Summit Right Brain: Chef Steve Nguyen keeps art of traditional ice carving alive at Keystone
January 7, 2016
Armed with a disk grinder, Steve Nguyen, executive chef of hospitality at Keystone Resort, put a few finishing touches on one of Santa's reindeer on Monday, Dec. 21. 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.
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 rewarded him for his hard work by putting him in charge of the displays set up throughout the resort eight years ago.
With the advent of machines that can create carvings from models put into a computer, he takes pride in the fact that all of Keystone's displays are all done by hand. Nguyen wants to continue to keep that tradition alive, and the knowledge is passed down from chef to chef every year at Keystone to assure the skill continues into the future. Each winter, interested students from the Colorado Mountain College culinary apprenticeship program can take a five-week course on the subject, as well as chefs employed at the resort. 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. Smith, who learned under Nguyen, has been working with ice sculptures for seven years now. 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 from Dec. 19 to Dec. 21 and will be on display well through the new year in front of the Edgewater Cafe in Lakeside Village. See Smith and the students in action this weekend from Dec. 27-28 in River Run, creating a New Year's peace, love and happiness display complete with ice flowers.
Summit Daily News: 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: 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.
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SN: Ice carvings have been part of the Keystone 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. This piece is in placed in front of the Edgewater Café by the Keystone Lake. … We will also have several other ice carving displays throughout Keystone resort this winter. The majority of these ice carvings will be done in the River Run village, so keep your eyes open as you walk to the gondola.
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. He took me under his wing and showed me everything he knew about ice carving. 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. The design will come out exactly like the logo on the computer. This takes the human part of ice carving out of the art. It is very difficult for an ice carver to compete with the machine that can do logos in minutes and are completely perfect. On the flip side, these machines can't go outside and create a 30,000 pound, life-size sleigh and reindeer. Large displays aren't done that often and are usually done in the winter when it is cold and the display can last for a longer period of time. Most ice carvings are smaller one block carvings that are done of company logos for banquet receptions, special events or awards dinners. This means the majority of the ice carvings needed can be done by machine which requires no ice carving skills, but more computers skills, and this is why ice carving is becoming a dying art by man.
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.
SDN: What is your inspiration behind the sculptures?
SN: My inspiration is to create something that is going to make people happy and want to take their picture with it. We call this "fridge time" because our guests will take pictures with their friends and family, and, when they get home, these pictures end up on the fridge reminding them of the memories of their trip they had to Keystone. This is one of the best feelings, knowing our ice carvings have made a family happy and they admired your work. This is what inspires me to want to become better and to teach others around me about this unique art.
SDN: How long have you lived in Summit, and what other hobbies do you have?
SN: I have lived in Summit County for 16 years now. I grew up in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, and I am one of very few people who can say they are a native of this awesome state. When I am not in the kitchen cooking or outside ice carving, I spend time with my wife Araceli and our 1-year-old son Nico. We are all avid Broncos fans and cheer our team on every week religiously. I have a third degree black belt in taekwondo, so I try to go to the dojo whenever I can. I like to mountain bike, hike and occasionally get out on the mountain to make some turns on my snowboard.
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