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"People often say, 'Oh, food carving – I've seen that on a cruise ship,' " Mia Bureau tells me when we meet at her Institut de Sculpture Culinaire in Montreal's Villeray neighbourhood. "I have to nicely explain that I don't do swans out of watermelons." She definitely could, though – along with a whole edible landscape for them to live in. Bureau travels the world with her take on contemporary culinary sculpture, which has earned commissions from Cirque du Soleil and raised eyebrows at international competitions. At the IKA Culinary Olympics, held every four years in Germany, she helped Team Quebec take home the bronze with a fruit, sugar and chocolate installation inspired by the mining industry of Val d'Or, Quebec. (The mind boggles.)

Mia Bureau food sculpture

Japan. Ingredients: Lantern with sakura branches in sculpted watermelon, Kyoto's Temple of the Golden Pavilion in butternut squash [Time: 5.5 hours]

In preparation for today's lesson, she unloads a bag of good-looking produce from a local South Asian grocery store. We'll be starting with a delicate fleur de Bangkok of her own invention, a small spiky flower made from thin parings of multicoloured carrots. She hands me a professional-grade fruit-carving knife with a fine, flexible blade and a handle of the same weight and heft as a classic Montblanc, and instructs me to hold it much like you would if you were going to write. We slice out curved arches on the surfaces and then fold back the layers to mimic an open bloom, like very moist origami. Next, we move on to whittling morning glories out of a daikon – her steady hand makes me regret that cup of coffee – and finish by rubbing a slice of beet over the edges to bring the pale petals to life. By the end of the session I'm most proud of my water lily, made out of concentric crowns of French shallots, with a cross-section of a carrot employed for the stigma, resting beguilingly on a cucumber leaf. But compared to Bureau's full-on sculptures, all this is just ornamentation – along the lines of what kids in Thailand, where fruit and vegetable carving, or kae sa lak, has a 700-year history, would learn in primary school.

Mia Bureau food sculpture

Canada. Ingredients: Montreal's Pont Jacques-Cartier in sculpted watermelon, flowers in butternut and buttercup squash [Time: 5.5 hours]

For most people, mastering the art of food carving is up there with getting an advanced degree in napkin folding, chafing dish skills or the finer aspects of table skirting, a vintage hospitality skill best left on the buffet table. A self-taught food carver, Bureau is intent on pushing the art forward. Although she has lived in Chiang Mai, Thailand, she discovered her trend-bucking vocation at a dinner party a few years ago, when a local chef asked her to carve some vegetables and showed her a few techniques. Turns out you do win friends with salad: She went to town on the mushrooms and something clicked. "There's always a wink, with a flower or an elaborate pattern, to the traditional Thai art," she says. "But my inspiration is modern design and architecture." Her favourite ingredient? "Watermelon lends itself to contemporary sculpture, and you've got several colours – green, white, pink and red – to work with. It's my fetish fruit." In this series of culinary postcards based on her travel memories, she shows us just how far she can go.

Mia Bureau food sculpture

Spain. Ingredients: Sculpted watermelon, detail of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in taro, leaves in watermelon rind [Time: 6.5 hours]

 

Mia Bureau food sculpture

Thailand. Ingredients: Sculpted watermelon, Buddha hand and face in butternut squash, orchids in daikon [Time: 6 hours]

 


Mia Bureau's Institut de Sculpture Culinaire offers classes and team-building seminars in fruit and vegetable carving in French only, and individual training in both official languages.

350, rue De Castelnau E., Montréal, 514-686-3062, miabureau.com

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