Banquet chef hits an artistic sweet spot
LOUIS TEMPLADO STAFF WRITER
Chef Takashi Ito eyes two of his watermelon creations, one in support of Japan and the other showing a kabuki actor based on a Sharaku ukiyo-e print. (Louis Templado)Ito carves into a watermelon. (Louis Templado)A detail of the Sharaku watermelon. (Louis Templado)An anime-style depiction of a wedding couple. (Provided by Takashi Ito)A sumo wrestler in traditional pose adorns this watermelon. (Provided by Takashi Ito)Baseball is the theme of this fruit. (Provided by Takashi Ito)A watermelon depiction of a Vincent van Gogh self-portrait. (Provided by Takashi Ito)
What could be more cooling in summer than the sweet flavor of watermelon? Even the sight of one seems to offer just the teeniest hint of relief from the sweltering heat. There is, after all, something so pleasing about the simple shape of this fruit.
But leave it to chef Takashi Ito to take the art of slicing and dicing watermelon one step further. After he gets done, the result is an intricate work of art.
As the supervisor of the banquet kitchens at the Grand Prince Hotel Takanawa in Tokyo's Minato Ward, Ito usually has his hands full preparing hors d'oeuvres for hundreds, even thousands of guests, at a time.
It's one thing to present cube-shaped chunks of watermelon on a plate; and quite another to bring the faces of company presidents and wedding couples to life from the rind.
"Knowing how real to make a likeness is the most challenging part," says Ito, whose website (http://www.geocities.jp/suika_carving/profile.html) showcases part of a decade's worth of watermelon carving.
Many of his designs are for corporations and groups and cannot be shown.
"Men and women have different tastes. A woman will find it uncomfortable if what I carve looks too real. One reason is that the watermelon rind is green, and that makes people look like space aliens. So I have to be careful to make my designs look more playful, more like an anime. Men on the other hand want it to look as real as possible."
"Goosebumps" and "culture shock" is how Ito describes his first encounter with carved watermelons at a Thai cuisine fair held in Tokyo. He determined then and there to buy his own melon and try his hand at it. That was 10 years ago. Over the years he's developed a playful style unique from that found in Thailand--where fruit carving dates back more than 700 years.
"Thai chefs usually prefer to work in the round, but I limit myself to a 250-mm center area, but that brings its own difficulties," says Ito, who counts manga and ukiyo-e among his influences. "The melon is a globe, so like a Mercator projection map, you have to anticipate distortion at the poles."
Ito's melons of choice come from Kumamoto Prefecture, or from Okinawa Prefecture and Hokkaido when those are unavailable. He limits his carving sessions into a single block of one to three hours, beyond which his concentration falters. For his most intricate creations he will first practice on a daikon radish.
The watermelon, he has learned, is an almost perfect fruit for the immensity of a banquet space, thanks to its size, color and long life. Chilled well, a carved melon will keep for a week.
"Japanese and Western cuisine also have a history of decorative carving behind them," says Ito. But flowers carved from carrots, as an example, are just too small to appreciate from a distance. "But a watermelon can capture attention even from across the banquet room. It invites people to approach and then delivers a real surprise when they do."
"When I first started I never imagined I'd end up carving hundreds of watermelons," he adds. "Thinking back, that's the most important thing. No matter how talented or dexterous you are, it doesn't mean much if you don't continue."