Art in chocolate and ice: Prajak Ngamsap at JW Marriott Resort and Spa
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thai cooking: Art in chocolate and ice

 Art in chocolate and ice

Resident culinary artist at JW Marriott Resort and Spa, Khun Prajak Ngamsap's chocolate sculptures and ice carvings take food art to new heights. As with any artistic endeavour worthy of an audience, his pieces are well crafted, creative and inspirational. "I work from the heart," says Khun Prajak. Creating masterpieces such as chocolate dragons for Chinese New Year's celebrations or whimsical Easter bunnies, his exquisite pieces have delighted audiences from all parts of the globe.

Recently he took me inside the "chocolate storage room' at JW Marriott, a delightful treat for a chocoholic. The luscious heady aroma of chocolate infused the room - "My Goodness! There is a chocolate heaven!' I mused as Khun Prajak pointed to a shelf. Stacked high on the shelf were his scrumptious chocolate-art; a sculpture of the Executive Chef, Anthony Tuttle. There was a comical chef-pig; a beautiful mermaid; a fantastically detailed dragon; an amusing Easter bunny and a serious-looking greyhound. Stacks and stacks of hand-made chocolates laid out neatly on trays filled up the room. A chocoholic could stay in this room for hours just inhaling. According to scientists, eating chocolate is an excellent substitute for being in love as compounds in chocolate are the same chemicals that are released in the brain when one is in love.

Chocolate, as some people are aware, originated in Mexico and Central America. The Mayan civilisation consumed chocolate as early as 500 A.D. "Cacao" is a Mayan word found on pottery unearthed from this period. When Cortez invaded Mexico, he observed Motecuhzoma, the ruler of the Aztecs, drinking fifty flagons of chocolate a day. The frothy beverage, which was made with either water or wine, was seasoned by the Aztecs with vanilla, pimiento and chilli pepper.

When the Spanish first brought chocolate back to Europe, it was served as a bitter beverage, but it didn't take long to discover that sugar was the perfect mate for chocolate. Initially, the newly sweetened chocolate beverage was a luxury few could afford, but by the late 17th century the drink had become common among European nobility. In 1828, Dutch chocolate maker, Conrad J. van Houten patented a new method creating Dutch powdered chocolate with a dark colour and mild taste. In the late 19th century, the Swiss developed solid chocolate candy. Khun Prajak uses dark, bittersweet chocolate developed by the Swiss to create his sculptures.

Whilst carrying the dragon sculpture outside the "chocolate room', Khun Prajak explained that sculpting chocolate is much more difficult than carving ice. "The heat from my fingers melts the chocolate, so I have to work very slowly and carefully. Ice carvings, on the other hand, are very large, and you have to work very fast. A few cuts with a sharp chisel are all you need." But of course, perfecting the art takes years of practice. "In case a piece of ice breaks as you're working, you have to improvise - very fast!" laughs Khun Prajak. While carving a set of four angelfish for a buffet display recently, one of the fishes broke, but instead of being devastated, it was a challenge for Khun Prajak. He changed the broken fish into seaweed; no one knew the difference.

"But unlike stone carvings that last forever, ice melts. Ice sculptures are short-lived. Doesn't that bother you?" I asked Khun Prajak. "Not at all," he said, "as I'm carving a piece, I know it will melt in just a few hours. So my lesson in carving is not in trying to preserve it, but to perfect my technique. Whether I make a mistake or carve a masterpiece, I increase my knowledge and use this knowledge for the next piece." Accolades are in order for this master ice-carver whose works of art melt right before his eyes and he doesn't seem to mind. When, a few years ago, he was working for Le Meridien, Khun Prajak won a gold medal for his carvings at the annual Food Festival Competition.

The art of ice sculpturing had its origins more than 200 years ago. Developed by French chefs, the first sculptures were functional food holders to keeping cold during elaborate buffets - for which the French remain renowned. At the turn of the 18th Century this art was learned by the Russians. Leading hotels of the world immensely value skilful ice-carvers.
Japanese chefs began practicing the art of ice sculpturing during the last thirty years. They are currently considered masters of this art form. In Japan, ice sculpturing is a full time profession; sculptors carve wood in the summer and ice in the winter.
"I loved to draw when I was young," says Khun Prajak who attended the College of Fine Arts in Bangkok. Not surprisingly, he studied sculpture, primarily working with clay as well as moulds. He learned to sculpt chocolate at his first posting in the Ambassador Hotel in Bangkok. Just before joining JW Marriott, while at the Ritz Carlton in Jamaica, he created a six-metre long "ice' bar from solid ice. The top of the bar had receptacles to hold bottles of liquor and the sides were decorated with etchings and carvings of sea-life. The "bar' catered for 800 clients.
For the grand opening of JW Marriott on March 2nd 2002, Khun Prajak carved a giant size key from ice. The key was used for Marriott's traditional key-breaking ceremony. "A key breaking ceremony symbolises that the resort is open to welcome guests," says Lee Sutton, Director of Public Relations.

As well as for very special occasions, Khun Prajak carves ice and chocolates for weddings; dinners for businesses and conferences as well as special requests made by guests. A unique request made recently was to create a replica of the Taj Mahal for Indian clients for their wedding ceremony due to take place in August 2002. With his vast experience creating sets for movies, our energetic artist looks forward to creating a 20-metre by 6-metre replica of the Taj Mahal - using wood, not ice. His work on movie sets includes Styrofoam Buddha sculptures, eight-metre high warriors, life-size lions and several other figures for the production of Mortal Combat One and Two. Khun Prajak also built sets for two other movies, The Quest and The Beach.

Khun Prajak's works of art are on display daily at the Marriott Café; a casual restaurant where grand buffet presentations are offered for breakfast and dinner. The dinner buffet includes a wide selection of sushi and sashimi that are presented as works of art. The dinner buffet also features Southeast Asian cuisine. A lá Carte selections are available for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Chocolate sculptures reside on black granite and teakwood counters behind the buffet table that is loaded with scrumptious desserts. The expansive use of glass providing natural light is perfect for viewing the beautiful ice-carvings that grace this restaurant.

© Sharda Naga 7/11/02



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