Appearance and presentation mean everything to Russell Nuff, from how entrees are plated and artistic accents to taking the time to consider every detail and nuance of a table and the surrounding atmosphere.
The Executive Chef at Highland Country Club also knows that some events require an eye-catching centerpiece, a work more show-stopping than a three-tier cake, pastry banquet or special lighting.
Enter ice-sculpting creations, which bring oohs and ahhs from everyone in attendance. This art form comes from only water and the work of the artist’s two often-frozen hands.
“It brings added mood and feeling,” Nuff said. “It’s something people enjoy and remember.”
Indeed, ice sculptures can be a culinary equivalent to New Year’s confetti, adding a euphoric and joyous feeling to guests.
Nuff, the Club’s chef for the past four years, dabbles in ice sculpting himself, but is often too busy directing his 20-member staff at a club with 800 members.
"I do mainly basic sculpting, nothing really elaborate,” said Nuff, a certified chef in American Culinary Foods. When Nuff needs advanced designs he frequently turns to Mike Kowalski, whose work in the Fayetteville area — Holiday Inn Bordeaux, Highland Country Club, Raeford and Hope Mills — is widely known and highly regarded.
Kowalski has created everything from 20-foot ice bridges to Asian-inspired dragons, majestic angels to oversized golf balls. He said he gets a rush of adrenaline each day when he rises to work 12 to 14 hour days in a freezer workshop where the temperature is about 25 degrees.
He has created works for Screen Gems movie studio, one work that included a 100-foot long, 10-foot high slide, a 6-foot tall horse standing on its back legs and more traditional 3-D carving such as angelfish, swans and logos.
“You name it and I’ve carved it,” said Kowalski, a Wilmington resident. “And anything I haven’t done is a challenge that takes up all my attention and focus of the moment.”
“Ski,” as he’s known in the business world, has been sculpting ice for more than a decade. He’s the vice president of the National Ice Carver’s Association, which certifies carvers worldwide.
That training came from Gary Ross. Kowalski, an Air Force veteran, was unhappy in his career as a postal worker. On the side he worked creating sculptures out of concrete, steel and clay. He brought some of his work to Ross, who inspected it and recommended that Kowalski try sculpting ice.
“When he asked me to try something different I wasn’t quite sure what to say,” Kowalski said. “But I was willing to try and basically called in sick for the next three months. When I left the post office, I worked more, made less money and had no benefits, but was happier. Somewhere deep inside I knew it was my calling.”
Kowalski had a two-year apprenticeship with Ross and has also worked with some of the best carvers throughout the nation. He has nearly left his rebellious differences he had to break while being mentored by Ross.
“The biggest early on was how I didn’t research my projects well enough,” he said. “I’ve grown a lot and continue to take artistic chances, I guess you’d have to say.”
Kowalski said he sometimes regrets leaving the Air Force, especially when he sees “how a military family treats one another and takes care of their communities.”
“Fayetteville’s a great example of that,” he said. “I so enjoy coming back to work here and reconnecting. It’s truly amazing how that place wants more for its people and to make the towns and communities around it better.”
Kowalski, who is 43 years old, said ice sculpting creations cost between $225 and $1,800, depending on size and detail. Sculptures generally last about eight hours, though it can vary depending on the size of the sculpture and the temperature of the atmosphere.
But fear not, said the Detroit, Mich., native, the works don’t dissolve like the Wicked Witch from the West. “Ice sculptures begin to look better as they melt,” Kowalski said. “No, they really do last and accent everything a chef, his staff and the wait staff do.”