PLYMOUTH — How did Jeff Day come to spend so much of his time carving ice? It all started by cracking a few eggs.
Day's professional training is as a chef. He still spends many hours cooking, as he owns the Plain Jane Diner in Rumney. When he's not in the kitchen, though, he can typically be found in a small commercial building on Fairgrounds Road in Plymouth, carving sculptures out of ice. He traces his ice carving business back to his first culinary job, working at a high-end hotel in San Diego, California, which had a restaurant that served up to 900 people each Sunday brunch.
"Because I was the new guy, I was the omelet guy," said Day. The omelet station was right next to the ice sculpture, so he passed the time by chatting with the sculptor. "I hung around them and got very much interested – the bug was bit in San Diego," he said, though he never did any ice carving in California.
When he moved back to New Hampshire – he had received his degree at the culinary school in Berlin – he got a job at the Center of New Hampshire hotel in Manchester. There, with some youthful bluster, was where he first converted a block of ice into art.
"The chef asked me if I could carve. I said, 'Absolutely.' I had no idea what I was doing," he said. After struggling through a few homely sculptures, he started to get the hang of it, and wanted to take his skills to a new level. He did so by working with Boston-area ice sculptors Steve Rose and Bill Covitz, carving alongside them for free, just to see how they created their masterpieces.
When he became the chef at the Center of New Hampshire, in 1995, Day gained the latitude to follow his creativity. As the largest convention venue in New Hampshire at the time, the facility hosted the governor's balls. For a ball when Jeanne Shaheen was governor, Day carved a life-size horse and carriage. For Gov. John Lynch, he created a full-size moose.
The Plain Jane Diner is a much smaller scale than the Center of New Hampshire, which has allowed Day to expand his ice carving business. He started with a couple of ice-block machines in the basement of the diner, and would transport the blocks to a walk-in freezer in his back yard. Last winter, he purchased the building on Fairgrounds Road, which has opened a new level of ice carving to him.
He now has nine machines making ice blocks. Each one can freeze a pair of 300-pound blocks of ice in three-and-a-half days, giving him the capacity to produce 36 blocks each week. In addition to making ice for himself, he's also selling blocks to the two other ice carvers working in New Hampshire. He's sold 250 blocks to other carvers this year, something that has taken him by surprise.
"It's been something I didn't expect," he said.
He has also found a hot market for his scrap ice, left over after the sculpture is finished. He cuts it into large cubes, up to 3 inches in each dimension, and sells it to high-end whiskey bars.
"The business had always been my side business, but it has grown and grown and grown. It's incredible how busy I am," Day said. His creations are seen at First Night celebrations, corporate functions, and he has become the go-to guy for ice bars.
"Something we've really nailed is the ice bar events," he said, referring to events, typically outdoors and in the winter, where everything is made of ice, including the bars themselves. He is currently working on creating everything necessary for the ice bar at the Portland Harbor Hotel, in Portland, Maine, which will be held Jan. 21-23 this year and will feature two martini bars and one bar for Shipyard beer. This will be the 12th time that Day has carved all the ice for the event, and is proud to report that Forbes Travel Guide included it on its list of "5 Ice Bars Too Cool to Miss This Season." The other ice bars included two in Utah, one in Alaska and one in Sweden.
Day said he "absolutely" prefers ice carving to work in his kitchen. Aside from occasional help from his friend Jeff Landry, who helps assemble the large carvings, Day likes working by himself in his walk-in freezer, with just the radio, the ice and his artistic vision. He has even come to love the smell of ice.
"At the beginning, I was just interested in the artistic end of it, the creativity. It was a good outlet for me. Now, I'm still interested in the creativity, but it's very much a business – It just keeps getting busier."
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