Just before the Blackhawks season opener in October, the team came up with a marketing ploy designed to captivate Chicago hockey fans. The plan was to create 10 life-size ice sculptures of the Stanley Cup and drop them off at landmarks throughout the city.
Jim Nadeau, owner of Nadeau’s Ice Sculptures at 7623 Roosevelt Rd., got the call for the project on a Wednesday. The sculptures were to be carved and sneaked onto location by 2:30 a.m. the next morning.
“We started at one o’clock in the afternoon and we worked right up until midnight to get them done,” Nadeau, 56, said. “At 2:30 we delivered them – all over – Millennium Park, the Ogilvie train station, the Belmont ‘el’ stop. It created quite a stir.”
The marketing tactic was just one in a long line of projects that Nadeau and his carvers have orchestrated over 31 years in business.
“If you can think it, we’ve done it,” Nadeau explained.
His sample books attest to the dizzying array of ice images that can be created. And the prices might surprise you. A simple centerpiece can be purchased for as little as $69. A full 300-lb. block carving (40 x 20 x 10 inches), including delivery and setup, runs between $500 to $600. If you pick it up yourself, the cost drops to $300. A live demonstration, including a team of sculptors, will cost you more.
The “wow” factor, though, is priceless. Maybe that’s because seeing an object embedded into a block of ice seems to linger in your memory. Nadeau has embedded everything from a foot (“a phony foot,” he explains, chuckling) to a grandfather clock into ice.
Creating the ice sculpture is no mean feat. Clarity is paramount, simply because so many jobs call for embedded items. It takes four days just to create a clear 300 lb. block.
“What we do is fill up the tank and cool it to 22 degrees,” Nadeau explained. “You don’t want to make ice too fast because if you do, the air gets trapped and then the ice turns white or opaque. So we raise the temperature.”
The water is agitated constantly so the air has a chance to escape, and then the ice turns out perfectly clear.
Most sculptures are created by hand, but periodically Nadeau uses a computer system to reproduce images that are called for on a regular basis, such as ice hearts. Each sculpture has a show-life from eight to 15 hours.
Though he can carve just about anything in ice, Nadeau has never taken an art class.
“I was a line cook at the Marriott Hotel in Boston in the mid-70s, and that’s where I learned to carve,” he said. “The cold food chef was carving on the loading dock one day when I was going to work. He was using only a six-prong ice chipper, a hand saw and some chisels. Power tools weren’t used ’til later. I was in my early 20s, just a kid, just out of culinary school and I was just mesmerized.”
The European-trained chef loaned Nadeau his tools and told him to go at it.
“He came back four and a half hours later and the piece was so ugly, he kicked it off the loading dock,” Nadeau said, laughing. “Instead of just beating me up, he shockingly let me do it again and again and again.”
As Nadeau moved up in the Marriott organization, he began training others in food service. Part of the job included teaching others the fine points of ice sculpture. He came to Chicago in 1978 to help open the Michigan Ave. hotel, and he liked Chicago so much that he stayed. In 1980, he opened his own ice carving business in Forest Park.
“At the time there was not a single ice carving company in the whole of the United States,” he said. “There were chefs who carved for the hotels or the country clubs back then, but there was no dedicated company.”
The business was tough for Nadeau. To make ends meet, he painted houses during the day and bartended at night. “Occasionally I’d get a job here and there doing ice and the reputation spread,” he said.
Today, however, there are about 400 independent ice sculpting businesses in the U.S., including three or four in Chicago. “All of them are an offshoot of here,” Nadeau said. “Everybody who is in the market right now has worked for me.”
Nadeau currently employs about 13 people. Some came from the culinary arts, others trained as artists, but all have a little bit of the extrovert in them. The “ham” comes out when they pull out their chainsaws at the live demonstrations.
Zoo Lights at Lincoln Park Zoo is a case in point. From Thanksgiving to New Year’s, two employees appear almost nightly to take requests from the audience and carve four life-size replicas of the animals. The show is the highest rated event at the zoo.
Although most of the company’s business consists of weddings or corporate events, there are those once-in-a lifetime events, too. Such was the case for the extravagant birthday party for Tribune CEO Sam Zell. The request was for a full wall of illuminated ice. Nadeau said that his part of the bill ran to about $25,000 and the estimated cost of the entire shindig was several million dollars.
Nadeau created 60 blocks with pieces of “silver screen” material embedded into each section. When completed, images could be projected through the ice like a movie screen. The ice was suspended from a monster truss in the ceiling. A moat was built to catch the dripping water and pods were connected to an amplifier so that every drop of water emitted a specific tone.
“It was like an IMAX theatre,” Nadeau said. “It was magnificent.”