Sean Henninger carries over 200 recipes for chocolate around in his head. Henninger regularly has 20 to 27 varieties of chocolate available at his Walker's Point restaurant, Times Square Bistro and Pizzeria, 605 S. 1st St.
"We're a small operation and don't do a lot of large runs, which is good for maintaining quality. The downside is that we sometimes run out of things," says Henninger.
Henninger the restauranteur has also been a chocolatier for 15 years, developing his craft over time with a great deal of experimentation. Henninger had his Atomic Chocolate Company going in 2001, but didn't immediately introduce it at the pizzeria, which opened over four years ago.
"Confectionery is very climate driven. We have a tougher time over the summer keeping up with production, as it gets very hot in the restaurant with all the pizza making going on," says Henninger.
Henninger has been working in restaurants almost his entire life. He first came to chocolate making while running a restaurant that needed more dessert options. Those early creations were hand-rolled, a look that Henninger says he doesn't like as much as the ones he's now able to make with polycarbonate molds.
Atomic's confections begin with a high-grade chocolate, a secret highly guarded by Henninger. "A lot of producers start out with mid-grade chocolates and hope to make up for it with their ingredients. It doesn't work," says Henninger.
There are no preservatives or artificial flavors in Atomic's chocolates. Atomic's chocolate creations are crafted over time from only natural ingredients. Momentarily speaking like an alchemist, Henninger describes the process of developing flavors out of certain elements, like how he stays on teas for a while and moves on to experimenting with nuts from there.
Most of Atomic's chocolates are made in three parts. First, the chocolate is heated and poured into polycarbonate molds. Next, the ganache, or filling, is added and last but not least a chocolate bottom is spread over the forms while still in the molds.
Learning how to temper chocolate is the most difficult part of chocolate making. When the chocolate is melted, it has to be allowed to cool to a certain temperature based on the confection being made.
"There's a lot of weird science to this. Balancing flavors is one thing, balancing the temperatures of the fillings and shells together is another. Getting it all to work involves a lot of invention and practice," says Henninger.
Henninger says that there aren't a lot of schools in the country for confectionery. Chocolatiers tend to either develop their own skills over time, like Henninger did, or work with someone else to learn the fine art and weird science of chocolate making.
Zoey Rae is taking the second route. She has been apprenticing with Henninger for about a year and plans to continue developing her craft.
This author got to sample a discarded wine-infused chocolate, which was delicious. It was rejected because Henninger's apprentice used Chardonnay in what was supposed to be a port wine ganache. Truly, it was a beautiful mistake, but still not what was required to fill Atomic's orders.
In addition to port wine, other Atomic specialty flavors include Tahitian vanilla along with classics such as hazelnut and peanut butter. Henninger and Zoey Rae grind the peanuts themselves. Other flavors include interesting blends like peach and white tea, almond and fennel and mango habanero.
Henninger is planning a chocolate collection that uses Roaring Dan's rum and Amerique 1912 absinthe made by Great Lakes Distillery. These will be sold through Atomic and the gift area inside the distillery, also located in Walker's Point, 616 W. Virginia St.
Atomic's sea salt caramel is one of the best sellers throughout the year.
"Customers beware. You will become addicted," says Rae.
Henninger finds that the most popular kind of chocolate during the December holidays is the variety pack. People want assortments for gift giving. Or maybe the holidays simply expand a person's sweet tooth somehow?
Whatever the customer's need, Atomic sells chocolates individually and in assortments which are packaged in wooden boxes made by a local carpenter.
Atomic has catered weddings, work events and other special occasions, doing dessert tables with a chocolate spread in lieu of the traditional wedding cake, for instance, or providing two-piece boxes of chocolates for party favors.
"We're doing a wedding coming up in April that's going to take us out of our comfort zone a little. We're making chocolate brownies and other baked goods," says Rae.
Both of the Atomic chocolatiers enjoy the freedom that chocolate provides for creativity. Henninger believes there is no limit to what can be done with chocolate. And it's the combination of artistry and food that attracts Rae to chocolate making.
"A man came in whose wife was allergic to at least three things out of every food group," says Henninger. "We managed to make a good chocolate for them."
Henninger focused on making his pizzeria successful first, but now plans to keep the almost nuclear fission of the Atomic Chocolate Company's success going. The chocolatiers' plans extend from local and practical to the large scale.
"We need a bigger production space, someplace close by, that also has room for retail," says Henninger.
Royal has taught courses in critical pedagogy, writing, rhetoric and cultural studies at several schools in Wisconsin and Minnesota. He is currently Adjunct Associate Professor of Humanities at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.
Royal lives in Walker’s Point with his family and uses the light of the Polish Moon to illuminate his way home.