Chiseling Away At Randy Finch, Star of the Food Network's Ice Brigade
Randy Finch putting the finishing touches on a frozen craps table
Tonight the Food Network premieres a show about extreme ice sculpting. Perhaps your first question is the same one we had: why does the Food Network have a show about ice sculpting? Sure, you often see ice sculptures surrounded by food, but does that count? It turns out, however, that culinary arts and ice sculpting have a historical connection. Furthermore, the craft is evolving so that sculptures can be more interactive, as opposed to just sitting on buffet tables and looking pretty. Then melting.
We learned all this from Randy Finch, star of Ice Brigade. He and partner Derek Maxfield, along with their crew, are former chefs and extreme ice sculptors who go far beyond the swan, using a combination of sledgehammers, chainsaws, chisels, a CAD system and computerized tools that can slice within 1/10,000th of an inch to design and construct their large-scale pieces. The Brigade has made everything from a working carousel to a DJ booth complete with spinning turntables to a 6-foot hookah to a mini golf course, and recently, it's all been captured on film.
We sat down with Finch yesterday to learn more about how he went from the culinary world to the ice sculpting world. Turn the page.
Squid Ink: How did you get your start as an ice sculptor?
Randy Finch: Derek Maxfield and myself both came up as chefs. We went to culinary school and apprenticed under a master chef, and went through the normal procedures of working in restaurants, going through the hotel brigade system and learning about the different parts of culinary arts.
But it was always the ice sculpting and the garde manger areas that were really fascinating - you know, the cheese platters and carving fruit, and just doing the decorative parts, which we really loved. And ice sculpting was always kind of that rare thing, because even though there's lots of platters to do and lots of food to cook for everybody, there's usually only one or two ice sculptures being done throughout an entire hotel. So you were really lucky if you even got to hang out with the ice sculptors and work with them. So we did a lot of that - we would work with the guys that were doing the ice sculptures when we both came up. We watched them and cleaned their tools and apprenticed with them - to have the ability to learn the art.
It's always been a part of culinary arts. Ice was used to refrigerate food, basically, before we had refrigerators and coolers and things. So when they would put out these big platters and displays and buffets, they would have chunks of ice that they would put the food on. And that slowly evolved to the point where they said, 'Well, if we've got ice out here, we might as well make it look good.'
SI: Is that how that happened?
RF: Yes, it was a functional aspect of this. I've got an article - they made this entire castle and stuff - back in I think 1740. I've got an English magazine published in 1742 that I bought on Ebay -- gotta love Ebay -- so here's this article, and it's all in old English, but it tells the story of these intricate sculpted figures and things. So traditionally that's what it was, but aesthetics became more and more a part of it.
For a period of time that's really what people thought of. It was 'there's the food, and then there's the ice sculpture.' Even though it was on the buffet, which I always thought was kind of funny. A lot of people just assumed the ice sculpture needed to go on the buffet, but they didn't use it for what it was supposed to be for. It lost its functionality at some point, but more and more now it's getting back to that. It's coming full circle.
SI: Like shot luges, for example. Those jump to mind.
RF: Luges, display trays, shrimp towers...
SI: Do you always have function in mind when you're considering the form of your sculptures?
RF: To a certain extent, yeah. That's what the exciting part is. We still do just things that are purely aesthetic, but it's always exciting when we can add the function in. Especially interactivity. We did that with food as chefs - we always incorporated the functionality of food and ice sculpting together, even if it was an aesthetic piece, cold falls, and falls across, so that really chills out the food.
With the Food Network show, we're able to take that not only in the food realm, but functionality, interactivity, with anything. Like, what would be cool to make out of ice that works? That you can touch? It's taking that ice sculpture away from being 'oh, don't touch that ice scuplture, it's fancy.' We want people to touch it. We want it to be interactive. We made a grand piano and people actually played the keys. The keys actually move and play notes. We had a mechanical bull where people actually got on and rode inside of a bar.
[Regarding the hookah] We thought Alice in Wonderland. You've got the caterpillar that smokes and blows out letters and rings and stuff, right? We made an ice caterpillar that blew smoke rings out the mouth.
SI: Do you have an architecture background? Are you the "Rainman" of ice sculpting or have you been trained in some way?
RF: [Laughs] Well, I don't sleep a lot. I mean, I love these things. I wake up in the middle of the night with an idea and I gotta jot it down, and I'm always thinking, trying to design everything I possibly can and predict everything that could go wrong. And if it does, how do we get around it? I've always loved that. I've always been fascinated with puzzles.
Going through high school, my parents wanted me to be an architect, so I did a lot of architectural drafting. But at the same time, in the real world, I was cooking. I was working in restaurants: bus boy, dishwasher, cooking, doing prep cook stuff. So that's what I was doing and that's what I was loving, although I was going to school learning this other stuff. Which on some levels I loved too because I was drawing. It was artistic and I was being creative and learning that problem-solving thing.
This is this first time... this is my ah-ha moment.
SI: Oprah would love that.
RF: It all comes together. Everything I've done is pulled together. Everything - the architecture stuff that I spent time learning in high school -- okay, I didn't finish that off, I never really went anywhere with it, but that helped me in some respects. The culinary definitely because I'm a chef, and I cook. I look at an ice sculpture the way a chef would look at it. Somebody calls me and says, 'I need a caviar station.' I'm like okay, how many condiments, what type, are you going to do bellinis with it? Sour cream? I know what they're looking for. I speak their language.
Ice Brigade premieres tonight at 10:00 p.m. on the Food Network.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Los Angeles dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.