Ice Sculptor Has Cut Himself A Niche In The Market

Former Chef Has Got New Career Down Cold

December 26, 1990|By Angela Gambill | Angela Gambill,Staff writer

The ice man sculpteth.

At daybreak, Robert J. Roberts hauls a 200-pound chunk of ice onto a rotting wooden porch and prepares to do battle.

He revs up the electric chain saw, dons waterproof gloves and begins to edge out his fragile artwork -- reindeer and leprechauns, ships and lovers and swans.

Traffic zooms up and down Baltimore-Annapolis Boulevard, past Roberts' Glen Burnie ice shop. Roberts doesn't notice. He's far away, somewhere down in the dimensions of the ice, nipping and cutting and carving.

On this cold and sunny morning, the young entrepreneur is turning a hunk of ice into a graceful Russian castle.

He's already scratched the design into the ice. As he begins to remove large chunks with the chain saw, Roberts tells how he walked into his icy career through the kitchen door.

After a decade as a chef in fine hotels, he'd picked up enough experience sculpting ice centerpieces for dinners and parties to open his own business.

HOT ICE, he calls the business. Cold, hard, crystalline ice-works cost $125 to $1,500.

The 32-year-old slim and bearded redhead who "couldn't draw a stick figure" in high school won a silver ribbon at a Baltimore sculpting contest this month.

He puts the chain saw down to show off his domain, talking fast and bouncing on his feet a little.

There's the ice room, where he works his fragile medium. Inside, it's dark, and about 10 degrees -- cold enough to numb the fingers in five seconds. He wears gloves dipped in silicone, but still the water gets through, he laments.

"Once your hands get wet, forget it. They freeze," he says.

Outside, on the long porch where he's sculpting, a sign announces, "Keep Off Platform." Roberts does much of the work here, even on sunny days when the temperature hits the 90s. Only intricate details -- such as features in human faces -- melt too quickly and must be finished inside.

Light shimmers through the ice. The chain saw buzzes. Roberts bends to his task, talking on.

"I read a book a while ago about using the right side of your brain, the creative side. When I do ice sculpting, there could be a bomb go of and I wouldn't hear it.

"I've done about 1,000 marlins in the last 10 years," he says. "They're the biggest seller for raw bars. You can knock them out fast when you know every single cut."

Roberts graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in New York in 1981 before becoming a chef, then worked in large hotels. Along the way, he made some simple hotel centerpieces, fish and birds.

One day he read an article in a culinary magazine about James Nadeau's, a Chicago company that produces 250 sculptures a week.

"I read this guy was making $100,000 a year carving ice, and I thought, 'What does this guy have that I don't have?' " (He's since made friends with Nadeau, whom he calls monthly for advice and suggestions, he adds.) The chain saw cuts on, clean, quick cuts, and a two-dimensional castle becomes visible. Fragments of ice hit the dock. Roberts talks on.

A year before he left the restaurant business, he'd incorporated his ice work and started doing advance sales.

"It was rough at first," he says. "No one ever showed me anything about sculpting."

The first year, the typical response was, "Hot what? Forget it."

Business improved when he picked up some big customers, such as Ridgewells, the largest catering company in Washington, which handles presidential inaugurations and the Kennedy Center.

"I was persistent. I called and called, went in, talked." But his experience as a hotel chef gave him the "in" of knowing what the chefs need and want.

He interrupts himself with bits of ice trivia: Ice sculpting started in the Orient, and it's big in Chicago.

"There are lots of outside cold winter things," Roberts explains. In one Wisconsin contest, teams compete with huge chunks of ice they cut from a lake.

He bounces on his feet a little more. "I want to go soooo bad this year.

We'll see what happens."

The ice beneath his hands begins to take recognizable shape. It's a fairy-castle in the rough.

"I boast to my customers that we can reproduce anything out of ice," Roberts says.

He shows off a book of snapshots of his creations: a sailboat, a sea horse, a "Miami Vice" speedboat, a mermaid, an IBM computer; a concrete dump truck ordered by a Maryland contractor, a replica of a DC-9 jet.

Holiday sculptures include Easter baskets, reindeer, leprechauns. There are trains, a swan resting on a harp (30 feet high), doves kissing, heart-shaped wreaths.

There's a big Russian castle, 2,500 pounds of carved ice. That's the biggest he's ever done, and it went for $1,500, he says.

More than the grace of the sculptures, however, hotels and businesses want service, Roberts says.

This he gives, he says. "Whatever they want, we'll do. We'll decorate with flowers or put seafood around a sculpture. I've gone back and helped the cook, after I set up a sculpture, when they were behind in the work and needed to be bailed out."

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