Culinary Students Are Carving a Path to Better Jobs Through Ice

Feb 5, 2016

University of Akron alumnus Aaron Costic is a certified master ice carver. “I found this little niche and went in that direction.” 

Costic won the Olympic bronze medal for ice carving in Nagano in 1998, and the gold medal in Torino in 2006.

He owns Elegant Ice Creations of Broadview Heights. “We provide ice carvings for the Greater Cleveland, Akron, Medina area, and we sell tools for ice carvers all over the world.” 

Costic’s team carves for hotels, caterers, and country clubs, as well as private parties.

“Any sort of a football party we do. We make whole bars out of ice. We make luges out of ice.” 

Master ice carver Aaron Costic, a University of Akron alumnus and Olympic ice carving champion, with his "Zippy" sculpture.
Credit JEFFREY HARWELL / University of Akron

And he says he owes his success to the Culinary Arts Program at the University of Akron.

“In ’89, I came here thinking I wanted to be a chef.” 

Inspiration on a loading dock
His thinking started to change the day he heard the whirr of power tools on the back loading dock of Gallucci Hall, and discovered ice sculpting.

“And so I owe Chef Richard Alford a lot for that because he got me going in the right direction. He encouraged me.”  

And many others.

“The University of Akron is very prominent in the ice world,” says Alford.

The associate professor emeritus of the University of Akron Culinary Arts Program is in the Ice Carving Hall of Fame.

From decorative to competitive
Alford also co-founded the National Ice Carving Association and has led his Akron team to many wins over the years at its collegiate championships.

“Ice carving started out in the old days as just a method of keeping food cold on buffets and stuff. And then it became more decorative, and through the National Ice Carving Association it’s become competitive.”

Alford fell in love with the art form almost 40 years ago while teaching at a vocational high school.

“I brought chefs in to teach ice-carving, vegetable carving, tallow, sugar work. It was all part of that workshop. So from then on it became a passion.”  

He still has the passion and still teaches ice carving, but lacks the stamina to do it himself.

“Not any more. You start out with a 300-pound block of ice, and the tools and everything else. But I’m a broken-down old jock. I got bad knees.

From ice to fruit and veggies
Today we find him carving carrots and turnips into lots of little flowers.

“Carrots, turnips,” he says as he looks up from the precision work.  “Anything that’s firm.”

At a table set up in the Student Union atrium, Alford’s showing others how to do it.

Chef Richard Alford helps beginners learn to carve fruit and vegetables at the University of Akron 2016 Ice Fest

“Scoop. Yeah,” he instructs a beginner. “There you go forward. Now turn from this point. Come into the center. Each one of those is a petal, see?”                                                                                          

Fruit and vegetable carving is part of the annual Ice Fest Chef Alford founded about 10 years ago.

It draws lots of spectators.

This is absolutely beautiful,” says Irena Hojfeldt, a donor to the culinary arts program.

“I worked in food for 43 years, and I am really always excited to watch the students work to show their talent, but also to be productive and make something beautiful.” 

Food Network star helps out
Master food carver Stephen Baity, recent winner of the Food Network’s “Cake Wars,” is here to help.

“We’ve got honeydew. We got different kinds of radishes. We got carrots. We got turnips, beets, leeks.”

Chef Baity teaches culinary arts at the University of Mount Union and also has his own business, Graffiti Carving of Alliance, Ohio.

The chef is another grateful University of Akron alum.

Stephan Baity, resident director of culinary services at the University of Mount Union, engraves a melon at The University of Akron Ice Fest. Baity recently won Food Network's “Cake Wars: Christmas” competition.

“I’ve gone through several classes with Chef Dick Alford. And also I’ve come back and I mentor the students.”  

Carving skill provides an edge for job-seekers
The restaurant industry is the nation’s second-largest private sector employer and the National Restaurant Association projects there’ll be 1.7 million jobs by 2025.

But the majority of those jobs won’t pay well.

Ice-carving, says Olympic gold medalist Aaron Costic, can be a way to get ahead more quickly.

Any ice-carver will tell you this: If you put ice carving on, say a resume, it makes you stand out. Even if the job you’re applying for doesn’t require ice carving, it says something about the person, that they’re just a little bit special, a little bit different, that they have some skills that the other people don’t have.” 

Art from ice
Alumni like Chef Baity and Aaron Costic come back every year to help put on the Akron competition. Costic’s company provides the ice, coordinates the judging, and turns Buchtel Commons into a mini ice museum.

Lebron’s image tops an ice throne.  It’s perfect for selfies, but the cold seat Costic carved gets few takers.

“I’ll sit up here,” he says, offering to pose for our camera.  “I got the waterproof pants on.”  

Last Friday’s Ice Fest was a sort of dress-rehearsal for the National Collegiate Ice Carving competition in Frankenmuth, Mich.

Over the weekend the University of Akron took fifth- and sixth-place honors there.  

Fighting the wind
Weather proved problematic both in Akron and Michigan. Forty degrees and high winds tormented Ice Fest contestant Alyson Smith of Green when she couldn’t get a paper template to stick to her ice block.

University of Akron hospitality management technology student Alyson Smith of Green carves a "jackalope" during the university's Ice Fest 2016 competition.
Credit JEFFREY HARWELL / University of Akron

A shot of hot water finally tamed it.

Meanwhile Samantha Schaefer of Ravenna works on a huge block of ice wielding a power tool half her size.

You kind of have to have the right mind set for it, to learn to use a chainsaw and not be freaked out by it I guess helps.”  

Brandon Hartel of Cuyahoga Falls took second-place at the Ice Fest with his “King of Ice” sculpture.

He plans on an ice-carving career.

“I love it personally. Getting to know all the alumni and potentially getting a position somewhere to work. Yeah, it’s a great networking opportunity.” 

Not for credit
Ice carving is not a credit course at the University of Akron. Professor Jamal Fareesta heads the Hospitality Management Program.

“We cannot make it part of the course because a lot depends on the weather at many times. It’s a time-consuming activity. It’s like a hobby, and like a hobby you got to have a special interest to do it.” 

Interested students have formed an ice-carving club that meets a couple times a week. Assistant professor Brad Smith is their coach and tool supplier.

“We have a whole arsenal of tools. We use a chainsaw, chisels, grinders, sanders. We use a household iron. We use a blowtorch.” 

Pricey tools
It would be hard for students to procure their own tools.

“Especially the die grinders. They can be $300-$400, and the bits can be a couple hundred dollars apiece. They’re all specially-made, so it is quite a bit of an investment.

Olympic master carver Aaron Costic won’t deny that using tools that spin at 28,000 revolutions per minute can be dangerous.

“Absolutely. One time I was using a chainsaw and it kicked back, and I have 37 stitches in my neck to show 

All kinds of power tools are needed for ice carving, including chainsaws, chisels, sanders, grinders and blow torches.

for it. It was just a flesh wound. So I’m lucky to be here.” 

Lucky too, he thinks, that he heard the siren call of those power tools on the back loading dock of Gallucci Hall more than 25 years ago.