“Everyone has seen ice sculptures and cake, but when I show up, the camera phones come out,” said Patrick O’Brien, a local fruit artist. Better known around Fayetteville as The Fruit Carving Ninja, Patrick can transform into art “any vegetable that will hold its shape when cut.” His carvings require three to five hours of work and the results are often so intricate that elements tend to escape a first or even second glance.
“My mother is artistic, but I’ve never had an inclination toward art. I just really love chopping up fruit,” said the humble, yet decorated food competition champion.
A native of Arizona, Patrick came to Fayetteville by way of coaching competitive waterskiing. “I wound up really enjoying North Carolina and I’ve been here for nine years,” he says of the area he calls home with his wife, Amanda and son, Taylor.
McDonald Lumber Company employee by day, Patrick is a burgeoning chef-in-training by night and only a few classes shy of a culinary arts degree from FTCC. In fact, it was after only one class about food presentation that Patrick discovered his talent for carving. “I went home that night and went berserk,” Patrick says of his foray into this head-turning hobby.
In just a year and a half, he has amassed a fan base that is expanding down the east coast. His designs have been featured at carving competitions, bridal expos and the 2014 U.S. Open in Pinehurst. Recently, one of his favorite designs was featured at the US Foods show in Charleston, South Carolina. Patrick was commissioned to create a palm tree, which he turned into an intricate six foot tall interpretation of the South Carolina flag, complete with a working watermelon lantern suspended from the fronds of the tree. Of his propensity to go above and beyond what customers expect, he says, “I just want to make sure people are happy.”
Since Patrick has been awarded a gold and a silver medal by the American Culinary Federation in the North Carolina Sweet Potato Competition last fall, the path to becoming a certified culinarian will be easier, allowing him to bypass a portion of the certification exam, but of his aspirations in the field after graduation, he says, “I mainly just do it for fun. I’ll go where God takes me.”
While his solo business continues to grow with weddings, birthday parties, food shows and corporate events, Patrick also offers classes for individuals or groups interested in learning the basic method of carving fruit. A handy talent for hosts and hostesses to possess in its own rite, “It gives people something to do if I teach a class at a wine party,” he said. While it may seem a daunting hobby, learning to carve fruit can be worth the time investment.
When he, or his designs, are not entertaining partygoers, Patrick caters to a younger crowd: introducing the fruit carving concept to high school culinary arts students at Terry Sanford. He supplies the apples and the students supply the comic relief. He laughed, “Some are really talented. Most of them are okay. A few will be terrible, but they all have fun!” Of the skills required for success, Patrick says, “If you understand how to carve an apple, you have 75 percent of the knowledge I have.”
Sometimes, though, even The Ninja has a mischop. “Late one night, I was nearly finished carving a birthday watermelon for a client and it split right down the middle. Let’s just say I know all of the grocery stores in Fayetteville that stay open all night,” he chuckled, when noting the importance of a melon’s ripeness (a little under), shape (oblong) and color (dark) for optimal carving.
Carving by the Seasons
Watermelon, butternut squash, carrots, apples, leeks, parsnips, zucchini, cantaloupe and daikon radish are some of the seasonal mediums Patrick uses to create breathtaking centerpieces.
“Learning when things are in season has been a huge learning experience,” Patrick says when asked about popular orders. “Some people call and ask for a watermelon for a December wedding, but I can’t do that, and once Halloween hits, pumpkins are gone.”
Naturally, pumpkins are his most popular product in the fall. His designs can take upwards of 5 hours and prices range from $85 to $90, depending on size and intricacy. He begins taking orders as early as September 1st.
Like with watermelons, he fills orders for companies and individuals, receiving requests for everything from company logos to historical figures. He’s always open to suggestions, “but sometimes people don’t know what they want and I can come up with something for them.” Patrick invents many of his own designs, but also looks to the Internet and designs by fellow fruit artists for inspiration.
Unlike a traditional jack-o-lantern, in which a design typically involves hollowing out the center of the gourd, Patrick’s carvings are only on the surface of the pumpkin, so they have the capacity to last longer if proper care is taken to preserve them, which is a selling point in cooler weather.
Last year, Patrick carved a pumpkin for his wife, Amanda, a history teacher at Terry Sanford, in the likeness of Teddy Roosevelt. Teddy, whom she took to school, lasted four weeks and was a great motivator for her students, who were excited to care for the pumpkin. Ensuring carved pumpkins are kept cold and hydrated, easily accomplished with an occasional spray from a water bottle, are the most important factors in their preservation.
While artistic carving in food presentation is a relatively new niche in the food service industry, jack-o-lanterns have been casting a spooky glow since the 1660s. Of British origin, folklore suggests that the custom was derived from mischievous young children carving faces on gourds and using them to frighten neighbors late at night.
Irish immigrants introduced gourd carving to the United States, where the pumpkin was more plentiful, and the rest is spooky history.
One would be hard-pressed to find a more fitting hobby for Patrick, who says of pumpkin carving, “I just really love to freak people out!”