Jimmy Zhang’s passion was unleashed by a potato. As a teenager in Shenyang, China, he saw a video of a chef carving a rose out of a potato and was instantly hooked. But when he tried to fashion his own spud blossoms at home with an ordinary knife, he discovered it wasn’t as easy as it looked. So after high school, Zhang enrolled in a Chinese Culinary Arts Institute program specializing in the ancient art of fruit and vegetable carving. After assisting his distinguished teacher, winning international competitions in China and abroad, he moved to Northern California. He now teaches locally and nationally, presents live demonstrations and carves elaborate creations for events from birthday banquets to weddings.
Zhang’s parents were supportive of his career decision from the start, but his brother had some complaints. “I had to practice a lot at home, using materials like radishes and potatoes in the wintertime,” said Zhang, “and every night, my mother made the vegetables into a beef stew. My brother would sigh, ‘Stew, again?!’”
“My dream was to travel and see the world outside of China,” says Zhang. A visit to a friend in sunny California, decided his future, but in 1997, when Zhang moved here, he spoke no English. He took ESL classes–where he met his future wife–but didn’t think his English improved much.
When he landed a job teaching Asian art and cooking in the Culinary Arts Program at Oakland’s Laney College, however, his students helped him find the right words. “The students knew I had excellent skills, but my English wasn’t good enough to express what I wanted to say,” admits Zhang, smiling. “So I taught them with my broken English and they gave me the correct words to use, like “cut this smooth and round” and then I repeated what they said and that’s how I learned English.”
Zhang’s favorite subjects are living creatures, since the challenge is to depict their vitality through action or emotion. He has carved rearing horses out of taro, tropical fish from squash and carrots and a feisty dragon out of giant radishes.
A crew from Snapple once came to his house and filmed him carving an entire vegetable tableau to illustrate one of the facts on their lids: “A dolphin sleeps with one eye open.” Zhang fashioned a beach scene, complete with taro dolphin lounging on a beach chair underneath an acorn squash umbrella, the dolphin’s one open eye is focused possessively on his bottle of Snapple.
For awe-inspiring, elegant beauty, Zhang’s exquisitely faceted watermelon flower centerpieces are just too gorgeous to eat. They often require an hour and a half of precise, repetitive cutting with a special knife. Watermelon is the perfect sculptural medium with its translucent layers of green white, pink and red hues. (Traditional carvers prefer to take advantage of the exquisite natural colors that fruit and vegetables already possess, in lieu of dyeing them.)
Zhang, a recipient of numerous medals at professional fruit carving competitions, is in high demand as a teacher and is often invited to present daylong to weeklong courses at culinary schools around the country. He also organizes his own private group classes through his website, Art Chef.
Future plans include a summer program designed specifically for youth, ages 13-20. “Mostly, I’ve taught adults, both professionals and non-professionals, but young people really love this art too and it’s good to develop your skills at an early age, since it takes some practice,” says Zhang, who began learning his craft at age 19.
Zhang admits that even though he has attained the highest skill level in this exacting art, he no longer competes in tournaments. “I leave that to my students. And if they earn the medals, it means, I’ve done a good job as teacher.”
Facebook: Jimmy Zhang, Art Chef
A version of this piece was first posted on KQED Bay Area Bites. A big thanks to filmmaker Kim Aronson for collaborating with me.
Thank you, Anna, for highlighting this incredible, beautiful work. Wow!