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Culinary talent throughout Western North Carolina gathered to compete in a single-elimination culinary skills recipe and preparation contest during the Fire & Ice Winterfest this past weekend.

Sweet potatoes, pork tenderloin and Chayote squash were among the ingredients given to contestants in the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce’s Star Chef competition.

Area Chefs & restaurants submitted recipes using the star ingredient of sweet potatoes prior to the competition. Recipes were then reviewed by a panel of professional chefs and food critics, and the top four were invited to the Waynesville Inn to prepare and present their culinary masterpiece.

The top two finalists, the Gateway Club & Maggie Valley Club, were selected by a judging panel to compete in a 45-minute star chef cookoff.  Each finalist was given a mystery box of ingredients to prepare their best interpretation of the “Stars of the NC Farms”.

The Gateway Club won the “Top Chef Award” for their braised pork tenderloin with Chayote squash and couscous.

While ice carving may seem like a delicate enterprise — a patient art form executed with a well-aimed chisel and a gentle tap from a tack hammer — it’s anything but.

When six ice carvers faced off at the Fire and Ice winter festival in Waynesville last weekend, they came bearing chainsaws, zip saws, industrial sanders and rotary tools with case upon case of special drill attachments. Their attire alone was a giveaway to the heavy duty nature of their work: full length rubber aprons and safety glasses to guard against flying ice chips and ear muffs to block out the noise from their saws.

Carvers had just three hours to transform a giant block of ice to a sculpture. First place went to Travis Dale, who traveled from Charlotte to compete at the Fire and Ice festival, for his crowd-pleasing, fire breathing dragon.

Professional ice carvers such as Dale revel in free-form competitions where they can afford to get creative. An ice carving displayed at a wedding or banquet has to hold up for hours, retaining its basic form even as it melts, and thus calls for more blockish forms. But in competition, carvers can push the limits of their art form, like the thin towering wings and soaring arched tail of Dale’s dragon.

“This is for the minute. It is built for the spectator,” Dale said.

There’s risk involved when going for the gold, however, and as a result the evening wasn’t without casualties. Gravity got the best of one carver attempting to sculpt a penguin. Both wings ended up in a slushy heap at the base of the statue before it could be judged.

Any ice carver worth his salt has been in similar shoes, Dale said. Sometimes, a broken piece can be reattached by blasting it with “freeze spray” while holding it in place. Ice carvers buy the aerosol cans by the case load.

Dale used the stuff to attach the plume of fire coming out of his dragon’s mouth. As the statue began to melt, the joint would thaw and it would be the first thing to fall, he said.

The festival was Dale’s first crack at a dragon. He came with a life-sized blue print and traced it onto the ice before he started.

Dale was a country club chef by trade when he got into ice carving.

“Working at a country club, we did a lot of weddings and banquets and parties, and you start watching other people do it,” he said.

The Haywood County Chamber of Commerce will host a Western Carolina chef’s competition during the second annual Fire & Ice Winterfest on Jan. 15 at the Waynesville Inn Golf Resort.

The competition, which will be held from 3:30 – 5:30 p.m., will be a single elimination culinary skills recipe and preparation contest.  

Area chefs or restaurants are encouraged to submit recipes using North Carolina grown ingredients and the star ingredient, “Sweet Potatoes.” Entrants may submit an entrée, appetizer, salad or dessert and must feature the Star Ingredient in the preparation. Recipes will be reviewed by a panel of professional chefs and food critics. The top eight and an alternate will be invited to the Waynesville Inn to prepare and present their culinary masterpiece.

The final eight will be given one hour to complete their entry during the Fire & Ice Winterfest in front of a live audience. The top two finalists will be selected by a judging panel of culinary experts and will go head to head in a 45 minute cook off. Each finalist will be given a mystery box of ingredients to prepare their best interpretation of the “Stars of the NC Farms”. The winning chef or restaurant will be awarded the “Top Chef Award” complete with prize money and trophy.

All recipes must be submitted to the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce by no later than 5 p.m. Friday, Jan. 7. The final eight will be notified by phone by Jan. 10. Visit www.fireandicefest.com for additional information or contact the Chamber at 828.456.3021 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for a complete list of rules, regulations, and event information.

Fellow ice carvers Jeff Pennypacker and Cary Shackelford are ever ready to etch out any sculpture that will satisfy their client’s whimsy.

The recently departed holiday season means Pennypacker has carved heaps of reindeers, snowflakes, New Year’s signs, champagne bottles and ice bars.

Meanwhile, Shackelford personalizes sculptures year-round to match each wedding. He has carved an ice castle with Cinderella slippers out front; a runner to recognize a marathon-running bride and groom pair; and even Ganesh, the elephant-headed God, for a Hindu wedding.

Most ice carvers must master flower vases, swans and eagles, as these are wildly popular with clients.

With 20 years of experience under his belt, Shackleford said he can chisel out a vase in a whopping 20 minutes or less.

But Shackelford is a little nervous about having a time limit looming overhead as he takes part in the first competition of his career next week.

Shackleford will be one of six carvers charged with creating the best ice sculpture in under two hours at the first annual Fire & Ice festival in Haywood County.

The competition asks carvers to whittle away the most impressive winter symbol from a huge block of ice.

Only one person can carve, but a helper can assist in moving the block, which can weigh 300 pounds or more.

Ice carving contests are a rarity in this region, which is one of the reasons Pennypacker was excited to get on board and help organize and sponsor the event.

“There’s not a whole lot of competition down this way,” said Pennypacker. “Most of them are up north.

Shackelford already has a sculpture in mind after Google searching “winter symbols” to help brainstorm. He usually gathers photographs and drawings to study before figuring out a plan of attack for each sculpture.

“Planning is the most important part of what we do,” Pennypacker said.

 

The lowdown on carving

Ice carvers utilize chainsaws and chisels, and now, some even use a computer mouse as part of the process.

Computer technology helps by doing basic cutting. But there’s still a lot of human input involved, since carvers do all the shaping and detail work.

On average, it takes Pennypacker two hours to create a sculpture, which itself lasts six to eight hours.

“Sculptures lasts longer than the party,” Shackelford said.

Luckily for the artists, not all is lost if an ice sculpture breaks in the making.

Shackelford can use the snow created when he cuts ice with a chainsaw, along with water, to help repair his work if necessary.

“Some people use liquid nitrogen, which is a little dangerous,” said Shackelford.

A common misconception about ice carving is the idea that one must shiver in a cold room while creating.

“You don’t have to be in the freezer to cut them,” said Shackelford.

In fact, colder temperatures make the job tougher since the ice becomes more brittle.

“You can crack it more easily when it’s cold,” said Shackelford.

Summertime is actually one of the best times to have an ice sculpture, Pennypacker said.

“The more the melt, the more spectacular the ice looks,” said Pennypacker.

For those itching to begin mastering the art, Shackelford has two words familiar to anyone who desires to learn a new trade: “patience” and “practice.”

“Don’t get discouraged if you break it because it will happen,” said Shackelford.

While you don’t have to be a chef to be an ice carver, most ice carvers also use their knife skills at restaurants. But leaving the kitchen to carve up a sculpture is nothing like a chore for Shackelford, an executive chef in Asheville.

“The best part of my job is to carve ice,” said Shackelford. “I don’t do it often enough.”

See Shackelford and five other ice carvers in action from 2 to 4 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 23, at The Waynesville Inn.

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