Like people, chef James Parker says, vegetables have their own personalities: “Beets tend to bleed, zucchini are temperature-sensitive, radishes and carrots sink while other vegetables float, and peppers and green onions don’t last as long in water as others do.”
At age 35 and with a broad 6-foot-2-inch stature, Parker exudes the charm and food savvy of a primetime celebrity chef and may well be on his way to becoming one. He’s best known for his vegetable and fruit sculpting – turning a watermelon into a brilliant peacock or a butternut squash into a dazzling centerpiece of roses – and culinary students have traveled from as far as Jerusalem and Seoul to study under him.
Parker is just as much chef as he is creative spirit and entrepreneur. He is former sous chef at the Ritz Carlton Hotel and the International Trade Center in Washington, D.C., and founder of Veggy Art – a full service garnishing catering business that also offers technique classes, sells carving tool kits and instructional books, and provides consulting services for specialty catering services.
And that’s not all. Parker’s also contacted television producers in Las Vegas about staging a food garnishing competition for broadcast and recently put the finishing touches to a book proposal, which will guarantees its readers will never look at their supermarket’s produce aisle in the same way again. He has been featured in a documentary on the Korean network MBC and does regular segments on the Home Shopping Network. Last December, he premiered as a guest chef on the Food Network’s primetime series, “Sugar Rush”
It’s a long way from when he was one of six kids growing up in Stroudsburg, Pa. Adopted at age 5 by white parents, Parker grew up in a “meatloaf and potatoes, and sometimes casseroles” kind of family, where the girls set the table and the boys did the heavy lifting. He had no penchant for cooking or art in his early years, and it wasn’t until he enrolled in the Pennsylvania College of Technology’s culinary school at the suggestion of his mother that h discovered his passion for food.
After graduating in 1991, he landed a job at the Hyatt Washington, where he attributes the origins of both his garnishing career and his marriage. Slow nights at the hotel’s grill station led to experimentation with a carving knife and a crate of watermelons. It took nearly 40 melons until the watermelon rose was perfected.
At the Hyatt is where parker befriended Siu Wan Lee, a fellow kitchen employee. He is now married to her daughter, also named Siu.
The two make their home in Chantilly, Va., with two daughters Emma, 3, and Eva, 1.
Tonight Parker is throwing a party at his house to celebrate his second appearance on “Sugar Rush.” As he begins prepping for his party buffet, he offers his food philosophy: “A kitchen doesn’t need to be run like a French military. We’re creating food, not fighting wars.”
By 10 a.m., Parker has already canceled a trip to the wharf for fresh crabmeat, as there’s too much to do and the menu’s been switched up again. “You know how fashion trends change every six months or so, I’m like that with food,” he says.
For tonight’s menu, he’s considered the discriminating palates of his guest list, which includes former students, as well as culinary colleagues from local establishments. Duncan Hines and Costco will be major players in the lineup, a fact he doesn’t mind his foodie friends noticing. Food holds two separate purposes: to please the palate and to fill the stomach, he explains, and this evening isn’t about impressing but about celebrating Veggy Art’s success.
Maneuvering around his mother-in-law, who is constructing a fruit platter, he apologizes for his disheveled “stay-at-home dad” appearance, and starts on the cupcakes. He confesses the only class he ever failed was baking.
“With cooking, I just like throw it all together,” he says. “But when I got to baking class, they said you need to follow the recipe. “ It was like trying to tie down a wild animal.”
He whips up a light frosting, adding a dash of blue food coloring. “Now tell me that isn’t sexy,” he says.
Laughing often and telling stories about encounters with famous chefs, or the time he spilled his garnishing on the White House lawn, Parker glides about the kitchen, attending to several cooking stations with effortless precision. Every now and then, he’ll want a particular knife or bowl and it’s not where he last left it.
“Mother-in-law re-arrangement,” he says affectionately and leans over to hug Siu Wan, who is visiting and helping with party preparations.
While whittling a watermelon centerpiece, Parker answers his vibrating cell phone.
“Great, you’ll bring some pistachio baklava?” he asks. “No, no dress code. Of course, bring the kids, we’ll have sugar for them.”
The kitchen is large enough for a television camera crew, and stocked with cookware, although not the expensive brands.
“Why pay more at William and Sonoma when you can get the same quality at Target?” he asks. “The baking pan doesn’t need to look pretty, it needs to work.”
As guests arrive they become part of Parker’s kitchen crew and he instructs them like he’s conducting a symphony of floating cutting boards and cookie sheets. He calls out the time and a progress report periodically, therefore who arrive fashionably late fall right into the kitchen drill, brushing the bruschetta, browning the chicken strips, and trash talking celebrity chefs.
Suddenly the room breaks into applause. Warren Brown, host of the Food Network’s “Sugar Rush,” enters with a box from Cake Love, his bakery in Washington, D.C. Guests surround him with their recipe cards, asking for advice about desserts featured on recent episodes. Brown and Parker pose together for the cameras.
“He’s just a pro, he makes it look so simple, but it’s not so simple at all,” Brown comments; referring to the garnishing tutorial he filmed with Parker for his show. “On top of that, he’s inspiring and he’s just fun. He can probably get up there and start talking about widgets and we’d say, hey that great.”
As show time nears, guests migrate from the buffet table to the wide screen television in the living room. Children, giddy from sweets, scramble up from the basement. When Parker’s segment appears, cheers erupt from the crowd as if they’re watching a football game.
After credits roll, containers are distributed with leftovers, and the last of the visitors leave. Parker then settles at his computer where his e-mail box is already flooded with messages from “Sugar Rush” viewers inquiring about food sculpting classes and his upcoming endeavors.
“In the near future, (I think) there’ll be a renewed interest in vegetable and fruit carving, just like bell bottom pants, miniskirts and camouflage,” he says.
And if that day come?
“I want to be center of the garnishing universe.”