Randy Finch may wield chisels, chippers, and chainsaws like a seasoned pro, but before becoming a renowned ice sculptor, he was a young Michigan chef in awe of the sculptures created by Master Chef Dan Hugelier at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel in Grand Rapids. Eventually Finch would get to apprentice under Hugelier, which is where he met Derek Maxfield, a man who would become his lifelong friend and business partner.
Fast-forward 20 years and Finch and Maxfield are now experts in their field. They are the co-owners of the successful Grand Rapids-based company Ice Sculptures Ltd. and they're the subject of the new Food Network show Ice Brigade, which follows the two men and their team of ice artists as they make life-sized, interactive sculptures using traditional methods and cutting-edge technology.
Just a few days before Ice Brigade premiered on March 3, Finch chatted with us about the art of ice sculpting and his creative process.
What attracted you to the culinary arts? I was first attracted to the artistic side. As a kid I was interested in design and the way things looked, but I didn't think it would take me anywhere. My dad used to make fun of me for playing with my food, but I understood that you eat with your eyes first. You don't get a second chance to make a first impression.
Was it difficult making the shift from chef to ice sculptor? My knowledge as a chef really helped. I've always been an ice sculptor at heart and I just seemed to be in the right place at the right time. Because I was a chef, I could build ice sculptures specifically geared towards chefs and because of my knowledge, I could break with tradition while breaking ice.
Tell me about your design process. Where do your ideas come from? Sometimes I wake up screaming in the middle of the night and have to start sketching immediately. Other times we turn to the client and their needs first, then the sparks start flying and for whatever reason we say, "How do we make this as difficult as possible?" We're always trying to push the envelope. This year we made a fully-functioning carousel out of ice and a sushi station that featured a dry ice grill. Basically we have a lot of fun and we do things we would have gotten kicked out of high school for. I feel like I haven't worked a day in 20 years.
Is there anything special about the ice you work with? The ice is manufactured to get density down. Traditionally, crystal clear ice is used and it freezes from the bottom to the top to get all of the impurities out. In the U.S., crystal clear ice is the preference, but in other countries white ice is used and I think it has more character and depth. A lot of what we do comes from experimenting with the ice and expanding on pre-conceived notions of what an ice sculpture is.
We're always deconstructing why things are done the way they're done and the Food Network has really allowed us to blow things up. Sometimes it's very stressful to be creating things no one else has. You're literally writing the how-to manual while trying to please clients and meet a deadline.
What do you hope people learn about your craft when they watch Ice Brigade? Ice sculpting is a rare art form and I hope that comes across. If you spark up a chainsaw and start hacking away at a block of ice, you might as well be handing out money because that's how many people will check out a live demonstration—but it's about more than that. Ice sculptures aren't just for Academy Awards afterparties. I want people to see the creative process, how sculptures are made, the tools we use, and I want them to get to know our diverse crew. We may not always get along, but at the end of the day we respect each other and have fun and if viewers see even half of what I see in these people, they'll fall in love with them.
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