Playing with Food: South Toledoan is a master of garnish art

8/24/2013
BY TAHREE LANE
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Food artist Tien Pham carves a flower into a watermelon while working in the Sylvania Country Club kitchen.
Food artist Tien Pham carves a flower into a watermelon while working in the Sylvania Country Club kitchen.

A pile of fruit and vegetables are the raw materials. Eight pencil-sized instruments, mostly razor-sharp knives with short blades, are the tools.

The inspiration?

Tien Pham is mystified about its source, but he loves that it flows through his hands as he carves stunning creations from cucumbers, watermelons, apples, and onions, usually without a template.

PHOTO GALLERY: See more of Pham's creations

“I don’t know where some of these ideas come from. It seems like I was born to do this,” says Mr. Pham, guiding a v-knife down a white vein of a napa cabbage leaf. After sitting in ice water for several minutes, the whittled cabbage opens, looking like a spiky cactus dahlia. “It’s better if I don’t think about it. It just comes to me.”

Here is a man who plays with his food more than he ever did as a child.

Standing at a long stainless steel table in the kitchen of the Sylvania Country Club, where he works occasionally for special events, his eyes are glued to the piece of produce he’s shaping. First, roses into the surface of a watermelon: white petals near the skin grow pinker as he incises the rind and reaches the fruit. He picks up a roma tomato and peels it, winding its skin into a tight rosette. Next are nesting flowers from a Spanish yellow and a red onion. “It’s a totally different way of looking at an onion,” says Mr. Pham, 40.

He discovered garnish art in May, 2012, when a friend asked him to make a basket out of a watermelon for a baby shower. “The handle was carved with hearts and he was able to fill it with what he wanted,” Mr. Pham says.

Another friend wanted a rose carved from a cantaloupe for a Mother’s Day gift. Someone saw the rose and asked for a carved bunny. He posted photos on Facebook and from there, it blossomed.

“I looked on YouTube for videos [showing how to carve produce] and it opened up a whole new world, a whole new way of what a cucumber could look like,” he says. “I was like, man, I want to do this and I want to show everybody!”

Mr. Pham was 7 in 1979 when his family, sponsored by a church, left Vietnam for Toledo. He lives in the South Toledo home he grew up in, with Casey Black and their five children, ages 4 to 13. Carving is a part-time gig. To put food on the table he gets behind the wheel of a produce truck at 2 a.m. for Sam Okun Produce Co., where he can buy produce at cost.

“I’ve always been artistic and creative. I like to draw and sketch,” he says.

Food artist Tien Pham carves a flower out of a head of lettuce.
Food artist Tien Pham carves a flower out of a head of lettuce.

He considered working as an illustrator, doing airbrush painting, and tattoos, but it wasn’t until he discovered what is said to be an ancient art originating in Thailand that he got excited. It was frustrating at first, he says, doing fine-detail cuts with his “big fat fingers.”

It can take two to four hours to make a bouquet or centerpiece, for which he usually charges $50 to $100. He’s carved parrots, turtles, a soccer ball, a drum set, a pig, a nativity scene, and fruit to look like a birthday cake. And he’s learned some tricks, such as spraying lemon water on cut apples to prevent them from turning brown, and extending a carved melon’s “shelf life” to a week by wrapping it snugly in plastic wrap, keeping it refrigerated, unwrapping for a cold-water immersion every day, and rewrapping.

His favorite veggies? Cukes and carrots because he knows how to turn each into more than a dozen different flowers. “To make something as simple as a cuke into a work of art is a joy.”

Contact Tahree Lane at tlane@theblade.com or 419-724-6075.