Stephen Chung’s first attempt at ice sculpture was, if nothing else, ambitious.
It was 1981. He was working at the Westin and passed a fellow chef carving a sculpture out of a gleaming, frosty block. It was the first such sculpting Chung had ever seen; he was struck by its appearance.
“Nice, beautiful, shiny—like a diamond,” he recalls, decades later. “Better than glass or anything. It sucked me in.”
He asked the carver if he could learn, and when he came back a week later, a fresh block was waiting for him. The chef asked him what he wanted to carve.
“I said, ‘I’d like to build an eagle.'” Chung recalls. “He looked at me a little bit funny.”
The chef showed him the basics, how to use the tools and left him alone to work on it, popping by periodically to check in. Five hours of work brought little progress, and eventually, with only a few bird-like vagaries defined out of the block, it ended up back in a freezer, and then at the next day’s buffet table. Its shape was mostly indecipherable to hungry passersby, Chung recalls. But something hooked up from those beginnings.
“Since that time,” he reflects, “I’ve loved to try and try to make it better.”
He has. Now, Chung carves about 50 sculptures a year, frequently has works visible at Ice on Whyte, the Deep Freeze festival as well as often creating works for private events or offering public demonstrations when he’s commissioned. He travels to a couple of worldwide competitions a year: most countries that sit in the northern climate have something like this, with a sculpting circuit spanning the Northern Hemisphere. Being seen at those sorts of competitive events, he notes, is where he pulls many of his private commissions from.
Chung teaches, too—ice sculpture is part of one of NAIT’s culinary classes—but it remains a part-time passion. Chung still pays the bills with chef work, though he seems content to keep sculpting as a hobby.
He sculpts his works either directly on the site they’ll be displayed at, or around his house: in his garage, or in the yard. Temperature of the room the sculpture will be displayed in is one of the largest factors in determining what he’s capable of doing, Chung notes: in outdoor exhibitions, passing that ideal temperature of -10C isn’t so difficult in the colder months. But once the temperature ticks up a few degrees—as with a sculpture placed anywhere indoors for, say, a Christmas party—the nuance quickly begins to liquefy.
“If over one to two degrees [warmer than -10C], they’ll start slowly melting. And if they’re holding on room temperature, they will start to melt in half an hour,” he notes. “And if the design is too small, too fine, it will be gone in the half-hour.”
Thus, Chung has to work with clients to ensure that those sorts of factors are taken into account. Size, too: a standard carving block of ice is 40 inches by nine inches by 20 inches, which will set you back a cool $250. If a design is too big, multiple blocks might be required. If it’s too nuanced, it needs to be altered to display well in the temperature of the room it will perch in.
A piece carved out of a standard-sized block takes Chung an hour to an hour and a half, using the tools of the ice-carving trade—a mix of manual equipment and power tools. Increasingly, he relies on the latter: the power equipment is growing more specialized, meaning chisels, hand-saws and the like are less frequently put to use than chainsaws with special blades, grinders with specific bits for angles and sides.
And after all these decades honing his craft, Chung’s eagle-work has improved considerably.
“After that [first eagle], I carved lots,” he laughs. “I made sure I did lots of practice. Now, no problem—I can close my eyes.”