honey ganache, and the quintessential “dad’s pav” pavlova with creamy marshmallow and zingy fruit ganache.

While only 28 himself, Hilton is passionate about passing down his craft to the next generation. At the Pacific Cacao & Chocolate Show in Auckland earlier this year, Ao Cacao co-sponsored the Youth Cacao Innovators Award, where four budding pastry chefs aged 25 and under competed to create the best chocolate dish. The winner received a trip to Ms Sunshine’s cacao plantation in Samoa, and a hands-on training course with Hilton.

Currently, Hilton is focused on expanding his chocolate range, with plans to open his first store in March next year. The Auckland flagship, located in the north-western suburb of Westgate, will include an open kitchen so customers can see the chocolatiers at work. He’ll host tastings, chef pop-ups and classes in the multi-use space. He'll also be stocked on upcoming platform Oyster & Moon, which spotlights Māori and Pacific creatives.

Eventually Hilton's goal is to open a chocolate school. “I want to spark the same excitement in young people that I had when discovering that being a chocolate maker is a real job. I see chocolate exhibitions and competitions overseas and there’s no Kiwis or Indigenous people. I want to help change that.”