The Corkman championing chocolate in Mexico
‘Most Mexicans think Braveheart is about Ireland and that we’re bunch of proud rebels (which they love)’
Corkman Rohan Barnett (on the far right of the photo) with his team in Ah Cacao in Playa del Carmen, Mexico.
Working Abroad Q&A: Each week, Irish Times Abroad meets an Irish person working in an interesting job overseas. This week, Rohan Barnett, who is originally from Dunmanway, Co Cork, but now lives in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, on working as a “Chocolatero”.
When did you leave Ireland, and why?
I originally left Ireland in 1995 right after finishing a degree in electronic engineering in Cork RTC (now Cork Institute of Technology). There weren’t many technology job opportunities in Ireland at the time and it’s hard to imagine, but the internet barely existed back then. I was pointed to go speak with a man, who I met at a Dublin train station for about an hour, and he offered me a job in Mexico City where his company had a contract with American Express. I didn't know anything about Mexico at the time but I leapt at the opportunity. I later looked it up on Encarta, a CD-ROM based encyclopaedia, and discovered they spoke Spanish in Mexico, so I bought a pocket dictionary.
Have you done any training anywhere else?
I completed my Master of Business Administration (MBA) at INSEAD in France. It was during this time while I was visiting chocolate shops in Paris that I had the idea for a chocolate brand based around the pre-Hispanic origins and health benefits of chocolate.
Tell us about your work in Mexico
In late 2003, I decided to give the chocolate company a go. My sceptical wife, who is from Mexico, agreed to go along with it even though we had just had our first child and had little in the way of savings. We decided to start the business in Mexico as chocolate originally comes from Mexico, and we could stay with my wife’s parents. Thus Ah Cacao was born.
A few months after that we rented a place in the beach resort of Playa del Carmen. Fast forward 15 years and the company has grown into a team of more than 80 people with a small factory and five retail stores. I still work in the “general manager” role (even though I prefer product development). It basically means overseeing everything in the company and filling all the gaps. A typical day might include: reviewing too many emails, congratulating team members on successes, meeting team members, devising sales strategies, tasting chocolate (the best part of the job), designing new products, designing store elements, reviewing business opportunities, updating operation manuals and trying to figure out where the company should go next.
What type of products do you offer?
Ah Cacao offers almost anything chocolate you can imagine from pure cacao beans to chocolate bars, chocolate cakes, mousse and ice-cream right up to chocolate soap and shampoo! One of my personal favourites is a chocolate and almond spread we launched recently. It’s basically Nutella for grown-ups (although kids love it too) with half the sugar and no palm oil. We estimate that the average jar lasts about two days.
Your company is eco-friendly. What does that mean?
Part of Ah Cacao’s mission is to make a positive contribution to wildlife conservation. We use solar energy. We buy green coffee from Arroyo Negro nature reserve to support the preservation of 1,500 hectares of natural habitat in Chiapas state. In the reserve there are jaguars, tapirs, ocelots, macaws, and thousands of other species. We use natural ventilation in our factory instead of air conditioning. We donate 7 per cent of profits to environmental causes. We pay our staff to do volunteer work such as cleaning garbage from turtle nesting beaches. We support environmental awareness programs, especially in schools. We offer café customers free drinking water instead of bottled water, free reusable shopping bags and use as little packaging as possible for our products. We reuse as many materials as possible and have onsite composting.
Can people in Ireland buy Ah Cacao’s products?
Yes, by coming on holiday to Playa del Carmen. Unfortunately, apart from that, there’s not an easy way to buy Ah Cacao products in Ireland, but we hope to get there one day.
Which do you like best - chocolate, coffee or vanilla?
For me it’s chocolate all the way, though the Ah Cacao stores sell a lot of Mexican coffee drinks (possibly more coffee than chocolate.). One of our dreams is to open Ah Cacao stores in Ireland.
What is it like being Irish in Mexico?
After about 20 years in Mexico I think of myself more as a Mexican who happened to grow up in Ireland. Mexicans are generally friendly and accepting people, and some Mexicans have some affinity with Ireland because a small band of Irish US-army deserters who fought with Mexico against the US in 1846. Most Mexicans, however, think the movie Braveheart is about Ireland and that we’re bunch of proud rebels (which they love).
What is it like living in Playa del Carmen?
Playa del Carmen’s population is quite international. Some people come to practice yoga and be at “one” with nature, whereas others are here to invest in hotel and condominium construction projects. Everything is close by so we eat at home every day as a family, enjoying Mexico’s abundance of healthy fruits and vegetables. Our daughters enjoy after school activities such as athletics, dance, and maths homework (ha, ha). On Sundays we might potter about in the garden or go snorkelling. It’s not unusual to have family and friends staying with us.
What opportunities has working in Mexico offered you?
The chance to visit some of the incredible natural beauty that Mexico offers. One particularly special one is snorkelling with turtles over coral reefs (the world’s second largest barrier reef runs along part the Mexican coast). Mexico has kilometres of deserted white sand beaches, swimming with manta rays and whale sharks, trekking through jungles and Mayan ruins, swimming in crystal clear underground lakes, walking through forests illuminated by fireflies, white-water rafting, climbing snow-capped mountains, whale watching, the list goes on and on.
Are there any other Irish people in your work/social circles?
Not many. An Irish priest, Bernard Quinn, founded one of Playa del Carmen’s best schools and Cancún has an honorary Irish consul, Tony Leeman, who kindly helps us with our passport applications every few years.
What is it like living in Playa del Carmen and what are the costs like?
Compared to the rest of Mexico, Playa del Carmen is quite expensive, but there is reasonably priced accommodation to be found. It's quite a small city so you can get around quite comfortably on bicycle (my main mode of transport), which helps. There is also a bike-sharing service, which is really inexpensive. You should be able to find a fairly nice studio for around €250 a month, though of course you can spend a lot more if you want a luxury apartment with a pool close to the beach. Electricity can be expensive if you need air conditioning, but most residents learn to live without it. Because Playa del Carmen is tourist town there’s a large selection of restaurants and shops including a lot of the international brands. This isn’t necessarily a good thing in my opinion, but my wife and daughters certainly appreciate being able to shop in H&M, Forever 21 and American Eagle.
Playa del Carmen’s social life reflects the diversity of its population. The large Argentinian population will probably be found outdoors grilling a cow or two, and drinking “mate” ( a caffeine-rich infused drink). Private health care (important for us older folks) is pretty good and not too expensive. Many pharmacies offer a basic GP service for about €3 a consultation, though a more typical visit to a doctor is about €30. Medicines are inexpensive.
Is there anything you miss about living and working in Ireland?
Mostly I miss the subtle, wry humour that often peppers conversations in Ireland. If you say something absurd with a straight face in Mexico, people are likely to take you seriously.
What recipe might readers try for Food Month in The Irish Times?
Here’s a simple but delicious chocolate recipe I made last night for my daughters (actually myself!):
Crunchy cacao nib chocolate
- 400g of milk chocolate (or dark chocolate but milk works better in my opinion)
- 50g of cacao or cocoa nibs (pieces of roasted cacao beans. “Cacao” and “cocoa” are exactly the same thing, even though many people think cacao is raw cocoa, which is not true. I’m not sure where you can get these in Ireland, but I’m guessing there must be somewhere.
Put the chocolate in a bowl and melt slowly in a microwave, using short bursts of a about 15 seconds at a time and stirring between each heating to avoid burning. You can also melt in a bain marie or low temperature oven.
The cacao nibs should be crunchy. If they’re not, put in the oven at 150°C for about 10 minutes to reduce the moisture content (be careful not to burn. If they start smelling strongly, whip them out).
Mix the cacao nibs with the melted chocolate.
Spread out on metal baking sheet about 5-10mm thick.
Place in the refrigerator to set for a few hours (or overnight).
Turn out of the baking sheet and break up into chunks of whatever size you want.
Offer to friends before eating it all yourself.
If you work in an interesting career overseas and would like to share your experience with Irish Times Abroad, email email@example.com with a little information about you and what you do.