Pumpkins carved to the extreme

James Parker has a way with pumpkins. Each fall, he sculpts autumnal orbs into exquisite, scary works of art.

Your average jack-o’-lanterns they’re not. Chiseled in dazzling detail, the pumpkin heads come with noses, cheekbones and deep-set eyes so realistic, you can’t help but be just a little bit creeped out when you look into them.

“You have to understand human anatomy and the muscular structure of a person’s face,” Mr. Parker says of his handiwork, which has been displayed at the White House during Halloween and other celebrations. Often times that means pulling out a mirror so he can study the reflections and lines in his face before copying a likeness onto the pumpkin’s meaty flesh.

A leading talent in the world of fruit- and vegetable-carving (yep, that’s a thing), the former chef who lives in the Washington, D.C., area has demonstrated his craft many times on The Food Network. He’s also won numerous medals and awards at carving events and food shows, including those sponsored by the American Culinary Federation, the nation’s largest chef’s organization.

A native of Seoul, South Korea, Mr. Parker moved to the U.S. at age 5. He earned his culinary degree in 1991 at the Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport and cut his culinary teeth at  two large D.C.-area hotels, including Sheraton Washington Hotel (now the Washington Marriott Wardman Park) and the Ritz Carlton in Tyson’s Corner, Va.

It was at the Ritz he started honing his sculpting skills, learning to carve everything from cheese, sugar, chocolate and pasta into intricate works of art. Fruits and veggies also served as his artist’s canvas. 

“I found I loved doing buffet decorating and table art,” he says.

In 1998, while working as sous chef at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center near the White House, he had an idea. So many people had a growing interest in creating food garnishes but lacked the time, vision and know-how to do it themselves — Why not launch some sort of ready-to-use garnish company?

In 2001, he founded Veggy Art, a D.C.-based business that specializes in creating decorative centerpieces and garnishes. It proved so popular he now has students from all over the world, and a client list that includes colleges, hotels and parks across the country. Earlier this month Giant Eagle hired him to create a display for the grand opening of a Market District in Carmel, Ind. 

He also heads The Food Artists Group, about 30 internationally acclaimed celebrity food artists who create extreme food art for corporate marketing/adverising, demonstrations and other special events. They include Greg Butauski of Rock on Ice of Subury, Ohio, who earlier this month did a pumpkin sculpting demonstration at Market District Settlers Ridge in Robinson.

“We do it all,” says Mr. Parker. “Any edible medium can be turned to art.”


Forget the jagged carving knives most of us use to cut triangular eyes and toothy grins into the smoothest side of the pumpkin — They’re for amateurs. Mr. Parker uses sturdy clay-modeling tools and gadgets you might find in a contractor’s bucket to slowly excavate the excess flesh, one careful scrape at a time.  A surform plane for scraping drywall is a favorite tool for sculpting pumpkins, along with a Scotch Brite 3M scrubber, used like sandpaper at the end for a final polish.

The first step is choosing a pumpkin. The best are odd-shaped. It also should look heavy for its size and come with a dark-colored stem. 

Mr. Butauski begins with the outer-most part of the imagined sculpture — the nose and forehead. Using a metal loop tool, he gently trims away thin ribbons of orange rind, one wispy shard at a time. As he scrapes, he makes a face into a small hand mirror so he knows where to place the brow; it also helps guide where to place the nose, which is carved from a square he cuts out of the back of the pumpkin and is super glued smack in the middle of the pumpkin’s “face”..

“Your major point of reference is the tip of the nose, so everything is defined and pushed back by that,” he explains. 

After carving the nose, he has to decide what kind of face he’d like. He goes with goofy-scary (think Victor Hugo’s Quasimodo), hollowing out one eye socket under an arched brow and carving the other shut. The mouth is a growl.

One novice sculpting mistake is to push in the eyes. “They’re actually balls in your head and really round,” he says. 

You also don’t want to cut too deep, because the more skin you carve away, the more flesh is exposed and the quicker the pumpkin rots.

“It takes practice and vision,” says Mr. Butauski, who once sculpted a 1,200-pound pumpkin on the spot at a zoo. It featured a gorilla on one side and a snake on the other.

He constantly checks the mirror for reference. The tighter the space, the small the loop tool to create shadows, crevices and intricate detail.  Careful attention is taken so, like a real face, the result isn’t too symmetrical.

After the face takes shape, seams have to be meticulously blended away. A quick rub-down with bleach water helps stave off the inevitable mold; covering the pumpkin in a damp paper towel or plastic bag and then refrigerating it also helps extend shelf life. A thin coat of Vaseline keeps it shiny.

Culinary artists such as Mr. Butauski typically spend anywhere from 45 minutes to 2 hours sculpting a pumpkin. Prices start at about $150, depending on size and design. 

When he graduated from culinary school in 1991, Mr. Parker says his only choice was to be a chef. No longer.

Not only do many grads go on to specialize in food sculpture, but painters, sculptors and other artists are also beginning to migrate to the food scene.

“It’s the merging of two fields,” Mr. Parker says, “with each challenging the other to be better.”

 Gretchen McKay: gmckay@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.


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