The Garnish Guy

The Garnish Guy

By Walter Nicholls

August 15, 2001

Vegetable and fruit sculptor James Parker would like to add “garnish” to the shopping lists of everyone who entertains. After a dozen years as an employee in catering and hotel kitchens, Parker has started a business called Veggy Art to do just that.

His creations, a line of palm-size “flower” garnishes, that sell for between $12 and $15, can turn even a platter of plain baloney into a display of beauty. With a sharp paring knife he transforms golden beets into yellow roses; common leeks cascade as chrysanthemums.

Parker’s compact, three-flower “Beautifier” arrangements are examples of Asian-inspired garnishes that have had a place at the table for centuries, most notably in Thailand and China.

But why a vegetable garnish business?

One reason: “It’s a dying art, a culinary skill that you don’t see a lot of young people doing,” says Parker, 31, a graduate of Pennsylvania Culinary School. He lives in Springfield with his wife, Siu.

Parker says his “lean toward” the artistic side of kitchen work took hold during an internship at the Sheraton Pocono Inn, a mountain resort near his family’s home in Stroudsburg, Pa.

“That was my first real restaurant job,” says the Korean-born Parker, who was adopted by his American family when he was 5. “For two years I was flipping hamburgers. I hated coming home at night smelling of grease.” He decided his talents would be better used on the cold side of the kitchen.

Says Parker: “There are a ton of cooks out there. But I’d rather hear someone say ‘Man, you make beautiful stuff,’ than simply ‘That’s delicious.’ ”

Vegetable and fruit sculpture is one facet of the kitchen position of chef garde manger, a person whose responsibilities include cold buffet dishes, salads, pa^te{acute}s and decorative displays such as ice sculpture and garnishes.

In 1997, after a half-dozen career moves from caterer to hotel and back, Parker says his “creativity bloomed” as a garde manger at the Ritz-Carlton, Tysons Corner. That is where he met Bangkok native and vegetable sculptor Natda Koger “one of the most talented women I’ve met.” Koger is now a kitchen supervisor and sculptor for in-house catering at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center.

“She taught me the little tricks of the trade,” says Parker who also creates large, elaborate, custom-designed arrangements for $80 and up. Koger taught Parker how to select bell peppers with one or three bulges on the bottom, not four. “That way, when you cut the peppers, they give more of a heart shape,” he says. Parker now chooses zucchini with five ridges from stem to tip. Each ridge is a starting point for a five-petal flower.

Koger returns his compliments. “He learns really fast and has good ideas of his own,” says Koger, who has turned papayas into “boats” and pineapples into “baskets” for 20 years. While working together “He taught me how to make his red pepper flowers.” Parker’s “poppies” — carved red bell peppers with a cluster of pepper seeds at the center — are one of his more stunning presentations.

For Parker, a set of specialty carving tools is not necessary. He uses only a paring knife, kitchen shears and a vegetable peeler. Wooden skewers are used to hold his faux flowers in place atop a Granny Smith apple. “You don’t need a set of tools to do the few basic cuts. What’s important is the variety of the colors of the vegetables,” says Parker. “That gives the delicate look.”

Parker’s vegetable sculptures are attractive garnishes for a cold cuts or hors d’oeuvres platter or as a focal point for crudites. Red beet “roses” could be surrounded by jumbo shrimp cocktail. Veggy Art bouquets could visually turn Chinese takeout into a Mandarin banquet.

Still, retail sales of Veggy Art have been slow. On a recent weekend at Dean & DeLuca in Georgetown, the only store that stocks Parker’s art, only four of the eight garnishes on display were sold. For Parker, marketing a new concept has been a challenge. There are, and have been, product development hurdles in packaging and marketing.

But Dean & DeLuca manager Eloise Sanchez predicts sales will pick up.

“What he’s doing is very different. This is not something that the regular home cook expects to find in a store,” says Sanchez. “It’s going to take some time to educate people.”

Parker says he is willing to wait. He is working with Sanchez on display concepts as well as in-store demonstrations of how his sculptures are made. His confidence is undeniable.

Says Parker: “It’s going to take off. I know it will. Veggy Art is going to be the talk of the town.”

Veggy Art is available on weekends and by special order at Dean & DeLuca, 3276 M St. NW; call 202-342-2500. For large, custom arrangements call 703-919-7819. Web site: Whether he’s creating a small garnish or a large centerpiece, James Parker knows how to make vegetables bloom.

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