BE­HIND THE BLADE

TWO CARVERS-TURNED-CHEFS TRACE THEIR CEL­E­BRATED CA­REER PATHS FROM WORK­ING WITH WOOD TO SCULPT­ING FOOD

F&B World - - SPECIAL FEATURE - Text by AN­GELO COM­STI Pho­tos by PAT MA­TEO Special thanks to THE BELLE­VUE MANILA

Food carv­ing is an art not many are lucky to ex­er­cise, since it re­quires at­ten­tion to de­tail, con­trol, vivid imag­i­na­tion, and tons of pa­tience. For­tu­nately, for many peo­ple in Paete, La­guna, these dis­ci­plines have been in­stilled in them since they were young. It is the carv­ing cap­i­tal of the Philip­pines, after all.

SIM­I­LAR PATHS

Edgar Davac was 10 years old when his fa­ther started get­ting him in­volved in their fam­ily’s wood carv­ing busi­ness. It was a nat­u­ral pro­gres­sion for him to turn it into a liv­ing, like many of his kin. How­ever, when a ban on cut­ting down trees was passed, he had to seek an­other job. Well, Davac didn’t have to look that far. Armed with his un­cle’s tools, he pro­ceeded to an ice plant in Sta. Cruz, bought a whole block of ice, and prac­ticed his craft, this time in a new medium.

At 25, he was hired by Via Mare to do the back­drop for a teach­ers’ con­ven­tion. The job in­volved carv­ing old churches on Sty­ro­foam boards. His bosses rec­og­nized his tal­ent, and so they trans­ferred him to the cold kitchen to carve ice and veg­eta­bles and even­tu­ally do sal­ads and sand­wiches. Not long after, Davac took the op­por­tu­nity to work for a lux­ury cruise—a pro­fes­sion that lasted for 15 years—be­fore he went back home and ap­plied at The Belle­vue Manila, where at 50 years old he con­tin­ues to serve as a kitchen artist.

His col­league, Mel Avino, also a Paete na­tive, had a sim­i­lar ca­reer path. After work­ing as a wood carver, he landed stints at a cou­ple of ho­tels, in­clud­ing Di­a­mond Ho­tel, where he worked in dif­fer­ent de­part­ments, in­clud­ing butch­ery and pas­try. What’s dif­fer­ent about

Avino is that he took his craft to a com­pet­i­tive level. He joined Chefs on Pa­rade, one of the long­est-run­ning cook­ing con­tests in the coun­try, and bested many oth­ers in his di­vi­sion. He bagged gold in the carv­ing cat­e­gories so many times that the or­ga­ni­za­tion awarded him recog­ni­tion in the Hall of Fame. He has gone on to rep­re­sent the coun­try in com­pe­ti­tions abroad, com­ing home with more medals and ac­co­lades to add to his cred­i­bil­ity. Presently, 47-year-old Avino is the sous chef at the same ho­tel Davac works in.

CRAFT AP­PEAL

In Thai­land, fruit carv­ing is used to dec­o­rate the ta­bles of the royal fam­ily. In Ja­pan, the art of food carv­ing is known as muki­mono; de­signs are dis­played on plates as fancy gar­nishes. In China, it adorns feu­dal ban­quets. Such has been the ex­tent of food and ice carv­ing. And though it’s not as ap­par­ent and well cel­e­brated in the Philip­pines, it’s a tal­ent the two carvers-turned-chefs are proud to pos­sess, es­pe­cially since they rep­re­sent their home­town.

“The eyes eat first, so the pre­sen­ta­tion should be nice,” says Davac of the sig­nif­i­cance and rel­e­vance of their craft. “Kahit ano pa ’yan, masarap man o hindi, mata ang unang tu­mi­tikim. If ma­g­a­nda ang pre­sen­ta­tion sa buf­fet, nadadala nu’n ang sarap ng pagkain. Mas gagana­han ka.”

Carv­ing is no easy feat. You need to have an eye for de­tail, steady hands, fo­cus, the abil­ity to scale in your mind, and most of all, “heart and de­ter­mi­na­tion,” says Davac. “Sama­han niyo ng pag­mama­hal para mas ma­g­a­nda ang kalal­abasan niyan. Para mabi­gyan mo ng buhay ang obra mo.”

Choco­late carv­ing in­volves tem­per­a­ture, while bread carv­ing is sim­i­lar to work­ing with wood. Both de­mand cre­ativ­ity and imag­i­na­tion. Ice carv­ing re­quires the most work, the two agree. For one, ice blocks are heavy. “Mahi­rap buhatin. At ka­pag na­bali, kailan­gan mo’ng hab­u­lin,” says Alvino. A heavy blow might crack the piece, or worse, the whole chunk. And even if you want to hack and etch care­fully, you sim­ply can’t, as it melts fast. You are un­der a time crunch. “Sa ice, kailan­gan ng con­trol sa sar­ili mo. Hindi puwe­deng basta bu­mira. You have to con­trol your moves; some­times strong, some­times gen­tle.” And though there are saws and other power equip­ment they can use, both Davac and Avino pre­fer to carve the old-fash­ioned way—chis­els mo­tor­ized by sheer phys­i­cal strength.

CON­TIN­U­ING TRA­DI­TIONS

Con­trary to some re­ports, carv­ing is not dy­ing in the town of Paete. In fact, the youth are in the thick of it now. And it’s an art not re­served solely for the fittest of men. One of the best ice carvers in Paete is a guy named Nel­son Abcede who has just one func­tion­ing hand since birth. There’s also a fe­male carver by the name of

Con­trary to some re­ports, carv­ing

is not dy­ing in the town of Paete. In fact, the youth are in

the thick of it now. And it’s an art not re­served solely for the fittest of men.

Ju­lia Ag­bada who has out­lasted the best of the guys in a com­pe­ti­tion.

The last time Avino com­peted was in 2012. “Hi­rap na ako sa age ko,” he says. “Sa veg­etable and fruits puwede pa na­man. Mata­las pa na­man [ang] isip ko. Likod ko lang sumasakit. Bet­ter na men­tor na lang at mag- train na lang ako.”

In 1997, Avino, along with cousin Eli Baisas, re­vived the Paete Ice Carv­ing Com­pe­ti­tion, which ceased op­er­a­tions in 1994 when the cruise ship kitchen artists who or­ga­nized and founded it stopped fa­cil­i­tat­ing the an­nual event. The event has been re­named the Paete Culi­nary Com­pe­ti­tion. It now in­cludes veg­etable and fruit carv­ing cat­e­gories, and cook­ing as well.

The com­pe­ti­tion has not only be­come a show­case for home­town flair, but also an av­enue for re­cruit­ment man­agers from ho­tels and cruise ships to dis­cover good tal­ent. “This is where they start. Natu­tuto si­lang hu­marap sa tao at to work un­der pres­sure,” says Avino. The win­ners re­ceive a medal, a cer­tifi­cate, and a cash prize, while those who lose and need fur­ther im­prove­ment have a chance to train un­der him.

“Sa carv­ing ako naki­lala. Malaki [ang] nait­u­long nito sa ca­reer ko,” he says. And stag­ing the com­pe­ti­tion is his way of pay­ing it for­ward. His ice carv­ing days may be over, but what he’s sculpt­ing now is some­thing that holds more beauty and value—the fu­ture of his fel­low Paeteños.

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