She holds a petite, red plastic-handled knife as if it were a pencil, but instead of wrapping all her fingers around the knife handle she allows her last three fingers to flow, outstretched. Gradually, over the next hour, bits of rind and flesh fall onto her kitchen table.
For centuries, fruit and vegetable carving has been practiced in many Asian countries, including China, Japan and Thailand. More recently the art is gaining popularity in the United States as highly skilled carvers teach the next generation how to coax graceful Monet-inspired petals out of ordinary produce.
“How you do it is hard to explain. I can't draw or paint, but I can carve,” Helms says. “I do free-hand carving. If you make a mistake, you can always eat it.”
A native of Lampang, Thailand, Helms has lived in Kansas for 37 years. She learned kae-sa-luk , the ancient Thai art of fruit and vegetable carving, at a school in Bangkok when she was 19.
Kae-sa-luk originated in the mid-1300s. Legend has it that for the Floating Lantern Festival, celebrated at the full moon of the 12th lunar month, Lady Nopphamat decorated her floating lantern with flowers, birds, swans and rabbits carved from fruits and vegetables.
King Rama I soon held a fruit- and vegetable-carving competition, which continued to grow as young women from wealthy families sent their daughters to the palace to be trained. Eventually, the art was considered one of the 10 traditional Thai arts.
In the 1930s the Thai government established a one-year training course for the traditional art forms, including kae-sa-luk . Presentation remains an important part of Thai cuisine; home cooks typically have at least some facility with a paring knife, and the skill is taught in schools.
In the United States, the intricate carvings of flowers, birds and animals are most often seen at wedding receptions, hotel banquets, cruise ship dinners and country club buffets. But now even the Food Network is showcasing the ancient art form.
“Garnishing in this country had become what I call the ‘g-word,'” says James Parker, a chef and founder of veggyart.com. “A goofy, cheesy kind of thing. You make an apple bird or little radish roses.”
Typically, complex Asian carving techniques were closely guarded and often that knowledge died with the artisan. More recently Parker has seen a willingness to share the art form.
Parker credits Edible Arrangements, a fast-growing franchise, with bringing the idea of garnishing to the mass consumer.
Jeff Sloan, owner of one Edible Arrangements store, says a bouquet made from fruits and vegetables has a “very high wow factor.” The most popular flower he sells is a pineapple daisy with cantaloupe ball center. Fruit and vegetable arrangements at his store range from $32 to $200.
For Helms, a watermelon carving can take an hour or many hours, depending on how intricate and detailed the depiction. She has a Web site (www.creationsbynid.com) and keeps a photo album of designs she has created, including a watermelon with a hula girl and a volcano for a luau-themed party.
“I've never met anybody who is as good at what she does. She's so comfortable and quick with it,” says Brian Jantz, executive chef at Loch Lloyd Country Club where Helms has been employed since 2000.
“She combines items together to make a visual feast. She uses bouquets of flowers combined with carvings of birds of prey, it's just a whole display, a scene,” Jantz says. “Everything she does is just so beautiful. She just continues to amaze me.”
© 2007, The Kansas City Star.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.