Carving out a niche
Nov./Dec. 2012 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Barbara Arciero
Photos by Matt Salvo
California chef makes his mark as a food sculptor.
More online: Video
Chef Ray Duey specializes in the art of fruit and vegetable carving.
Chef Ray Duey is cutting up in the kitchen. In more ways than one.
"OK," he says, sizing up his audience of two: reporter and photographer. "This will take two minutes and 30 seconds. You have to watch quickly. I can't go slow."
With that, Duey presses a button on his MP3 player, centers a cantaloupe on the cutting board and picks up a knife. His first slice into the melon coincides with the opening notes of the 1958 hit "Johnny B. Goode."
In sync with Chuck Berry's guitar riffs and catchy vocals, Duey's left hand turns the melon clockwise as his right hand guides the tools—knives as well as U- and V-shaped cutters—to shape fruit into flower. Each turn of the melon reveals another layer of orange petals as the rind slips away.
The chef is making what he calls a layered cantaloupe, and the delicate intricacy of his work seems oddly in harmony with the rock 'n' roll that blasts from the speakers.
"Go, Johnny, go, go." As he works, Duey sways his hips and adds a few vocals to the performance—all while maintaining a patter of cooking tips, one-liners and opinions on topics that range from cats to compost.
Then, at the exact moment the last note sounds, he sets down the tools and presents the finished sculpture with a sweep of his hand.
"There you go. A thing of beauty created in, let's see, two minutes and 30 seconds," he says with a laugh. "What a coincidence."
Within the next quarter-hour, Duey will have created a butternut squash vase and filled it with flowers to the beat of the Spanish dance hit "Macarena" and turned both a honeydew and a potato into a rose—the latter with Bette Midler providing musical inspiration. By morning's end, he's also got a complete Christmas scene sitting on the kitchen table.
The honeydew melon is one of chef Ray Duey's favorite items to carve. Watermelon, peppers, carrots and potatoes round out his top five.
Welcome to the world of "Chef Garnish." The culinary artist calls San Joaquin County home, but he's on the road more often than not, teaching the art of fruit and vegetable carving in a style somewhere between classroom instructor and carnival hawker. His audiences number from a few dozen to a few thousand, from amateurs to experts.
"I'm a chef by training, but I use my skills in food presentation to get people excited about food and to unleash the artist that's hidden inside every person on this planet," he says. "There's artistry in every human being, and it's my job to use my skills to unlock those artists and turn them loose."
Duey works his magic at private classes and events such as fairs, festivals and conferences. And when he's not teaching the art, he's creating it for clients across the country.
Duey uses the cut side of a beet to tint a turnip daisy.
The chef frequently makes the 350-mile drive to Los Angeles to carve fruits and vegetables into movie props. He once spent 10 solid hours creating a five-watermelon version of the Last Supper. He and a team of similarly talented individuals have carved Halloween pumpkins for the White House. He says his weirdest creation to date is an avocado grenade, which resulted from a dare at a trade show and took all of 10 seconds to make.
Duey estimates he's made more than 100,000 food sculptures in his career and insists there is no fruit or vegetable that cannot be carved into something dramatic.
The Washington state native says his start with the specialized art form of produce carving was born out of desperation. His boss at the time, a restaurant chef, told the newbie to prepare some garnishes for food trays. Duey said he couldn't do it, and his boss said he'd be fired if he didn't.
Butternut squash vase.
"So I went back and I faked it until I made it," he says. "You fake it until you make it. Everybody does that at least one time in their lives, whether they admit it or not."
That was 28 years ago. And although Duey doesn't remember exactly what he made that day—he says he's sure it's something that by current standards would be considered compostable—he knows it saved his job and helped him carve a niche in the competitive business of food service.
"From those humble beginnings, my fear of trying new adventure became palatable, then became acceptable, then became standard operating procedure, then became fun and now is bordering between passion and obsession," he says.
That obsession carries over into trips to his neighborhood grocery store, the chef says, acknowledging that he sees the items in the produce department from a rather unique perspective.
A kale wreath decorated with bell pepper poinsettias and cucumber holly encircles a pineapple Christmas tree and a candle made from a turnip, daikon radish, orange and bell pepper. An apple luminaria accompanies the display.
"Bell peppers are poinsettias to me," he says. "Potatoes are vibrant red roses. Carrots are intricate butterflies."
Duey's goal—through his classes as well as the instructional DVDs, patterns and manuals he sells—goes well beyond teaching people how to make bumblebees out of olives and frozen peas (although that happens, too).
"When you teach people a skill, it opens up the rest of their lives. Once they gain confidence, there's no limit to what they can do," he says. "If you can teach people to think differently, that's where the creativity comes into play.
"I hope to inspire people to do things they never thought they could do."
Besides, he adds, making food preparation more fun is only going to help people eat healthier, more varied diets.
"Since we're going to have to eat every day of our lives, we might as well enjoy it," he says. "So do it. Do what your mom told you not to do and play with your food. It works for me."
- A few steps turn a red bell pepper into a festive poinsettia.
- Use a Thai knife (or sharp paring knife) to cut the flower's shape.
- U-shaped carving tools or tiny melon ballers create spheres of yellow squash.
- Add a few pieces of squash to each poinsettia flower using toothpicks.
- Spread the completed flowers along a wreath of kale leaves.
'Chef Garnish' in action
You have to see it to believe it. California chef Ray Duey has made more than 100,000 food sculptures in his career and insists there is no fruit or vegetable that cannot be carved into something dramatic.
Watch him prove it in this time-lapse video! Creations include a layered cantaloupe, turnip daisy, butternut squash vase and potato rose.