Chocolate and a bittersweet goodbye

Few things have connotations that span the divine and the sinful. Chocolate is one of those things. Its wide array of uses range from the culinary to the medicinal, but for Chef Vern Wolfram, chocolate is just plain fun.

After hosting dozens of chocolate presentations at the UAA Bookstore over the years, Wolfram’s next, and likely his last, will be bittersweet. He’ll be retiring this May after two decades of teaching in the university’s culinary arts program.

Even after all these years, Wolfram still hasn’t lost his affection for the job.

“I love what I do,” Wolfram said.

In 21 years, Wolfram thinks he’s only taken off about a week of sick leave. He teaches the beginner baking class and has had plenty of early mornings. As his wife tells him, anyone who can get up at 4:30 every morning and get to work on time must love their job.

Chef Vern Wolfram holds two slabs of chocolate, one in each hand. After 21 years of teaching at the University of Alaska Anchorage’s culinary arts program, Wolfram will be retiring in May. Photo credit: Young Kim

Wolfram’s upcoming presentation on Nov. 9 will touch on everything from types of chocolate to their properties and chemistry. Along with his student assistants, Wolfram will perform demonstrations while letting the audience sample their way through the discussion.

“We have a lot of things to taste,” Wolfram said.

He likes to keep the presentation informal, so Wolfram spends a lot of time interacting with the audience. They only have an hour to present, so he tries to pack in as much as possible.

Past events have included demonstrations on cookies, truffles and chocolate masks. The presentation is usually catered toward a theme depending on the time of year, which might relate to Easter or Valentine’s Day.

“You’re experiencing this visually, you’re listening, you’re eating. You know, it’s quite entertaining. Chef Vern is wonderful,” Rachel Epstein, special events coordinator for the Bookstore, said.

Epstein was there for Wolfram’s first chocolate demonstration on Nov. 14, 1996. For this particular presentation, Wolfram was pouring melted chocolate onto inflated balloons so it would set and the balloon could eventually be popped, leaving a thin chocolate layer.

Unfortunately, one of the balloons exploded, showering the area with chocolate. This was before the Bookstore had a second story available for events, so the floor and any nearby merchandise suddenly became chocolate-covered.

“He didn’t think we’d ever let him come back, you know, it was so funny,” Epstein said.

Despite the rough start, the demonstration became a popular fixture of Bookstore events and Wolfram said they typically present to a full house.

While it might be the last time Wolfram makes the trek from Cuddy Hall to the Bookstore with his students, their carts and trays loaded with chocolates and supplies, he has fond memories of past events and former students.

“I can’t remember all the times I’ve been over there, but I do remember most of them,” Wolfram said.

Epstein always looks forward to Wolfram’s demonstrations and will be sad to see him go.

“I’ve never been disappointed, let’s put it that way, and I’ve seen it so many times,” Epstein said.

Wolfram plans on spending the first part of his retirement traveling with his wife and visiting his grandkids.

The event is free and open to the public. It will run from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 9, in the Bookstore Loft.