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Plant Person Profile
Meet Nate Hodge, a Brooklyn-based Chocolate Maker, and Co-Founder of Raaka Chocolate and Plant Person we love.
Hi Nate! It’s great to meet you. Tell us a little bit about yourself:
I’m the Co-Founder and Head Chocolate Maker of Raaka chocolate, which was founded in Brooklyn in 2010. I love cooking, music, and a good adventure.
What are you reading right now?
Intimations by Zadie Smith. It’s basically her journal entries from the first lockdown back in March. They’re great little anecdotes and stories about quarantine from a brilliant, yet relatable, mind. I’m also reading Unfree Speech by Joshua Wong. Joshua is the leader of the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong. The book really puts into perspective the sacrifice and dedication it takes to truly fight for something.
What’s your relationship to the “wellness,” or food world?
One of the positive things the pandemic has led me to is thinking more consciously about how my body is feeling on a minute to minute or daily basis. I’ve spent a lot more time gardening and eating what’s in season. I’ve been supplementing my gardening by buying all of my produce directly from Blooming Hill Farm in Orange County, NY. Being connected to the earth and the local community of people trying to maintain seasonal agriculture has really opened my eyes to how good it can feel to be present in the seasons and what those seasons have to offer.
Do you have a formative chocolate memory - Willy Wonka, perhaps?
Haha. I don’t have a specific Wonka story, but I did grow up very close to the large M&M Mars factory in Chicago. Everytime we got anywhere near the factory you could smell the chocolate. On particularly windy days, when the conditions were just right, you could smell the factory from our backyard.
What (or who!) inspired you to not only found a chocolate company, but one that prioritizes transparent trade?
When Ryan (Raaka’s Founder) and I started Raaka, we were looking to other brands who were successfully merging impact with business. Brands that not only talked the talk, but were really out to help improve the world and the way businesses are run. Patagonia, Ben + Jerry’s, a lot of craft coffee companies at the time, like Stumptown or Intelligentsia or Counter Culture, to name a few. We felt the chocolate space was missing a true leader in this regard, and we strive to be that leader
What is transparent trade?
On a grand scale, Transparent Trade is an attempt to disrupt the commodity system of global agriculture. But, that’s fairly hard to do, haha. To us, we want to educate people and be authentic in the way we present ourselves. We want to tell our consumers everything we know about where our raw materials come from in an attempt to cultivate a community that’s willing to help hold us accountable. In turn, hopefully that community begins to demand transparency from other companies they choose to support. Farmers everywhere need more money in order for biodiversity and agroforestry to continue. If we want to stop monoculture and the death of natural habitats and rainforests, the best way to do that is to demand transparency and demand that small stakeholder farmers get paid more for their work.
Where does Raaka source from, and why?
We source from companies and cooperatives that must do 2 things:
That’s what it boils down to for us, both economic and environmental sustainability. It’s our firm belief that it’s hard for either to exist without the other in the realm of cacao sourcing. We currently source from Semuliki Forest Cacao in Uganda, Kakao Kamili in Tanzania, and Reserva Zorzal in the Dominican Republic.
How does transparent trade ladder up to overall sustainable business practices?
Transparency is baked into everything we do. All of our staff are included on the same quarterly report deck that goes out to our board. It’s an open door policy if our staff or customers have questions about Raaka’s business practices or performance. We also try to source all of our ingredients, not just our cacao, from organizations that are trying to produce sustainably. All our sugar comes from the Green Cane Project in Brazil that is vegan and does zero burning of fields for harvesting. They also generate power from their waste that provides the city in which they’re located with electricity. We donate all of our cacao shells (the waste from cacao processing) to local gardens for mulching and composting. Maximizing the resources that a material can provide is paramount to how we view sustainability.
How can chocolate lovers do their due diligence to make sure they’re supporting equitable practices?
It’s simple, and I cannot stress this enough; Ask questions. The more detailed the answer, the more you can rest easy that the company you’re supporting is thinking about these issues as much as you are. If you don’t have the time to ask questions, look for details. Country of origin is a good start, but if a package lists a specific region, place or organization, that’s better. If the packaging doesn’t even list a country, chances are the chocolate is made from a blend of cacao purchased at commodity prices. This chocolate is probably hard to trace back to origin, and as a result the practices of price and payment are hard to verify. Certifications like Fair Trade are good to set a floor for price, but the more details, the more likely it is the chocolate maker is thinking about quality and what the ceiling of that price could be.
Cacao and chocolate are super versatile ingredients. What’s the most interesting cacao or chocolate creation you’ve come across in your travels?
By far, it’s Tejate. This is a beverage that is exclusively made in the state of Oaxaca in Mexico. The recipe and techniques are protected by a labor union (all women) that work very hard to make sure that this beverage is always only able to be produced in Oaxaca. It’s a frothy mix of ingredients that are very hard to come by in the U.S., led by cacao. The legend is that only women have the right energy to be able to manually mix the beverage so that it foams properly. There are no licensed, male, Tejate makers. It’s velvety, and complex, and very texturaly varied for a beverage. Truly one of a kind in both mythology and flavor.
You’re going to a desert island that magically doesn’t melt chocolate. Which 3 Raaka bars do you bring, and why?
Maple and Nibs, Waffle Cone, and Pink Sea Salt
White chocolate: yes or no?
I’ll go with a “Yes, but…” The problem with most white chocolate is the sugar content, which is typically very very high. Formulating a stable white chocolate that isn’t super sweet is very difficult. We make a vegan one from time to time for our subscription program, First Nibs, that’s really good. Both Charm School Chocolate and Fruition Chocolate make really good white chocolates as well.