Merry Christmas

Many Christmases ago I spent 18 months at the Executive Sous Chef at Charleston’s glorious Mills House Hotel. I adored working there as I had a fabulous culinary team, there were occasional ghost sightings, our customers were global, and the hotel’s management was smart, clever, and also loved being a part of the Mills House. That goes for all except for their executive chef. He was an alcoholic that didn’t have one cookbook in his office. He lacked creativity in the culinary arts and in leadership and his response to many a challenge was to raise his voice.

Mills House Hotel Lobby

He made a deal with me that if I worked Thanksgiving, I’d have Christmas off. As this is a Christmas story, I’ll let you jump to the appropriate conclusion. Every Sunday and major holiday we’d have a huge buffet in the lobby and of course for Thanksgiving and Christmas, we’d really go all out. The visual highlight of those buffets was an ice carving that sat in the center of the buffet in an ice-glow. This was a tough, clear plastic pan, lit from underneath, with a drain line, that held the ice carving firmly in place. Placing the ice carving in the ice-glow was the final step prior to opening the buffet for service. Our ice carvings were delivered on Saturday night and slid to the back of our enormous walk-in freezer where they sat until Sunday morning. Typically they were full of detail; swans on the verge of flight, harps that shimmered, butterflies with thin wings. Moving the ice from freezer to display was the responsibility of the chef on duty, usually me. I’d ask one of my muscular guys to help and we’d each have a pair of ice tongs. We’d roll a small cart next to the ice, bend down, open the tongs then crack then into the base of the ice and that allowed us to lift the carving onto the cart then roll it to the buffet. Care had to be taken because if one were to rush the process, the delicate wings, beaks, guitar strings, or fingers of the carving could shatter. Up until this particular Christmas I had a 100% success rate.

Ice Tongs

On that Christmas morning, Robert, my muscular Sous Chef, handed me a pair of tongs and asked me if I’d eaten my Wheaties then shook his head and headed for the freezer. When we arrived, Frosty the snowman stared back at us. Frosty was three balls of ice with a top hat. His snowman’s smile was deceptive and Robert was certain Frosty weighed in at every bit of 150 pounds, which was double that of a swan. Considering a typical ice carving starts out as a 300 pound block this was quite an accomplishment. I retrieved a young apprentice to hold onto the cart while Robert and I hefted the snowman. We squatted down, inhaled a gulp of zero-degree air, dug in our tongs and lifted.

“Jesus Christ!”

Robert took the Lord’s name as Frosty crashed onto the cart. Frosty was top heavy and had all the stability of a pendulum. We pushed him out of the freezer and through the kitchen as my guys wished us good luck. Robert agreed and mumbled to me.

“Yeah. We’re gonna need it.”

Ice carvings like this one were never meant to be moved.

As we approached the buffet I asked our apprentice to wheel the cart out of the way as soon as Frosty cleared its edges. Our buffet lined up neatly with the picturesque bay windows of the Mills House and there was an easy 100+ patrons, dressed in their Charlestonian Christmas finery, eagerly waiting for us to open the buffet. When we wheeled into the lobby, Frosty was greeted with plenty of oohs and aahs. Robert rolled the cart as close to the buffet table as possible then we took a deep breath and squeezed our ice tongs into Frosty’s base as the cart was wheeled out of the way. At the time I was a very fit 29 year old that worked out regularly and Robert was twice as strong as I. Neither of us were a match for Frosty. As we tried to swing his mass from left to right into the ice-glow, his head bobbed from right to left and in a split second the three of us were dancing away from the buffet. I distinctly remember Robert’s eyes going from green to bleached white in a blink as those priceless windows raced towards us. At that moment I made a command decision to abandon ship.

“Let Him Go!”

I opened the tongs and Robert did likewise and Frosty crashed to the floor, shattering into a thousand pieces of ice. The guests gasped, parents shielded the eyes of their little ones, and as the last of the spinning chunks of ice came to a rest, a hush fell over the lobby. And just as the silence became awkward, a tiny voice whimpered from the lobby.

“Fffffrosty. They killed Frosty.”

The shame was so thick I could’ve cut it with a knife. Robert handed me his tongs and ran to the kitchen. Over his shoulder he hollered,

“I’ll go get a broom.”

I suppose there’s a Dr. Seuss lesson here. Christmas still came, without Frosty, boxes, ribbons, or bows. Christmas is a time to be grateful for what we have, not what we do not have and I hope your Christmas is full of gratitude and that when the ribbons and bows are shoved into the corner, you take the time to hug your loved ones and thank the Good Lord for the best things in your life.



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