In the winter of 2023, moviegoers were once again drawn into the weird and wonderful world of Willy Wonka, some 54 years after Gene Wilder bit into a wax, faux-chocolate teacup on the set of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, all in the name of his craft. Fortunately for Timothée Chalamet and his fellow castmates of Warner Bros Studio UK's Wonka, award-winning chocolatier and pastry chef Gabriella Cugno was tasked with creating over 20,000 stunning pieces for the motion picture.

Otherworldly creations like the painstakingly delicate "Hoverchocs" (a flying chocolate described as being salted with "the bittersweet tears of a Russian clown") and the "Big Night Out" (a relatable chocolate said to take you through all the stages of a night out, from champagne truffle to the old Port at the back of your cupboard) have earned Gabriella the moniker of the real-life Willy Wonka.

In 2024, guest appearances on shows like James Martin's Saturday Morning saw prestigious guests and the host alike stunned by her artistry. The demand for her seasonal creations sold through her own website soared to new heights, with her signature Easter egg in such high demand that a second batch was created, allowing many customers to celebrate Easter twice.

Born of Welsh and Sicilian descent, Gabriella Cugno talks to Ian Westcott about her influences, creative process, and how she turned her passion into a business that allows her to express herself.

Gabriella, can you tell me a little about your early life and how your path led you to chocolate?

For as long as I can remember, I've loved food-both eating it and creating things with it. My brother and I would be making mud pies in the garden, and he would just use his hands, making it all lumpy, whilst I was just set on making it a beautiful consistency. I think that is my first experience of attention to a creative process.

We would always cook and make cakes, and I would see my Bamps (grandfather) bake, and I would make Welsh cakes with him, and I became very interested in that. Then with my Italian side, my Nonna (grandmother), she would cook and feed, and it wasn't necessarily desserts. I absolutely love that you can take these ingredients, and with your mind, imagination and skill, you can turn them in to a dish, or a piece of art. It's the process that I absolutely love and connected with when I was little.

I would just make cakes, any chance I had really. I also absolutely loved art. I felt a lot more creative than academic amongst my peers, and all I wanted to do was art, music and food.

At 15, I did some work experience at a restaurant in Cardiff. I really wanted to learn about food and how it all happens. It was quite scary at first. I remember walking in and seeing all these men with huge knives, so the environment felt strange, but I absolutely loved it. My head chef at the time Grady Atkins, took me under his wing and offered me a part time job whilst I was at school. It was my first entry to seeing what restaurants in the industry were like. I helped on the pastry section and starters and realised how much I love it.

In school I couldn't take food in my A levels. I had to choose between food and art. Home economics wasn't as technical as I wanted to learn, so I chose art. I did an art foundation course where you study all sorts of mediums of art. I was so fascinated by how food and art connect. This is when I knew I wanted to do this as a career.  My final exhibition exam, I presented two shelves. On one, a real lemon tart, and tiny ingredients on the shelf I created it with. On the other, a painted lemon tart with the paints I used. Whether it's a pantry of ingredients or a box of paints, I was fascinated by what you can create, and the process. At this point I had a very strong feeling that it was in my bones. It's deeply who I am.

Can you share more about your educational journey in the field of chocolate and patisserie?

I knew I wanted to do this as a career. I had memories from when I was around 12 in France and seeing the patisserie windows and just these sparkling moments where I knew I just would love that so much. Living in Cardiff, I knew I'd need to learn patisserie, and if I wanted to be good, I needed to learn from good people. There were no culinary schools, so I went online to find somewhere to learn. I found a place called Le Cordon Bleu, which cost around £12,000. I didn't have that money, so I told myself I will figure it out, get a job somewhere else, I'd find a way.

While studying, I went on an expedition to Costa Rica with a group of 12 travellers. On this expedition I would always cook. One of the girls I was with by chance, knew the coordinator of Le Cordon Bleu. She mentioned that they were running a competition offering a free scholarship, which she informed me about. I went for it, and it was apparently very close, but I didn't get it. They didn't really know if I wanted to do food or art. I was so gutted at the time, but I was fresh from art school.

It was a godsend that I didn't get that, as I was talking to another competitor, asking him where the best places to learn were. He mentioned a place called William Curly.

I had been staying in a hotel (in London) at the time with my parents, and we were going out for dinner, and whilst walking I just looked up, and William Curley (Pâtissier Chocolatier) was there. I hadn't realised where it was.  I thought "oh my god, this was what he was talking about." I couldn't believe this exists; I was amazed. I contacted them, and got two weeks work experience, and at the end I was offered an apprenticeship and scholarship. That's how my career started professionally.

You have won prestigious awards like The Royal Academy of Culinary Arts 'Young Pastry Chef of The Year' and 'Junior Chocolate Master', how has this impacted your career?

I was put forward for this award (Young Pastry Chef of The Year) a few months into my apprenticeship. It was very trusting of William Curley as I was also representing his company. There is a winner, but it is also an exam, so you can get the award without winning. It unleashed a creativity in me that I always had but hadn't yet applied professionally to food. I was still learning. It fast-tracked me hugely with organisation, time management, how to work cleanly. In a normal job it would have taken 3 years to learn what I had in this competition. I also then knew where I stood with other incredible pâtissiers and chocolatiers within the UK. It made me realise how fantastic it is to do competitions or exams like this, because if you put yourself forward, you'll do whatever it takes. I couldn't advise involvement in these awards more to young pastry chefs. Its not an ego thing, its all about learning. I had no idea that I could win and even though deep down I knew I had skills, I felt quite inexperienced. When you do these things, it opens doors. People start knowing of you in your industry, and things grew from there.

When I finished at William Curly, I went to work at The Ritz hotel, looking for a new experience. I had been used to making substantial quantities, but at The Ritz you had larger quantities of everything, including afternoon teas and I wanted to learn a lot more. Despite the fact there wasn't much chocolate work at all. I was ambitious, so I would stay before and after work and create new afternoon tea menus, but I just thought "we're not doing enough chocolate", because I just loved it so much. I needed something I could work towards, so I put myself forward for the Junior Chocolate Master competition.  It was all for the same reasons as the Young Pastry Chef of The Year. I would work from 7am until 10pm, and then practice for about 7 hours, usually getting 2 to 3 hours sleep. I feel you must do whatever you can to get to that goal, and that's something that's ingrained in me.

What makes working with chocolate so unique? 

It's an incredible ingredient that brings joy worldwide, and you incorporate flavours in a way that's different to patisserie. If you're artistic, it's also a material. Since I painted and created lots of art, I thought, "surely you can paint with it?". While working for the award and examination at William Curley, I found proof that you can.

Taste is the most important aspect of anything I do, but it's such a beautiful ingredient to work with. It has a high shelf-life which is interesting, compared to the creams of patisserie that don't last as long. It's a whole different way of working, so multi-sensory. You can have this tiny little chocolate with such impact of flavour, and you pack all the flavour you can in one little bite. We use it as such a treat, a beautiful gift. It encapsulates everything I love about food: the gifting, the sharing, or simply enjoying a moment to yourself. I just absolutely love it.

You have worked in many prestigious, high-end patisseries, chocolateries, hotels, and restaurants. Can you tell us about the transition to your own business?

My family have businesses of their own, so I think it's something I've grown up with and I love. The main thing is that I want to express my creativity, which you can't fully do when working for someone else. I also didn't like that someone else controlled my life. I am very happy working hard, but I knew I didn't want a life like this when I am older. I wanted to become freelance, take control of my time, and I think there is so much more to life as a pastry chef and chocolatier out there that we don't know yet. I always felt there was something better out there rather than just working long hours without freedom. Life is very important.

We would love to hear about Wonka. How did it come about, and what did it feel like to be asked to provide the magic behind such a timeless character?

I received an email out of the blue from Warner Bros, and initially, I didn't know it was for Wonka. I thought they were looking for me to cater for cast and crew, which is not something I'd be interested in really. A few emails later they said they were looking for me to make the chocolates for the Wonka movie. I couldn't think of a project more suited to me. It was like a magic fit. I became immediately excited and instantly came up with loads of ideas. I remember thinking "oh gosh, I wonder what it could be". Would they want wacky chocolates, simple chocolates? I didn't know anything at this point, so I just took a pad and started sketching ideas. Then I had a zoom call with the prop master and started a few months later. I was so excited, but with an underlying nervousness. Though if they asked me to do something I hadn't done before, that needed to be done, I just knew I could do it.

How has Wonka impacted your own business since its release, and do you have plans to scale the business to meet increased demand?

Wonka has put me out there. A lot of press coverage, and now Saturday Kitchen, and similar shows have enhanced that. I have gained exposure, followers and more customers, and products have sold out very quickly. I had a great customer base before, but this year has been fantastic. Since they sell out so quickly, there are people who couldn't get my products, so I know I can sell more. Since I work seasonally (Christmas, Valentine's Day, Easter), I leave time for other creative projects, but I enjoy staying connected to my business and making the food myself. I am at an interesting stage where I can scale up further, but do I want to?

I'm always asking myself what I want for my life. I could make lots more money, have lots more customers, but do I want that for myself and my life? I love the time I have, and the balance between my business and my other projects. I am always conscious of not jumping on a hamster wheel I can't get off. I am always checking in with how I'm feeling. Social media tells you that when you start a business, you just expand and expand, and that's how we see success. You must check in with how you feel.

How do you see the future for Gabriella Cugno?

I can see success, and I think I will grow the brand, but always maintain that its me making the chocolate. I am running online classes soon, I have just appointed a new agent, and I expect to see more projects like Wonka in the future. The thing with me, and where I differ from many entrepreneurs, is that I like to leave life open. It's how I have lived life so far, to see what comes and that is how I would want to continue.

Do you have any advice for aspiring chocolatiers who wish to follow in your footsteps?

I think the main thing is to be totally true to yourself, and not worry about what other people are doing. If you know in your heart what you love, build your business around that passion. Learn your craft first before you take that first leap. Don't be afraid to work hard and stay true to yourself. I think then, it should all just fall into place.


  • 2009 - Started first job at Le Gallois restaurant in the kitchen while still in school at 15.
  • 2013 - Moved to London to work at artisan pâtissier William Curley.
  • 2015 - Won Royal Academy of Culinary Arts, Annual Awards of Excellence, Young Pastry Chef of The Year.
  • 2015 - Started working at The Ritz Hotel London.
  • 2017 - Won the UK Junior Chocolate Masters.
  • 2019 - First TV appearance creating a chocolate sculpture, including a Monet-inspired chocolate painting. Worked in Trinidad & Tobago with chocolate producers and visited cacao farms.
  • 2020 - Started developing the idea for a chocolate business, working on concepts, branding, recipes, and packaging. Business opened and first products sold in July
  • 2021 - Warner Bros made first contact for Wonka; Relocated and started working on Wonka full-time at Warner Bros Studios Leavesden.
  • 2023 - Wonka behind-the-scenes filming, other events, consultancy work and recipe testing .Preparations for Wonka release and premiere week events & masterclasses. Appeared on The Drew Barrymore Show and various other UK TV programmes
  • 2024 - First appearance on Saturday Morning with James Martin, Easter production and the appointment of a new agent