By Frank Sabatini Jr. / Photos by Jeff "Turbo" Corrigan
A master of the ancient Thai art Kae-Sa-Luk (ornate carving of fruits and vegetables), Guido Michael knows carving potatoes is the easiest, carrots are the trickiest, and melons could be the key to his setting a Guinness World Record for tallest food sculpture.
Before moving to San Diego from Hershey, Pennsylvania, the chefturned-culinary-artist stacked 32 watermelons to build a 20-foot vegetal goliath for the grand opening of a farmers market. The piece spelled out the name of his hometown amid elaborate floral engravings, and took Michael and four assistant chefs two days to complete.
"I essentially broke the Guinness record, which is 17-and-a-half-feet tall, but I didn't fill out the paperwork, so it wasn't authorized," says Michael. "As soon as I find a venue and sponsors, I'd like to do a 40-foot watermelon carving and break the record officially."
Michael relocated to San Diego in April to grow Fruitopian Artistry, a teaching and catering business he launched three years ago. Arriving with only his clothes, a computer and a collection of razor-sharp detail knives, he soon began demonstrating to even the most ham-fisted how to turn fruits and vegetables into decorative flowers, animals and logos.
In addition to classes listed on his web site (guidomichael.com), Michael recently released Melon Mayhem, a 117-minute video demonstrating some of the wily knife techniques that earned him medals at culinary challenges around the country.
Without an artistic background, Michael delved into Kae-Sa-Luk after his kitchen staff asked him to carve a pumpkin for Halloween. Inspired to create something more than a standard jack-o-lantern, he stumbled upon a web site showing examples of this dramatic culinary art, which dates back to early 1300s Thailand.
"I was amazed, so I went to the grocery store and bought a bunch of produce. My early works were horrible, but I kept at it every day."
His diligence, shall we say, proved fruitful. He wowed attendees at a Dole Foods BlogHer convention in Manhattan by transforming pineapples into leafy, waist-high palm trees. At an American Culinary Federation event in Philadelphia, he spent 33 hours incising melons and papaya for an imposing floral bouquet, recalling that "a lot of Red Bull" pulled him through.
Daintier works, such as geometric patterns carved into zucchini or turnips, take him only about half an hour to complete. Converting small carrots into butterflies or flowers, however, requires additional speed because "their texture softens from the heat of your hands as you go along," says Michael.
No stranger to odd requests at public demos, Michael has constructed tiny tulips from grapes and budding roses from strawberries.
"Somebody asked me once to make something out of a blueberry," he says. "I'm not even attempting that."
Seasonal red and gold beets go under the knife and come out looking like roses. The red varieties eliminate the need for food coloring, which Michael uses occasionally when carving flowers from turnips and rutabagas.
Cantaloupe has coral-like flesh and a highly textured rind, making it one of Michael's favorite fruits to carve. The melons (these from the Escondido swap Meet) are prettiest when under-ripe because they offer bursts of green against tan skins and orange interiors.
Michael often uses zucchinis (this one from an Asian market in the College Area) when teaching, because they cut smoothly and provide stark contrast between the dark-green skin and pale flesh. in late summer, their edible blossoms can be used to accent the food art.
Multiple butterflies require jumbo carrots that can be found at specialty Produce in Midtown. The winged flutterer is extremely delicate upon completion because it's crafted from ultra-thin cuts and then folded into shape like origami.
Creating roses from the soft innards of watermelon requires extremely sharp knives. For the leaves, Michael uses the firmer, white section of the rind.