Carving out a career with fruits, vegetables

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Five years ago on a vacation in Cancun, chef Vladimir Smirnov came face to face with his first carved fruit - and if it didn't rock his world, it did give it a modest jolt.

He was in the buffet line at a resort hotel when he saw the face of an Indian carved into a watermelon. He turned to his wife Ksaniya.

"That's very neat. I like that,'' he told her. "Very amazing.''

Two years later, this time registering for a conference in Las Vegas, Smirnov was astounded to discover that a pretty display of flowers was not, in fact, flowers. The leaves were Chinese long beans, the roses radishes and beets. Carved turnips, jicamas and potatoes filled out the bouquet.

"Wow,'' he found himself saying. "This is cool.''

Smirnov, a Houston caterer, was raised by his widowed mother in Moscow. As a youth, he went to cooking school, chopped vegetables in a Kremlin kitchen, performed in a touring folk-dance troupe and served in the Soviet army in Siberia, KGB division. Even today, he's not sure it's OK to talk about the last.

In Smirnov's Soviet Union, there were no cruise ships, banquets or resort hotels, ergo no pumpkins carved into lions, apples into swans, carrots into orchids. When he encountered such things, he found them marvelous — "very light, very thin, very elegant, very beautiful."

After a childhood of waiting in lines to buy basic foodstuffs, what frivolity! What fun! He burned to make them himself.

On the way home from that Vegas convention, Smirnov doodled patterns on scraps of paper: Honeydews, carrots and radishes danced before his eyes. Back in Houston, he spent hours staring at plastic roses in a vase, wondering how to duplicate them on the flesh of a melon. He scoured the Internet, reading up on fruit carving and clicking on image after image. It was like having a crush on a girl, he says. He couldn't get it out of his mind.

At last, he ordered special knives from Thailand, where fruit carving is a venerated, centuries-old art, and painstakingly plunged in, at first on potatoes (the price was right) and dinged-up melons.

"And I am practicing since. Every carving (is) step up, step up, step up."

If you've attended an event catered by Smirnov — a party for AT&T employees, a bat mitzvah — you may know his oeuvre. He includes carved fruit with every job. Clients who order his chocolate-fountain service get two customized watermelons. Carving has become his calling card.

"I bring the watermelon and people say, 'Oh, that's Chef Smirnov.' "

He likes the accolades. At a recent food show in Dallas, he and several others demonstrated their technique.

"People come to me and tell me, 'There is a lot of people carving in there, but you are not a carver, you are Michelangelo.' "

Is he?

"Of course not. There is people who does carving more beautiful than I am."

Does he consider himself an artist?

"Nah," scoffs Smirnov, who took home a bronze medal in the international Virtual Salon Culinaire competition last year and two more last month in a Houston contest.

What, then?

"Just crazy guy who likes to do what he is doing. (To) people who tell me, 'You are artist,' I say, 'We are all artists.' "

Smirnov and his wife came to Houston in 1994, Jewish refugees from the Soviet state. Then 24, Smirnov had never before set foot out of the Soviet Union, and his English was limited to a few phrases: "'Here's my wallet. Don't shoot please.' "

Moscow to Paris, Paris to Houston. The couple arrived with two suitcases and $1,000. The city's Jewish community found them an apartment and helped them settle in. Everything was strange — the carpet ("We never have carpeting in Russia, only parquet"), the squishy American bread and peanut butter ("I'm sorry to say, but I still doesn't eat peanut butter"), even the smell of the place.

Smirnov got a job washing dishes at a restaurant; his wife cleaned houses. He soon interviewed at Rice Epicurean Market.

"We spend whatever we have to buy a suit. I only wore it once — that day. It's still hanging there."

Since he couldn't converse with his potential boss, he demonstrated his skills. One Chicken and Mushrooms in Cream Sauce dinner later, Smirnov was hired. Over 12 years, he rose through the ranks. By the time he turned in his toque last December to start his own business, he was catering banquet chef/production manager. At Rice he'd learned to make and eat buffalo chicken wings, salmon, steak ("a killer!"), Chinese food, blackened catfish and grilled vegetables ("a new adventure completely").

Now on his own, Smirnov works out of the kitchen of Demer, a Russian senior-community center in Southwest Houston. He switches on the light above his small work station, sets a large Mexican papaya on a Lazy Susan and commences carving, in wave motions, with speed and confidence.

Depending on the design, he can go from orb to ornate in as little as 15 minutes, or as much as an hour. He carves just one side of the fruit. Left to his own devices, he carves two-dimensional roses. Faces, animals, scenery — none of them float his boat. "I don't do that stuff. That might be an idea, but I stick with flower. That wouldn't be me.

"I don't feel different or very unusual when I carve," Smirnov says. "I'm nervous. Every time I go to a (food) show, I'm nervous, every time I go to work, to meet a customer . . . because you want to do 100 percent."

When he's finished, he sprays the papaya with Pam, which extends its life and adds a subtle sheen.

Smirnov's biggest ($2,700) and most unusual order was for a bar mitzvah at Beth Yeshurun. He carved a design of grapes for the wine table and a fish design with gingerroot coral for the tuna fish table. He carved the bar mitzvah's boy's name into a watermelon — the name, Nathaniel, took up a lot of space.

But the real showstoppers were the Ten Commandments and the Torah (the Jewish bible), also in watermelon, all carved under the eye of a mashgiach, whose job it is to ensure that food is kosher.

"It was something nobody else has done," Smirnov says with pride.

He would like to go Thailand one day to study the art of carving at the feet, and hands, of a master. He has corresponded with Thai carvers, and his wife has encouraged him, but he'd have to spend the family savings or take out a loan, and he's unwilling to do either. Smirnov has a 10-year-old son to think of.

For now, he must satisfy himself with showing Houstonians that a rose is a rose is a rose. Unless it's a beet or a cucumber or a turnip.

peggy.grodinsky@chron.com

www.chefsmirnov.com

Chef Smirnov Catering

catering@chefsmirnov.com

5400 Bellaire Blvd., Suite F Bellaire, TX 77401
Office: (713) 838-Chef (2433)