In Focus: Kad Kokoa
by Fernanda Bravo
Chocolate Connoisseurs, prepare yourselves for travel to the fascinating old Kingdom of Siam, or Thailand, as we know it today.
Built on a foundation of ancient realms, ageless dynasties, and rich historical city-states, Thailand captivates every visitor with its culinary and cultural diversity… delicious curries and relaxing beaches…
Time to Travel… Time to Travel Wild and Free
Why Thailand? Because that’s where two lawyers, Paniti and Nuttaya, decided to take the Thai cacao concept to a whole new level. A very atypical couple, these two Thai attorneys, born and raised in the so-called “City of Angels” (Bangkok, if you will), once spent all their days working as “employees” in the law business. The word cacao never even crossed their minds, until…
“About Twenty-four years ago, in 1994, we thought we needed a scenery change. The travel bug bit us and we decided to go study overseas. The U.K. and U.S. seemed the right places for post graduate education, so, off we went.”
The couple sought new knowledge in more ways than traditional education… in ways that only travel abroad tends to offer. As Paniti notes —
“We went looking for new specialty coffee, tried a diversity of gourmet food and enjoyed different outdoor activities, such as a simple ride in the mountains. The travels soon opened our eyes, it brought us style and favoritisms, which gradually evolved or changed over the years.”
Beyond all the new cultures, cuisines, and adventures, they also discovered a love for the slow food movement.
When Paniti and Nuttaya returned to Bangkok, their thirst for knowledge and adventure only grew — there’s a reason people call Thailand “The Land of the Free.” The couple started their own legal business, and its success quickly led to more free time — time to spend exploring their native country, with less boundaries… and fewer time constraints.
The soon-to-be chocolate couple hopped on a motorbike and rode, chasing flavor, nature, and refinement. Rightly so, as the Thailand countryside bursts with wonderfully lush, green farms and beautiful villages hidden within the mountains… mystical places… ones that kept pulling them back like a magnet. As Paniti said —
“The more we went out, the less we were interested in going back to work at a desk in Bangkok.”
The Promised Land
It was only a matter of time. As Paniti recounts —
“Traveling out of Bangkok to the countryside by our motorcycle enabled us to go deeper… where cars, airplanes and buses can’t reach. We regularly visited farms and tasted the food grown and made fresh, and we stayed overnight in villages in the mountains, which lured us to keep going back there many times for the beautiful views, and the clean crisp air.”
At one point, Paniti and Nuttaya even met the Karen people – the Long Neck tribe who calls the North of Thailand home.
During one of these trips, the couple decided to take the plunge, and the rest of their trips focused on finding the perfect location to start a new endeavor… to grow something special, far away from the stressful urban life.
Gettin’ Figgy With It
They eventually found a beautiful lot in the region of Chiang Mai, but the initial project looked much, much different than planting cacao —
“We knew of a Fig farm, in Mae On, a village, next to ours, where the owner, a local called Uncle Wichai, grew this crop, which enabled him to retire from Bangkok City life.
When we decided to buy the land in Chiang Mai, we thought of a similar idea. We asked him to look for a piece of land in his village and he agreed to support us and to help with the development of the fig farm, so when he found it, we happily closed the deal.”
NOTE: Don’t be confused by the moniker “uncle”. In some cultures, such as Southeast Asia, the habit of calling a non-relative, older friend as “uncle” or “auntie” is quite extended, and it’s used to communicate endearment and respect. Hence, Paniti and his wife would address Wichai as “Uncle”, even though he was a stranger.
It looked like the perfect project, but of course, great things never come easy, and Paniti and Nuttaya’s dream soon took a different turn.
“Well, after closing the deal, our dream to grow figs did not somehow come through easily. We bought the land with this purpose in mind, but Wichai never told us that figs are a very demanding crop, need lots of care and therefore full time farmers, due to their delicate nature and short shelf life after harvesting.”
A Chocolate U-Turn
Unfortunately, however, right after the purchase, Uncle Wichai switched things up a bit. He discouraged using the land for figs.
Uncle Wichai offered up a new idea. What if, instead of figs, Paniti and Nuttaya used the land to grow cacao?
Already loving chocolate to the moon and back, our adventurous twosome felt the proposal fit perfectly —
“Uncle Wichai said he grew cacao once before, and he told us (wrongly, of course) that growing cacao was easier than growing figs.
He even made an offer to buy pods from us, once the trees blossomed. But naturally, we thought ‘Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.’
Nevertheless, we adored the idea immensely, so we agreed to start without delay.”
Cacao in Thailand?
Cacao emerged in Thailand only a little more than a century ago. The tree, brought by the Spanish to the Philippines by the end of the 17th century, gradually spread to other Asian countries, catching the attention of farmers who slowly learned how to cultivate this food of the gods.
Because so little information existed on the subject, however, Paniti and Nuttaya needed to find someone willing to teach them the art of growing these unique, delicate trees.
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Someone who understood cacao’s ancient, subtle nature.
Again, Uncle Wichai stepped in and advised them to arrange a meeting with a breeder, who also happened to be a very well-known professor at Chiang Mai University. Perhaps he could provide them with some cacao seedling and share any pertinent information with them as well. As Paniti notes, not so much –
“After several attempts to meet with him and to work out some sort of arrangement, we realized that the offered proposal wouldn’t fit our project in a number of ways, because it established a franchise which we didn’t find attractive enough (those who buy the seedling from them must agree to sell back the produce to them only).
So, we made a decision to look by ourselves for suitable trees or seed to grow on our land.”
Indeed, the couple took their new cacao commitment very seriously. When growing an agricultural crop such as coffee, or in this case cacao, the word “easy” doesn’t frequently surface. Growers sit at the mercy of what the ground wants to give them, and Paniti and Nuttaya knew this well.
Weighing the patience required versus the huge potential of the project, and coupled with a deep belief in each other, the couple took yet another risky plunge, securing a lease for a café, plus a small factory, in Bangkok. Kad Kokoa had begun…
From Badass Lawyers to Chocolate Nerds
The recurrent story of chocolate makers who begin with a completely different life, but gleefully swap it for melangeurs and jute bags full of cacao, repeats once more here for Paniti and Nuttaya. It’s a fact they seem quite aware of it, especially when they look back at all the effort put in while still coping with the barrister life.
Just think of Shawn Askinosie, Maggie Louise Callahan, or Syovata “Vata” Edari… all similar cases. Chocolate pulled them like gravity. Now, Paniti and Nuttaya were swept away as well, particularly when they found a collective of Thai “madre cacao” in Chumporn. As the couple says —
“We finally ended our search for the perfect strain, as we acquired 400 baby cacao trees and took them to our land for planting and growing.”
Things moved quickly from there. Gone were the days when the couple’s lives revolved around law. Wasting no time, Paniti and Nuttaya dove deep into the process of growing cacao. Right from the start, they realized that achieving a perfect chocolate profile only comes with a thorough understanding of every single stage in production.
As Paniti notes —
“We did not want to just be some part of the chain. It was not enough.
Instead we wished to learn about the entire process — from growing cacao to making craft chocolate. Perhaps we were too ambitious.”
Once they received the trees, the couple decided to take some tempering lessons, where they first turned to John Nancy, the Chocolate Alchemist’s online tutorial.
Nuttaya pledged not to go back to the law office until she could make a beautiful, new brand of chocolate. She spent weeks studying everything from tempering, to roasting, to cracking the shells by hand.
Meanwhile, Paniti still continued working at his law firm to ensure a smooth transition.
Soon after, ready for a hands-on lesson, they connected with a chocolatier in Singapore, beginning a series of exhaustive business trips filled with intensive chocolate lessons.
They fell in love with everything cacao. The duo could hardly keep still, continually upping the ante.
“In the meantime, Nuttaya kept writing to Nat Bletter, from Madre Chocolate. We started corresponding and luckily, we found time to stay and learn with him in Hawaii. What an eye-opening experience!”
They aimed for more. After learning from Nat, they headed to San Francisco seeking further tutelage via Carla Martin and Colin Gasko, during a Grading Intensive Course with the FCCI. They proudly remember –
“Upon the end of the workshop, we became owners of a Bean Grading Certificate; the very first Thai couple to receive such a qualification.
We finally opened our cafe and bean to bar mini factory in Bangkok on June the 29th, 2018.”
Kad Kokoa finally reached fruition.
Paniti and Nuttaya also learned one of the all-important cornerstones of the bean-to-bar movement – the highest quality chocolate also requires strong, ethical sourcing principles. Although the couple still lives in Bangkok, they visit Chiang Mai every month, and other provinces as well, to meet and share with the farmers they procure ingredients from, always focused on building trust and lasting relationships.
Like so many bean-to-bar makers before them, the chocolate couple appreciates the remarkable cacao profiles different regions produce, and they want to see farmers paid more for these precious beans. It’s all part of a better supply chain, the circle of chocolate, which Kad Kokoa now fully embraces.
An elaborate Kad Kokoa tasting, including bars from LetterPress(!) and others…
The Uniqueness of Thai
Many would say, sugar is to Thailand what salt is to the Western world, which certainly applies to chocolate as well. As Nuttaya says —
“We, Thai, love sweet taste. The sweeter, the better. Some say, we grew up in Milo country.”
So it comes as no surprise that, when asked about his own chocolate memories, he quickly mentions sweet brands such as Lindt, Royce, Nutella and Ovaltine.
Those days are far, far behind, however. Paniti and Nuttaya now treat chocolate as a delicacy, respecting the purity of each bean’s flavor profile. They proudly craft their bars with only two ingredients: cacao and a touch of organic sugar.
Kad Kokoa lives in service to the flavor of cacao, and its team now understands the complexities of the Thai-grown beans. After all, they’re not only on a mission to deliver amazing, award-winning chocolate but to also promote Thai cacao worldwide. As Nuttaya notes —
“We want everyone to cherish the distinctive characters that each Thai region offers in its beans. We want people to feel good every time they have our bars… to feel the Thai essence in each little piece they savor!
We also want the chocolate culture to grow and develop in our country. We have an amazing variety with floral tones and nice complexity and we want to be a showcase for it. We want people to know how we source, grade, and get the most out of Thai cacao beans. It’s inspiring to watch them enjoy our fine chocolate.”
Kad Kokoa’s Chocolate & More…
All the couple’s hard work paid off in grand fashion when, in 2018, Kad Kokoa’s 70% Chiang Mai bar won a Bronze Award at the Asia Pacific International Chocolate Awards.
I had the pleasure of tasting the Chiang Mai bar (pictured here), discovering its exotic notes of flowers and banana, with hints of honey and a brightness that will uplift even the saddest mood! It evoked all the warmth of its origins in a beautiful southeast Asian land…
I must confess, the bar didn’t last a day, but don’t judge me before trying it yourself.
Paniti and Nuttaya’s growing passion keeps unleashing lots of new ideas, new innovative flavors, often incorporating local ingredients like Thai tea, coconut, and jasmine.
The Chiang Mai 70% of course registers as their best seller now, but the varied, bright notes found in their other bars compare quite favorably to those in the award winner.
Upon unfolding the beautiful origami-like wrapper and taking that first bite, you’ll bask in the subtle flavors that inspire Kad Kokoa’s revolutionary work. Each bar has its own essence, offering a unique flavor exclusive to the cacao’s region.
The Chantaburi variety will uplift with its tropical fruit notes and long lasting aftertaste.
The Chumphon offers a high chocolate quotient, with hints of brownie and caramel at the end.
Kad Kokoa’s fresh Prachuap Khiri Khan purveys some creamy vanilla and herbal notes.
The novelty is their Shiso Seeds 58% (pictured earlier). Also called Perilla, they bring crunch, umami, and a slightly roasted flavor to any bar in a delicious, balanced way.
Still, as heavenly as all of their bars sound, Paniti and Nuttaya stick to Chiang Mai when asked to choose a favorite.
“Of course, Chiang Mai. We work a lot with this farm owner and as you can see from various reviews, it’s always a favorite one, because of its light fruity and floral character.
Its origin is a highlight. It is organic, it is wild, it is elevated, and it is our first award-winning chocolate. We like it because it is offbeat, unique, and not ubiquitous.”
A selection of pastries, ice cream, cookies and a specialty drink made out of pure chocolate are some of the entries one can find upon visiting Kad Kokoa cafe in Bangkok.
Kad Kokoa’s Signature Chocoespresso
Pastry Chef Remy Janicot adds another special touch to Kad Kokoa Café, according to Nuttaya –
“Thanks to his experience, customers fall in love with every creation. He develops interesting pastry menus and enhances our chocolate with his French technique. He owns a particular talent to develop and bring out all the flavor through his outstanding work.”
As for the future, we can expect Paniti and Nuttaya to stick to their mission of protecting and promoting this new Thai chocolate culture. They will continue to explore the world, and to savor, and enjoy as much chocolate as they can.
For more on Kad Kokoa, see the links below…
KAD KOKOA WEBSITE