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Paete, Laguna Is Proof That the Art of Food Carving Is Not Dead

Chef Mel Avino has received multiple awards for his carving masterpieces. Now, at 47, what he’s sculpting is something even more valuable

Photos by Pat Mateo; Special thanks to Bellevue Manila Hotel

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
Mel Avino (in white) and Edgar Davac (in grey)

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, much like many of his kin. However, when a ban on cutting down trees was passed, he had to seek another job. Well, Edgar 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 age 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 and eventually do salads and sandwiches. Not long after that, David took the opportunity to work for a luxury cruise—a profession that lasted for 15 years—before he went back home and applied at Bellevue Hotel, 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 nun ang sarap ng pagkain. Mas gaganahan ka.”

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 had just one functioning hand since birth. There’s also a female carver who has outlasted the best of the guys in a competition

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 nyo ng pagmamahal para mas maganda ang kalalabasan niyan. Para mabigyan mo ng buhay ang obra mo.”

Chocolate carving involves temperature, while bread carving is more like 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 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 pwedeng 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 Alvino 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 had just one functioning hand since birth. There’s also a female carver who has outlasted the best of the guys in a competition.

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

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

In 1997, Alvino, 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 work under pressure,” says Alvino. 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 natulong 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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