Māori chocolatier Ao Cacao debuts at prestigious chocolate exhibition Salon du Chocolat in Paris

By Jogai Bhatt of RNZ

Many children grow up only dreaming of living in a world of chocolate, but Thomas Netana Wright (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Whātua, Whakatōhea) has made it his reality.

Wright is the owner and founder of Ao Cacao, a luxury chocolate brand with te ao Māori values at its heart.

This weekend, Wright is in Paris for Salon du Chocolat, a prestigious chocolate exhibition that showcases chocolate makers from around the world, and it's an exciting time for him on many levels. 

"It's the first time a New Zealand producer's ever gone, it's the first time an indigenous chocolate maker's ever gone, and it's the first time any Māori's ever gone. It's huge," he said.

It makes sense Wright would be so inclined to pursue a path of confectionery. After all, chocolate is in his blood.

His father is a baker, his mother is a chocolate fanatic, and Wright himself is a descendant of the historic Wright's dairy, founded in Chelsea, London, in 1796. If it isn't obvious by now, there was a lot to be inspired by. 

"My mum is a big chocolate fan, we always had chocolate around the house, my dad was always baking. But also growing up in the UK, we have a big culture of chocolate-makers."

By age 13, Wright knew he had found his passion.

"I was on Google searching 'how do I become a chocolatier' and it basically said you had to be a pastry chef or work in that side of the kitchen to specialise in chocolate, so I followed that blueprint."

For the last decade, Wright honed his craft, working as a pastry chef and chocolatier across fine dining institutions before launching Ao Cacao in 2021. And in two short years, made a big name for himself in the world of artisanal chocolate. 

The power of Ao Cacao lies in its kaupapa of championing indigenous creativity, Wright said.

"Ninety-nine percent of our ingredients are made in the Pacific, or made as local as possible from indigenous suppliers and producers. Our vanilla is from Tahiti, cacao is from Samoa, cocoa butter is from Papua New Guinea, sugar is from Fiji and all the other ingredients tend to come from Aotearoa.

"At the moment it can't be 100 percent because there are certain ingredients I want to use, and not everyone who farms is indigenous, but getting as close to a 100 percent indigenous as possible is my main kaupapa."

Ao Cacao chocolatier Thomas Netana Wright, at the Paris Salon du Chocolat in October 2023.
Ao Cacao chocolatier Thomas Netana Wright, at the Paris Salon du Chocolat in October 2023. Photo credit: RNZ / Thomas Netana Wright

Wright said restoring the mana of chocolate was important to him, and that could only be done through ethical, community-driven sourcing. 

"My dream is for the chocolate industry to be more transparent."

Wright said the chocolate industry needed to challenge the current narrative, and that meant more acknowledgement of how products were sourced.

"It's important to tell the story of the person behind the ingredients. How they grew it, how they looked after it.

"It's very common as indigenous people worldwide to acknowledge communities, even if it's from a different culture, you have to honour who makes it, who supplies it, who sources it. 

"It's important for the consumer to know where it's coming from too, now more than ever."

At Salon du Chocolat, Wright's aim will be to showcase just how rich Aotearoa's chocolate-making potential is.

"Why can't someone from New Zealand go over and showcase what we're doing on the other side of the world? It's a chance to get recognised and meet more people within such a small industry.

"I want to show people that it's possible to do 100 percent ethical chocolate and put a spotlight on New Zealand's chocolate industry." 

Salon du Chocolat is a five-day event dedicated to chocolate, operating in Paris from October 28 to November 1.