Around this time last year, I shared a post on some of my planning and methods for the Christmas showpieces I created for the hotel (still relevant 365 days later, check it out here). This year, I was pretty chuffed* about how my deer themed – yes, deer themed – showpiece came out so another behind-the-scenes post seemed appropriate.
*That means pleased. Just trying the word on for size.
My 2017 showpiece post was really about the step-by-step process I go through in creating any of the pieces I make, whether in chocolate or sugar. I don’t want to repeat myself too much here, so I’ll try and focus on some of the unique aspects of this particular project.
It all starts with the design, and for me, all designs start with sketching. I constantly emphasize the importance of sketching out your ideas, and no excuses for not being an “artist.” Sketching is never about putting your work up on a gallery wall, it’s about firing off your neurons in a way that differs from just thinking about an idea, and it can really help your creative process.
The kernel of inspiration for this piece was vague recollections (real or perceived) of a crest or coat-of-arms with a gilded stag head. Something that might adorn a wall in a Harry Potter movie. Anything gold is pretty Christmasy if you ask me, and I like the imagery of a deer/stag a lot. The holiday themes for showpieces can be pretty cliche – Santa, ornaments, a sleigh or train, etc. I wanted to create something that felt unmistakably festive but with more of an adult feel. Not everything has to be about the kiddies.
I’ll never really be able to explain exactly how this happens, but once I had the idea of doing a golden deer head (and felt safe I could create a piece that wouldn’t come off as morbid), the rest of it just sort of materialized in my head. A holly wreath around the deer’s neck and tendrils of jingle bells became part of the vision and the piece was born. I wanted to contrast a mostly gold piece with accents of dark chocolate, creating something that was bold and grand but had an understated and elegant tone as well.
The next step for the project (and really for all of my projects) was finding source material to use as reference in creating my sculpture. Lots of images of deer heads were found, printed, and sometimes accidentally left around the hotel causing some concern from my colleagues. They think I’m odd enough as it is, I’m sure.
I also sourced images of holly wreaths. Although I feel pretty comfortable with how a wreath looks, I think it’s always worth having some images of the real thing handy, because these pieces are all about the details, and all the small details, like how a leaf lays over another, are easily lost in memory.
Just like with my Christmas showpieces last year, once I had a solid sketch, I mapped out the relative size of the elements and translated that to a full size sketch. You can see on my original sketch how I measure out the various pieces in centimeters (sorry inches, your accuracy doesn’t cut it) and then scaled that up. This is a step I have incorporated only within the last few years and it really helps me visualize the piece. A sketch is great, but it can be surprising how something that looks good on a small piece of paper doesn’t make sense at full size.
the mise en place
With the full-sized dimensions locked in, I moved on to making the molds to create the piece. I don’t have access to custom molds, so I always make my own basic forms to start with. From there I carve away/add chocolate to get the final piece. I take a bit of pride that my pieces are very much hand-made and labor intensive.
This piece was surprisingly custom, and I didn’t have many existing molds in the form of mixing bowls and containers that I could use. Much of the molds I used, I created from scratch using my favorite combo of foam core, cake boxes and hot glue. You have to have some imagination when it comes to making molds like this because the original molded piece is always far from the finished product.
It may not seem like it, but the base for the piece – the gold column that the deer head sits on – was surprisingly tricky. It is an hourglass tube that tapers into the center. Experienced chocolatiers, fabricators, engineers, etc. will think on that for a second and see what I mean – not an easy shape without a wood lathe (If anyone out there has an extra lathe lying around, I take donations in the form of lathes. But seriously, I want a lathe.). Making things worse is that the piece needed to be quite thick but sturdy, and a large amount of liquid tempered chocolate sets very slowly, leaving the center of the shape crumbly and weak.
I decided to cast two hourglass shaped pieces, and then glue those together to create a single block that was as thick as I needed it to be. From there it was good old fashioned carving – I used a vegetable peeler and a paring knife for most of it – to get the tapered look.
I custom made generic-shaped molds for the deer’s neck, face, and the center component of the antlers. Two castings in mixing bowls made the structure for the deer’s skull and a sphere mold was used for the muzzle. I glued the basic structure together, creating a mildly horrific deer-ish head shape thing. From there I used one of my favorite techniques – blending chocolate in a food processor until it softens and binds into a paste – to add material to the head structure. After a few hours of adding and carving away, I had a deer head. Still horrifying, but a little bit Christmas magical too.
I glued the antler sections together and trimmed/carved them to look like a single piece. I then once again used blended chocolate “clay” to roll out and add the other segments of the antlers. Once everything was assembled I painted over the surface with tempered chocolate. This creates a pretty accurate antler texture and also strengthens and solidifies the antlers as a whole.
I made a ring mold for the basic wreath shaped and then carved it down to round the edges. The leaves were simply made. I piped chocolate onto sheets of acetate and drew out points from the center with a skewer. I love easy.
The finish of this piece was simple and difficult at the same time. Simple, because I had just one color I needed to use. Difficult, because that color was metallic gold, which is a pain in the butt to do well in the chocolate world. There are some decent gold colored cocoa butters out there, but none of them have a strong metallic luster. For that I would need to use metallic gold dust. I love gold dust, but shit does it get everywhere. It doesn’t stick well at all to set chocolate so I had two options.
The first option was to assemble the piece, stick it in the cooler for a day or two until the chocolate started to sweat, and then quickly and thoroughly brush the gold dust on. I didn’t like this option because I didn’t trust the piece to be safe in a hotel cooler for 5min. let alone days. Also, brushing on gold dust may work for small items (like my chocolate jingle bells) but for a piece as large and complex as a deer head and holly wreath, I felt like a mess was imminent.
I chose to go with a second option. I first sprayed the piece in a few coats of good quality gold cocoa butter, letting each layer set before spraying the next. Once I had a base coat, I sprayed a coat of cocoa butter in sections on the piece, and while the cocoa butter was still “wet” I used an air gun to shoot gold dust onto it, covering the piece evenly in a thin coat of dust. This turned out way better than I expected, and I was really pleased with the final look.
All that was left was some careful assembly. I should note that the cocoa butter/gold dust finish looks great, but is basically Teflon when it comes to gluing chocolate onto it. Any point of contact for a chocolate element had to have the gold coating scraped off so that chocolate touched chocolate for good adhesion.
I’m really happy with the final product, a special Christmas deer I’ve named…Glitzen.
Cheers – Chef Scott