Jesse Bouchard makes his living as a chef, but he’s becoming famous for his ice carving.
Bouchard, who lives in South Portland and cooks full-time at Piper Shores in Scarborough, will star at center stage Friday night, creating a bar and martini luge from several 300-pound blocks of ice for the annual Flavors of Freeport winter party at the Hilton Garden Inn.
Since the Portland Harbor Hotel introduced its first ice bar nine years ago, ice bars have become hip, high-profile events across Maine.
Ice carving is an ancient art form, but it’s still novel enough that people flock to ice sculptures. There’s enough interest in his craft that Bouchard and others carve year-round.
“They’re popular because the ice is beautiful and you don’t get to see it too much,” he said this week as he prepared blocks of ice for the bar in Freeport. “We’re fortunate in Maine. We have nice, clear water.”
Bouchard, 33, learned his skills while studying culinary arts at Southern Maine Community College. He apprenticed with various chefs and carvers across Maine before beginning his own business, Frozen in Time, six years ago.
It’s strictly a sideline for him, a hobby that he has turned into a healthy part-time business that keeps him busy when he’s not cooking or being a dad.
It may be a stretch – or even cynical – to attribute the popularity of ice bars to winter boredom. Only in Maine would we find it a form of entertainment to stand out in the cold sipping martinis when any sensible soul would step inside.
But there’s no question that part of the ice-bar phenomenon is owed to the idea that people are looking for things to do at this time of the year. The days are beginning to get a little longer and the light a little brighter, and people seem ready to shake off the winter blues and begin the de-hibernation process.
David Koepke of Richmond laughed when asked why he plans to attend the ice bar at the Inn at Brunswick Station next weekend. He and his wife, Carolyn, went last year and had a blast. It was a fun, festive event, he said.
” ‘Tis the season,” Koepke said. “It’s kind of a unique situation that people will stand out in the cold and socialize, and the ice-bar sculpture was really cool.”
Event organizers recognize ice bars’ popularity, and have built fundraising and community-building components into the events. There’s often a DJ or a band, a great spread of food and sometimes an outdoor fire. In Freeport on Friday, an art auction will benefit the local food pantry.
This is the second year that Flavors of Freeport has featured an ice bar.
“In February, we are all at the point of looking to get out of the house and do something different, to get out and do something fun,” said Kelly Edwards, event manager for Freeport USA, which organizes the foodie festivities.
Edwards attended an ice bar at the Portland Harbor Hotel, and brought the idea to Freeport. Friday’s event had sold out by Thursday.
The bar will be set up in the courtyard at the Hilton Garden Inn. Participants will mingle and enjoy cold-weather favorites – food and drink alike.
Bouchard did most of the carving for the ice bar this week in his backyard studio. He planned to set up the bar late Friday afternoon, as temperatures begin to cool.
WORLD-CLASS CARVER FROM MAINE
One of the best-known carvers in the country, if not the world, got his start in Maine. Benjamin Rand, 34, grew up in Casco. He now lives in Florida and carves for Styled Ice out of West Palm Beach, Fla.
Rand began carving as a teenager, while working as a dishwasher at the Migis Lodge on Sebago Lake. A chef at the lodge turned him on to ice carving.
Rand filled a 5-gallon bucket with water and put it in a chest freezer. He then hacked away at it with a screwdriver and a chef’s knife, and fashioned a rough-looking fish.
It wasn’t a marvel, but it was a start.
He took culinary art classes at Lake Region High School in Naples, and apprenticed with chef carvers up and down the East Coast.
At each Winter Olympics, carvers compete in the Olympic Ice Art World Championship. Rand and teammate Aaric Kendall took top honors at the 2010 championship in Vancouver, besting 24 international carvers.
Rand is also the reigning 2012 National Ice Carvers Association champion, which qualifies him to represent the United States at the 2014 Cultural Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
“I guess you could say that I never really expected that I could make a career in ice-carving,” Rand said by phone from sunny Florida. “I knew it was an option, because I knew of other ice-carving businesses pretty early on. But I don’t think I really expected it.”
Rand travels all over the world. He used to work mostly at corporate and other high-dollar events. But lately, more and more people are hiring ice carvers to make ice bars for private parties.
It can cost as little as a few hundred dollars to hire someone to create a basic ice sculpture for a backyard party, he said. Companies routinely spend many thousands of dollars for elaborate carvings that include logos and high-tech lighting.
Either way, Rand understands why people are intrigued. It’s the same reason he filled the 5-gallon bucket all those years ago.
“Everybody always wants to touch the ice. It’s one of those weird things about it,” he said. “People have to touch it, and everybody ends up talking about it. If there’s a cool ice carving at an event, most likely people are going to talk about the ice carving rather than if the silverware was nice.”
A MEDIUM WITH A SHORT SHELF LIFE
Geoffrey Boardman, a culinary arts instructor at SMCC in South Portland, said ice carving has been done for hundreds of years, originating in Japan as a way to decorate food displays.
In North America, ice bars have been popular for 20 years or more. It has been about a decade since they began catching on in Maine.
SMCC has taught ice carving for many years, said chef and culinary arts instructor Moira Rascati. She studied ice carving at the Culinary Institute of America, and shares her skills and knowledge with her students. Chefs with ice-carving skills are more attractive to prospective employers, she said.
Bouchard learned to carve at SMCC as an 18-year-old. He was interested in sculpture when he was younger, and found himself naturally drawn to ice.
He very much sees himself as an artist. He just happens to work in a medium with a short shelf life. An ice bar is a temporary installation, designed with form and function in mind, he said.
Carvers like Bouchard use a variety of hand and power tools, including an electric chain saw, a saw mill, routers, angle grinders, chisels, hand-held irons and even a propane torch.
Many manufacturers have adapted their tools to accommodate ice carvers, Bouchard said, and many specialty tools and bits designed for ice carvers are available online.
The biggest challenge for the Freeport ice bar is the weather. Friday’s forecast calls for temperatures in the mid-40s. Bouchard carved the pieces for the bar this week, working under a shade tent during the day and at night when temperatures cooled. He stored the pieces in a freezer in a large shed in his backyard.
He will delay setting up the bar until late in the afternoon.
“If it were 10 degrees cooler, I would not have to insulate each piece and I would not have to set up so much later in the day,” he said. “I’ll have to do everything at the last minute because of the temperatures, and that can cause breakage.”
But one skill of a good carver is adaptability, he said. “In this business, you have to be able to deal with anything that comes up. The conditions are beyond our control.”
The hardest part of his job?
Muscling 300-pound blocks of ice around. Come showtime, he has to work quickly, which isn’t easy with heavy, slippery blocks of ice.
“It’s definitely a workout,” Bouchard said. “I usually get friends to help on delivery day. They know they’re getting a workout.”
Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at: