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Two or three times a month, Shinya Takahashi flips on the light switch in his mother-in-law's basement and illuminates a small kitchen ripped out of a 1960s sitcom. A state-issued food establishment certificate is taped to the refrigerator.

Under a hand-painted sign reading "Nama Choco" in Kanji, two pots of dark chocolate melt in bowls of shimmering hot water. Once they're creamy and thick, Takahashi pours each bowl out into a glass container lined with plastic wrap. It forms a neat block of melted chocolate that Takahashi wraps up and sticks in the freezer.

He says finding the right chocolate-making process is all a matter of practice.

"In a year, I probably make somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 pieces of chocolate," said the native of Japan, who is one of several chocolate makers featured in NET's documentary "Nebraska: The Chocolate Life," which debuts Friday at 8 p.m.

Nama chocolate is most comparable to a chocolate truffle. Rather than a solid shell surrounding the chocolate, a layer of cocoa powder is dusted over the exterior, resulting in a bitter taste that quickly gives way to the sweet chocolate.

"It's very popular in Japan," Takahashi said. "People give it to each other in boxes, and they buy a lot during the winter months."

Takahashi's sugary side hustle began as an experiment. He said he'd started to miss nama-style chocolate while he was living in America and decided to try his hand when he couldn't find it in any of the local stores.

The original batches didn't come out quite right, though.

"They were far too runny and didn't stick together," Takahashi said. "But even when I messed up, I still had chocolate."

Eventually, he struck the right balance between fresh cream and chocolate and was able to start experimenting with different flavors. Nama Choco currently stocks five different flavors at three of The Mill's locations around town: dark chocolate, sea salt, sea salt caramel, raspberry and mint.

"I'm not getting rich or anything, and it's hard to make a lot of money off chocolate outside of the holidays and winter months," said Takahashi, an associate professor of nutrition and health science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. "But it's a nice bit of money, and occasionally I get special orders from customers."

Takahashi has also been experimenting with a matcha flavor, but "it's very hard to strike a balance between the tea flavor and the chocolate."

His chocolates already a hit with friends and family, Takahashi in 2014 set up a booth at the annual Chocolate Lovers Fantasy festival in Lincoln to see what the general public would think of his unique confections.

In his first outing, Takahashi won the Peoples' Choice Award and another award for Most Delectable Chocolate. Nama Choco would repeat as Peoples' Choice Award winner every year until he was invited to be a judge at the festival.

"I always like to see how people react when they bite into it," Takahashi said. "The cocoa powder is bitter, but peoples' eyes always light up when they bite into the chocolate. Their faces just kinda go, 'Woah, I've never had this before.'"

He plans to continue his hobby but isn't planning on getting too invested on the business side of the operation.

"I enjoy doing this," Takahashi said. "It's something easy that I can come in and do whenever I want without having to stress too hard about it."

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7214 or eclopton@journalstar.com.

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City desk intern

2019 city desk intern at the Journal Star

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