"I love the smell of WD-40 in the morning," says chef Dean Murray, lubing an electric chainsaw in a cold Western Culinary Institute kitchen.
He grins and revs the saw, then jams it into a 300-pound block of ice, issuing an arterial stream of frozen dust. The dust liquefies mid-air, falling to the kitchen floor like rain.
There are several hulking ice blocks in the downtown Portland kitchen for the monthly Bleu Chippers meeting. The ice-carving club, led by WCI garde manger (pantry and cold-food prep) teacher Murray and open only to WCI students in good academic standing, specializes in evaporating artistry. "I think in 3-D," says Murray. "I know there's a dolphin in that ice somewhere."
The Chippers, from first-year culinary and pastry chefs to older hospitality students, are using chainsaws, blowtorches, picks, drills and grinders to create a swan, a bear, an abstract vodka luge (drink channel) and an angel—all for WCI-related events and practice. Their tool display looks more fitting for Guantánamo than a kitchen.
The six Chippers work fast. In the two hours it takes me to hand-carve a small punchbowl/Devo hat with chisels and gougers, they've completed the preliminary shape carving on the 300-pound blocks.
Chopping isn't easy. The chainsaw jerks when it enters the ice. My face is sprayed with frozen slush. Chunks of ice crash to the floor. You wonder if the sculptures are ever garnished by gory finger food.
"I used to pass out when I saw blood—not anymore," says Murray. "The grinder is the common cause of injury: You can catch your fingers. I haven't had to send anybody to the doctor yet—no tendons cut. I've had more serious injuries from knives than chainsaws."
Murray saws into the ice bear, adding facial features, fur and dimension. He's a pro, having recently won a silver medal in the international Ice Magic carving competition in Alberta, Canada, for carvings of Spider-Man, Batman and Superman.
Ice sculpting is relatively obscure in our moderate climate, but frigid states throughout the Midwest and Alaska and countries like Switzerland and Canada are hardcore—there, it's a serious sport. Competition is grueling, and judging is intense. "In the competitive ranks, they have scales," Murray says. "A human figure is seven heads tall. A head is five eyes wide. You have to nail it or the judges nail you."
And sculpting isn't just about schmaltzy wedding-reception swans and angels, either. Quebec's famed Ice Hotel is built entirely of ice—club, bar, hotel rooms, bar stools and all. Murray himself has constructed ice bars for various clubs in town, including an octagonal, luge-equipped bar for Safari Showclub. He delights in goofball carving—an ice lawn chair (for a WW Summer Guide cover back in 2003) or a beer mug—and he keeps it fairly clean. "People ask me to do luges that are adult-themed. I'd never do in front of students," he says. "But I've been asked."
Even as we talk about creative carving, student Byron Yale shapes a (you guessed it) swan. It seems people will forever pay $200 to $350 for heart-necked waterfoul. "People who carve for a living produce 10 to 15 swans in a week. You just can't get away from it," says Murray. Luckily for him, sculpting in academia means fewer swans.
We're nearly ankle-deep in standing water as the chainsaws fall silent four hours later. There's strange elegance to a bear tipping a honey pot that would be lost if it weren't carved into ice. "Part of the beauty of ice is that it's translucent," says Murray. "Ice sculptures don't stay around. I don't have to look at my work for long, at my inexperience. I can always carve something new."
An ice luge is the perfect way to class up a swift drunkening. Here's how to do it:
1. Get an ice block. Koldkist Beverage Ice (909 N Columbia Blvd., 285-2800, koldkist.com) offers ultra-filtered, transparent blocks of various sizes and prices (rectangular 300-pound blocks are in the $50 range, call ahead). If you have access to a walk-in freezer, by all means use it.
2. Let the ice start dripping before carving.
3. Start hacking. Go modern with a blunt-tipped drill or a small handsaw, or keep it old-school with chisels or leatherworking tools. Don't be a dumbass: Chainsaws, no matter how cool, are not recommended for amateurs. And ice is wet—don't get electrocuted. Use ground-fault circuits. Carve a path across the face of the ice, from top to bottom. The path should be about a quarter-inch deep and wide. It can have as many curves as you like, as long as it doesn't slope upward. Make a wider groove at the top (for pouring) and bottom (for slop-free gulping).
4. Prop it up. Securely elevate the luge and let gravity go to work.
5. Add ambience by hitting it with some colored lighting.
6. Drink up. Vodka, Jägermeister and other best-served-cold drinks work well. But word to the wise: Liquor melts ice. Sticking the booze in the freezer beforehand will make the luge last longer.
The Bleu Chippers meet once a month, usually on the last Saturday, at Western Culinary Institute. They do not usually do commissioned work, although they make rare exceptions.