Steven Nguyen, Executive Chef of Hospitality for the Dillon, Colo., resort, keeps the tradition of ice sculpting alive every winter.
Armed with a disk grinder, Steve Nguyen, Executive Chef of Hospitality at Keystone Resort in Dillon, Co., put a few finishing touches on one of Santa’s reindeer. As mist swirled around the ice sculpture, he gave the student who had formed the creation a few hints on how to touch it up. From formless blocks of ice into intricate pieces of artwork, the 30,000-pound display of Santa’s sleigh with all of his reindeer was coming together, the Frisco, Colo.-based Summit Daily News reported.
Nguyen has been creating ice sculptures for the last 13 years. After an apprenticeship that lasted five years, he continued to study the art and practice making the frozen creations each winter. Keystone Resort rewarded him for his hard work by putting him in charge of the displays set up throughout the resort eight years ago, News reported.
With the advent of machines that can create carvings from models put into a computer, Nguyen takes pride in the fact that all of Keystone’s displays are done by hand. He wants to keep that tradition alive, so the knowledge is passed down from chef to chef every year at Keystone. Each winter, interested students from the Colorado Mountain College culinary apprenticeship program as well as chefs at the resort, can take a five-week course on ice sculpting. This year, Nguyen said there are five culinary students and three sous chefs from the Conference Center learning how to sculpt under the instruction of Stefan Smith, who just took over the teaching role in August after Nguyen’s promotion to executive chef of hospitality. The course starts with a cactus, Nguyen said, to learn the basics, and as skills develop, the work becomes more intricate. The largest display on the resort, the sleigh and Santa’s reindeer, was carved in three days by Smith and the students and will be on display well through the new year in front of the Edgewater Cafe in Lakeside Village, News reported.
Heather Jarvis of News recently sat down with Chef Nguyen to ask him a few questions about his changing role at Keystone Resort to his ice sculpting process.
Summit Daily News (SND): You were recently promoted from executive chef at the Conference Center to executive chef of Keystone hospitality. How has life changed for you since that switch?
Steve Nguyen (SN): My day-to-day is definitely much different. I am not cooking in the kitchen as much as I used to, and I have many more meetings than I did in the past. My time is spread out between the six restaurants and the conference center. My focus went from overseeing one outlet to seven. I work with an awesome bunch of chefs (who) make my job very enjoyable. One of the biggest changes is moving out of the banquet world and getting back into the restaurants. It has been a lot of fun working with the chefs developing their new menus for the winter and starting to see them come to reality as we roll them out. It is very rewarding being part of such a great mix of restaurants and a conference center where all the chefs and cooks are so passionate and incredibly talented. It keeps me on my toes and makes me work to be better every day.
SDN: Tell us a little about the ice carvings.
SN: Ice carvings have been part of the Keystone Resort winter tradition for over two decades. The resort has been very fortunate to keep finding executive chefs who have this talent to do ice carvings. The sleigh and reindeer have been an annual ice carving for almost 25 years now. This carving consists of over 30,000 pounds of solid ice that is carved into a life-size feature that has all nine of Santa’s reindeer and a sleigh that guests can sit in and take pictures.
SDN: How did you first get into ice carvings, and what kind of training might someone need to be able to do this?
SN: I started ice carving 13 years ago. I was an apprentice under executive chef Joe Damonte. I apprenticed under him for five years before I was able to do my own ice carving that I got paid for. I was very fortunate to be able to work with several other great ice carvers from around Colorado. With their help, coupled with doing a lot of reading and watching videos on my own, I began to understand and have the knowledge needed to do this art. The real training is really experience. You can read and watch videos all day, but, to truly understand this art and to become good, you have to do it over and over again. This art is different than any other, as you are dealing with frozen water that eventually melts, so time and temperature are your two major factors, which can change everything in a matter of minutes depending on conditions.
SDN: You were quoted in 2011 saying ice carvings are “a dying art by man, which is being overtaken by machine.” Can you elaborate on this?
SN: All of our Keystone ice carvings continue to be proudly done by hand, and we intend to keep doing so. With today’s technology, there are machines ran by computers that will take an image and laser carve it into the ice in a matter of minutes. This takes the human part of ice carving out of the art. On the flip side, these machines can’t go outside and create a 30,000 pound, life-size sleigh and reindeer.
At Keystone, we do everything by hand, and it is all carved by our cooks and chefs. We have had a traditional culture of teaching new chefs how to carve ice through apprenticing under the executive chef. We teach the culinary students how to ice carve through a five-week class creating basic sculptures. These range from a cactus, angel fish, reindeer, to flowers to a final project where the students get to do a carving of their choice demonstrating specific carving techniques that the teacher specifies.