Sugar sculptures: Chef designs 'glass' creations with painstaking skill

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David Watson gives new meaning to the term "eye candy."

The Brookline resident and chef instructor for baking and patisserie at the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute in Pittsburgh makes intricate sugar sculptures for exhibits, banquets and weddings.

"In my creations, I use isomalt, a sugar that's reconstructed to resist crystallization and absorption of humidity," Mr. Watson explained.

His career has included stints as pastry chef of the Duquesne Club in Pittsburgh, pastry cook at the MGM Grand and Hilton hotels in Las Vegas, and assistant pastry chef at the Houston Hyatt.

Even with reconstituted sugar, the shelf life of his sculptures in high-humidity months such as July and August, is as little as two days. In the drier winter months, the sculptures of everything from lions, birds and humans to fruit, baskets and buildings can last up to a month.

"If you can think of an image, you can create it in sugar," Mr. Watson said.

The pieces are usually 24 to 36 inches by 18 to 20 inches. Costs are $200 to $500, depending on the intricacy of the design.

A frequenter of museums and galleries, Mr. Watson pays close attention the art he sees and considers proportion, color combination, structure and space as the essential elements in his own work.

"In my sculpture, empty areas or what's not there are just as important as what's there," he said.

Last year, Mr. Watson, a winner of seven gold medals for his sugar sculptures, visited Phipps Conservatory three times to study the installations of glass artist Dale Chihuly, whose works were on display among Phipps' gardens.

"Glass art is similar to sugar sculpture in that the creations of both can be blown, pulled and cast," he said. "Often when I finish a piece, it looks like glass. In fact, if someone didn't tell you a piece was sugar art, you wouldn't notice a difference."

Like glass, sugar sculptures are very fragile and have to be carried and transported with the utmost care. For a recent work, a penguin-themed display for the National Aviary's annual fundraiser, Mr. Watson transported the delicate sculpture from Downtown Pittsburgh to the North Side on cushioned quilts. He also made sure the van driver went very slow with his flashers on and avoided potholes and other bumps in the road.

To make his sculptures, Mr. Watson cooks the sugar to 340 degrees Fahrenheit. When the temperature reaches roughly 290 degrees, he adds the colors and lets them boil into the mix.

"I always start my color palette with light pastels," he said. "I don't want to begin with bold, in-your-face colors. You can always add more color to the mix, but you can't take them out."

After the mixtures reach the maximum temperature, he pours the material onto an oiled marble slab and lets it cool to the point where he can work it by hand.

A sugar sculptor for at least half his 33-year culinary career, Mr. Watson got his inspiration for the art form while attending a food show in 1986 where he saw the sugar art of John Echard.

"I literally begged him to let me take lessons from him," he said. "After attending a week of formal training with him, we became friends and made sugar art together for 10 years."

The sugar sculptor also has studied with Ewald Notter, considered one of the best sugar sculptors in the world by his peers, at his School of Pastry Arts in Orlando, Fla.

Since then, Mr. Watson has been teaching sugar sculpture in his pastry classes at the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute and in private, eight-hour sessions in which he tries to cover every aspect of sugar art and have his students make a take-home sugary centerpiece.

With seven gold medals won at competitions staged by the American Culinary Federation and winner of the Best Centerpiece Award of the 2004 competition in New York, Mr. Watson continues to show his sugar art locally, including at Pittsburgh's gallery crawls in the Cultural District.

After each display, the sugar sculptures are just thrown away.

"They're just not recyclable," Mr. Watson explained.

Freelance writer Dave Zuchowski can be reached in care of .


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