Many Decembers ago I was the executive sous chef of Charleston’s Mills House Hotel and how I loved working there. Every day brought something new and with multiple outlets and a dedicated staff, there was rarely a challenge we couldn’t handle. The Mills House has one of Charleston’s must-visit lobbies. It’s a grand hotel dating back to the mid-1800s, with a “U” shaped lobby that surrounds an Instagram worthy courtyard. And that lobby is resplendent with floor to ceiling arched windows that gloriously frame the lobby and courtyard. And it was in this opulent setting the Mills House culinary team placed our holiday buffets, and it’s also where I killed Frosty.
Our holiday buffets sat right in the middle of the lobby, just a short walk from the elegant Barbadoes dining room and our piano bar. And the centerpiece of our buffets was always an ice carving. Delivered on Saturday, carefully placed in our walk-in freezer then set in the middle of our buffets with nothing more than a pair of ancient ice tongs and pure muscle. The carving was placed in an ice-glow, a plexiglass pan with drain lines and lighting and around it was placed our chilled seafood and accompanying sauces. Typically ice carvings are bottom heavy and filled with detail such as swans in flight, a fluttering angel, or a harp. On this particular day, Christmas day, my sous chef Mark and I stood in the door of our freezer and stared at a menacing snowman. He was three solid balls of ice, one on top of the other and each just barely smaller than the next. Mark shook his head, asked me if I’d eaten my Wheaties and handed me the tongs.
“Okay Frosty, it’s showtime.”
Mark and I were both healthy young men with strong backs and thick quads so the weight of Frosty didn’t bother us. It was the distribution of the weight that did. We heaved his frozen mass (Mark guessed 175 pounds) onto a rolling cart then made our way into the lobby where scores of finely dressed Charlestonians, young and old, oohed and aahed as we rolled to our ice glow. The challenge of moving this imposing snowman wasn’t the up and down, it was the side to side. In order for us to properly place Frosty, we had to lift then successfully move him 90 degrees to our right and *gently* place him in the center of the ice glow. One of our young apprentices tagged along to give us some much needed stability. So with a well-dressed and very hungry crowd watching we took a deep breath, clamped our tongs into the frozen base and lifted.
“Oh jeez!” Mark muttered.
“one, two, three” and we started moving him off the cart and onto the buffet table while our young apprentice rolled the cart out of the way. Half way there Frosty had other ideas and that top heavy snowman started leaning the wrong way.
“No, No, NO!”
Our young apprentice, who was there to provide a guy wire of support, bolted out of the way for fear of being crushed under all that ice and Mark and I were off to the races.
The crowd inhaled, our feet were a flurry of motion and just when I thought we had Frosty upright, I realized we were headed right towards those million-dollar windows. I had a momentary glimpse of the three of us crashing through all that glass and two of us ending up in the ER.
“Let Him Go, Mark, NOW!”
And with that Frosty crashed to the tiled floor and shattered into a thousand pieces. The crowd gasped, then a momentary pall of silence sifted through the lobby only to be broken by a single, solemn, six-year-old voice that mourned “Ffffffrosty”.
Pat Conroy couldn’t have penned a more spectacular ending for an overweight snowman on a warm, lowcountry Christmas day.
And with that I’ll offer up warm wishes of peace on earth, good will towards all, especially those in Greenville’s food and beverage business that will bake, broil, pour, carry, and saute through the holiday so that others may enjoy their work. And should you come across an ice carving sitting triumphantly atop a buffet, maybe give it a bit of breathing room.
Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas.
This article is part of a new series of essays from our friend John Malik.
Extremely accomplished, John is a James Beard Society nominee for Best Chef in the Southeast, has published a novel Doughnuts for Amy and you can find his essays on Food, Travel, and the culinary scene of the Southeast in the Huffington Post. John is currently Chef of the Loft at Soby’s.