On the rocks
By day he’s an obsessively driven artist juggling three careers, by night a laid back musician happy to loaf with friends. Scott Rella, ice carver, chef and snowboarder, is heading up the celebrity chef aspect of the Vail Wine and Food Festival, in addition to providing some live entertainment and the occasional spray of ice chips.
Rella is an anomaly unto himself. During his senior year of high school, he ran away from home. He and a friend packed up and lit out West in a Chevy Nova decked out with an eight-track.
“I was done,” he says. “I was in a hurry to start my life. My goal was to be on ski patrol. Along the way, I wound up working in restaurants so I could ski all day. And then I found I really liked cooking.”
Rella never returned to high school, opting for a hands-on education that led him from the ski slopes to the kitchen to many a studio.
“I’ve always been super ambitious, despite the fact I can’t read the paragraph and answer the questions,” explains the artist.
He talks East-Coast fast, his hands making expansive gestures as his eyes roam the room. He serves up fruit smoothies, followed by cafe au laits minutes later, never breaking stride or losing his train of thought.
Despite his high-strung nature, the speed of mountain living is working just fine for him.
“I can’t live in Utah with the Mormons – I feel like I’m on someone else’s land,” he said. “Montana is too cold, and Tahoe is completely inconsistent. That leaves Vail.”
The corner of his Wildridge living room that serves as his office is a study in organization. From home, he can keep tabs on two ice-related businesses, Ice Sculpture Designs in New York and Fear No Ice. Ice Sculpture Designs is a million-dollar business that serves the Tri-State area. Fear No Ice is an over-the-top carving-in-action show.
They allow him to kick back in the mountains and pursue Scott Rella Designs. His carving studio is fully equipped with a large walk-in freezer, a hydraulic lift, ice machines, and a plethora of tools, both electric and manual.
“I didn’t build this studio for a job – I had a job,” he said. “But I have to sculpt.”
For the Wine and Food festival, Rella has been working on several large pieces, of which the crowning glory is a chef. He’s holding a platter in one hand and a spoon in another; the lobster on the platter is planning his getaway.
“I always see it in my head first, and then do a drawing,” he explains.
Then he breaks out a slab and gets going. He starts with chain saws and drills, and uses a trio of irons to heat a metal plate which is crucial in fusing one block to another. If he doesn’t get a good seal, the seam might break in the sun.
Rella came to ice carving the way most people did – as a chef. After ski bumming for a while, he returned to New York. He cooked at the Waldorf Astoria, working his way up through the ranks. Eventually, he left for Caravelle, one of the top three restaurants in New York.
“We officially have American cuisine,” he says excitedly. “When I grew up there was no such thing. And now, the French restaurants are out. Italian has fared a little better.”
While walking down the hall at the Waldorf Astoria, Rella espied a scene that would change his life forever. Inside a room, a man was carving ice. John Dougherty, a chef there, got him started on his path to ice sculpting. For more than four years, Rella created three to four sculptures a week.
“Horrible, Sunday brunch stuff,” he recalls.
Rella’s house in New York was divided into art spaces for a long time. Painting in one room, marble in another, piano in yet another. Ice was in the backyard.
“The ice took its own path,” he says. “I was totally open to suggestions. The phone kept ringing, and the ice kept going.”
Rella doesn’t even deign to sneer at the words “ice molds,” dismissing them as too horrible to contemplate. In addition to being in control of the sculpture, from initial design to final details, he likes the tools.
“They’re crazy, fast and dangerous,” he says, his eyes shining with a manic gleam.
Which is probably what led him to create Fear No Ice, with the help of Peter Slavin and Kevin Roscoe. The trio has competed in many an competition – including the Olympic exhibitions – over the years. During 48-hour competitions, they’re likely to be actively carving for 46 of them. None of them seem able to take it easy with the ice.
They made their television debut on “That’s Incredible.” More recently, they opened for Pat Benetar in Las Vegas, swinging about a slab of ice with torches and chain saws, while lights flashed and invigorating music played.
“I’ve always had a reputation for burning things my whole life,” he says.
In 1981, Rella had the first ice sculpting company in America. Now, they’re everywhere.
“But that’s OK,” he enthuses. “Let them do that. I can’t own America. But I’m an entrepreneur. So I do the live shows, tons of pyrotechnics, loud music. The same thing is going to happen there.”
Unfazed, he simply came up with another plan, a miracle of simple logic.
“There is no ice in Europe,” says Rella, looking smug. “So we built a 6,000-square-foot warehouse in Brussels, the heart of Europe, that makes ice blocks. We ship it all over. Every time they have a sculpting competition or exhibition, they order it from me. So we’re already a step ahead.”
His kitchen is designed for dinner parties. The large dining room table in the next room with commanding views of Beaver Creek usually sits empty, while Rella holds court in the kitchen at the butcher-top island. Four burners occupy one end, and six barstools surround the work space. He’s a fan of interactive parties, where his guests take charge of one of the courses.
Just to be on the safe side, he usually invites five-star chefs. So those hoping to be invited to dinner ought to brush up on their skills.
Standing back, looking at the odd tools of his trade, music blaring, Rella looks content.
“I don’t have any regrets,” he says. “My whole life always made sense.”
Wren Wertin can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com or phone at 949-0555, ext. 618.