Ice may not last long outside in the sweltering Louisiana summer heat, but local John Albrecht of Destrehan has still consistently managed to create fine art out of it, and in the process has turned his passion for ice carving into a thriving business.
A chef by trade, Albrecht starting off creating ice sculptures for weddings, banquets and special events while working as a chef at various hotels in the metro New Orleans area.
“About 30 years ago, I got out of the hotel business and just started doing sculptures on the side, and took it from there,” said Albrecht, now 69. “I started out slow and got busier and busier.”
Albrecht Ice Sculptures has long been his full-time business he and his son Andre operate from his studio on Vans Lane in Destrehan. They create ice sculptures for private and corporate events all throughout Louisiana and much of the Gulf Coast, traveling as far east as the panhandle area of Florida.
Each ice sculpture starts with a block of flawless Clinebell ice blocks made by special ice machines in his studio. The ice must start with Clinebell blocks, Albrecht said, to provide the best visual presentation. It takes each ice machine about 3.5 days to create two blocks.
“We have a number of those machines, so we’re producing ice all the time,” Albrecht said. “Those machines are designed to produce a perfectly clear, 350-pound block.”
His ice sculptures are carved and created in his studio using multiple ice blocks, the number of blocks used dependent on the shape and size of each ice sculpting project.
“The initial large chunks come out with a chainsaw – that’s called blocking in, or taking out the big pieces,” Albrecht explained regarding his carving process. “So, if you’re doing something like a swan, you’ll take out the big chunks around the neck and around the wings and such.”
Detailed work is then carved using specific bits used for ice carving, supplied by specialty ice carving suppliers. Once the sculpture is carved and finalized in their studio – depending on the design – it is broken down block by block and prepared for transport.
“Most pieces will last for six plus hours,” he mentioned, of how long each ice sculpture, when set up at a typical event, lasts inside air-conditioned buildings. “After we carve them, we wrap them up basically in sleeping bags to insulate them, and then we have a freezer truck to transport them to the site.”
One of his larger creations was for a fine dining restaurant association event held at the Audubon Aquarium in New Orleans a few years ago. The sculpture measured around 25 feet long and 18 feet tall, constructed entirely out of ice. It took two weeks’ worth of work to create. Just 40 minutes after it was set up for the event, he and his team tore it down to make way for the next event.
“It was just for a reception,” he explained. “[Banquet goers] went into dinner at the Aquarium and that was it – so up and down it went.”
He’s created all sorts of ice sculptures for his clients over the years – castles, fire trucks, oversized corporate logos made entirely out of ice, wooly mammoths, ice bars, seahorses and numerous other designs.
“A lot of the weddings we do are personalized – things like monograms – the initials they put on their napkins and their invitations and such,” Albrecht said. “We do a lot of luges with those themes where they pour drinks through them.”
Nationally, Albrecht stays current on ice sculpting by attending National Ice Carving Association conferences where he and his fellow ice sculptors can participate in contests and network with other sculptors from around the country.
The ice sculpting community is a small community – Albrecht says there are only about four such ice sculpting companies like his in the local region, with a handful of additional chefs that may dabble in ice sculpting work on the side. After specializing in ice sculpting for several decades, most of the area’s catering companies and hotels know of his work, so the bulk of his business is gotten via referrals.
“We do a good job for our [clients] – if we tell them we’re going to be there by six, we show up at six,” said Albrecht. “That’s pretty important. [The reputation of their] business depends on us, and we try to do a bang-up job for them.”