Fashion for Food' Earns Culinary Fame for Alumnus
Despite cameras and judges swarming him, despite an eight-hour deadline to create a 5-foot plus fruit sculpture that bested the creations of some of the country's best fruit and vegetable carvers, and despite a $10,000 prize on the line, James Parker, '91, managed to keep a cool and confident demeanor.
Parker, owner of Veggy Art in Chantilly, Va., made his second "Food Network Challenge" appearance in May, when the series' "The Rematch: Fantasy Fruit Sculptures" episode aired. Many who watched the first "Fantasy Fruit Sculptures" episode called him "overconfident," but Parker says his easy-going attitude and joking with fellow contestants signaled only that he was comfortable and having fun.
But after a "rookie" culinary student won round one in 2007, Parker burned to prove his skills. The second time around, Parker created a stunning sculpture that included a malanga-root shipwreck as well as a waterfall that flowed through acorn-squash pools and carrot spillways, earning the $10,000 first prize and, more importantly, meeting Parker's own high standards.
After attending Penn College, where he completed an associate degree in culinary arts, Parker became chef garde manger at the Sheraton Washington Hotel, where he honed his carving skills and later accepted the position of chef garde manger at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Tysons Corner, in McLean, Va. In 1998, shortly after he began work as sous chef at the Ronald Reagan Building/International Trade Center, in Washington, D.C., the idea for Veggy Art was born as he noticed most busy chefs didn't have time to create garnishes, and home cooks abandoned the final touches due to lack of knowledge and experience.
Parker decided to start his own ready-to-use garnish company. The company - launched in 2001 - today has blossomed into a success. With the slogan "Fashion for Food," he not only creates garnishes for high-end clients, but he also teaches the art of vegetable and fruit carving to hundreds of students each year.
When he teaches, Parker says, "It forces me to think about each technique so I will be able to speak intelligently about it to my students. This has helped me in coming up with some of my own techniques, as well."
His clients have included the White House, the U.S. Marine Corps, the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Los Angeles, Balducci's in New York City and the Sugar Art Show in Tulsa, Okla. He has received various requests through e-mail from India, Australia, the United Kingdom, Israel, Dubai, South Africa, Canada and many other countries.
He has trained in Thailand and Switzerland, but most of the techniques he uses are ones taken from people with whom he has worked. When Parker was a Penn College student, his interests included buffet-decorating, ice-carving and tallow-work. In 2007, he returned to Penn College to offer workshops to students and alumni.