Culinary Carving: Willy Tuz has a special talent for turning fruit into masterpieces
Like a medium waiting for divine intervention from a higher spirit, Willy Tuz has magic in his hands.
Not literally — maybe — but the way Willy Tuz wields a small carving knife, turning watermelons into baby carriages, carrots into roses and apples into butterflies, is nothing short of magic.
He sees faces (a local TV host has his face backlit on a pumpkin), baby carriages (a baby shower recently was wowed by a rose-garlanded baby stroller, complete with a cantaloupe baby and oranges for wheels, carved from a watermelon) and grimacing old codgers, scary enough to put the ‘howl’ in “Howloween,” in the produce department of your favorite store.
“My wife says that when doing banquet and special events you need creativity and one thing I’m blessed with is I’m very patient and creative,” said Tuz, who works at the International House of Pancakes when he isn’t turning out carvings for his Willy’s Wild Carvings enterprise. “I try to make something out of very little.”
“You can start a banquet with fruit and when you turn it into a rose, it changes the whole perspective.”
A native of Cancun, Mexico, Tuz’s talent for culinary carving, as it officially is known, was uncovered while he was working more than a decade ago on the Legend of the Seas, the most-traveled ship in the Royal Caribbean fleet.
On the ship he met a Thai carver who sculpted the ship’s ornate banquet displays.
One story says fruit carving originated in 14th century Thailand (other histories say Japan or China), so it’s possible Tuz’s teacher had several lifetimes of carving behind him.
Just getting to the Legend of the Seas was an adventure. At 16 and working in Cancun, Tuz realized his best chance of advancing in a business dominated by resolutely English-speaking tourists was to speak better English.
“I discovered that the better you speak English, the more opportunities there are for you,” he said. “So I decided to go to school, 2 1/2 years, pretty much full time.”
That and his work ethic soon had him working in the dining room of the Cancun Hilton, a job he said took “four or five” interviews to get.
“Remember, in Mexico being a server is a respected career, not a part-time job,” he noted. “I took great pride in my work and knew the only way I could advance was to work hard.”
Work hard, he did, and one night after serving dinner, a man at one of Tuz’s tables handed him a business card.
“He asked me if I was interested in working for him,” Tuz said. “The card had a different (company) name on it, so I didn’t know he was with Royal Caribbean.”
The man called a few weeks later, asking if Tuz still was interested. After much thought, he said yes, and the man said, “You’ll have someone calling you back.”
Tuz breezed through the subsequent interview and a few weeks later he had a new visa and a one-way ticket to Vancouver, B.C.
He was the first of his family to leave Cancun.
“I was excited and my mom was excited, too, but she asked me, ‘When are you coming home?’” Tuz recalled.
“She was very proud of me and knew I had pushed myself to find a better job,” he said. “But I didn’t know I was going to Alaska.”
That’s where the Legend of the Seas was headed, along with more than 2,000 passengers and 1,700 workers, including a wonderstruck Willy Tuz.
“I’ll always remember the first time walking up the gangway to the ship, looking up and thinking, ‘I’m living here for the next nine months?’” he said. “And the cold? In Cancun, ‘cold’ means putting on long pants.
“I was excited and scared.”
As a first-time dining-room employee, Tuz started in the bowels of the 11-deck ship, where at night in his bunk he would hear ice scraping against the steel separating him from the sea.
“I’d lay there and think, ‘What am I doing here?” he said. “But I learned to deal with the cold and soon I worked my way up to the main deck.”
While stationed in the dining room, Tuz discovered there was way too much to see and too many friends yet to be made outside of his assigned area.
“As you know, I’m not quiet,” he said, as if it were in doubt. “I’m very curious and love to talk and meet people and soon I met people in the other departments.”
That included the pantry workers, who bent the rules a bit by inviting Tuz to come around when the supervisor was gone.
That’s where he met the Thai food carver. Tuz said something clicked when he saw the elaborate displays etched from fruit, butter and ice.
“Soon I had my own carving knife and then I was always in my room, carving small stuff like radishes, potatoes and apples,” he said. “I was doing it all the time, I really loved it.”
Those were only formal lessons he’s received, he said, but they were key to his success.
“He taught me to be creative, to look at something and see what’s there,” Tuz said. “Sometimes the end is different from what you thought at the beginning, but that’s OK.”
After five rounds with Royal Caribbean (each one a nine-month tour), he figured it was time to go ashore for good.
“I went to Alaska, the South Pacific, Mexico, Australia, so many wonderful places,” he said, recalling his love for Tahiti. “But I was missing something. My friends, my family, a real life.”
Back in Cancun, he continued to carve, giving away his creations as gifts or as fanciful decorations.
Ten years ago, a job in Las Vegas beckoned, and on the way he and some friends stopped in Grand Junction.
“When we stopped here, I rode my bike to the monument and, suddenly, I felt like this was where I wanted to stay for a while,” he said.
His cruise-ship experience helped him land a job at what then was the Adam’s Mark, where he soon moved up to be the captain of the banquet, supervising the catering events.
Four years later, when the Adam’s Mark became the DoubleTree, he left for IHOP.
By then, his hobby had grown to where he was working more with local catering companies.
He also had found another outlet for his creativity — pumpkins.
“I carved pumpkins in Mexico, but they’re not as popular there as they are here, with Halloween and all that,” he said.
Each fall, Tuz’s eerie pumpkin carvings enliven the grounds at Moon Farm on 18 1/2 Road, where, said David Moon, the pumpkins are a big hit with his guests.
“When most people think of pumpkin carving, they think of cutting out a few triangles for a nose and eyes,” Moon said. “But when they see what Willy can do, they are amazed.”
It is art, and like most artists, Tuz works at his own pace.
“I call him the pumpkin whisperer,” Moon said, perhaps only half-kidding. “He can take an hour to pick out 10 pumpkins. He’ll walk around our field, turn each one over, hold it and then put it down and walk away. Then he’ll come right back and pick it up.
“I say, ‘C’mon, Willy, pick one.’ But he sees things other people can’t imagine.”
Tuz said while pumpkins are absolutely seasonal, he particularly favors carving watermelons, where four distinct colors add a natural sense of 3-dimensionality.
“I like to keep the dark green, like here, and contrast it with the white and light green,” he said as his hands moved carefully and surely over a watermelon turning into a flower-festooned baby carriage. “And see? Revealing the red underneath gives everything a depth.”
Willy and his wife Wendy — they met while working at the Adam’s Mark — decided a few years ago to turn his hobby into a business and Willy’s Wild Carvings was born.
He was searching for a commercial kitchen when, while working on his annual contribution for the IHOP Pancake Day/Shriner’s Hospital benefit (it was March 4 this year), he mentioned to one of the Shriners that he needed a commercial kitchen but couldn’t afford one.
“He told me the Shiners had a commercial kitchen they weren’t using at the Masonic Center,” Tuz said. “We looked at it and we finally got everything together last year.”
While it’s not unusual for his customers to ask for personalized creations for weddings, birthdays and special events, or for businesses to want a distinctive way to show off their name and logo, they usually just put their faith in Willy’s sure hands.
People usually just ask me, ‘What can you do?’” he said. “I tell them not to worry. Sometimes it takes me a little longer than I planned but I want to put the time in on it, so it’s something the people really like.”
Of course, he’s careful about what he chooses for his raw material.
“I’m always carving something at home and my wife saying nothing in the home is safe,” he said, laughing. “She thinks I’ll start carving the kitchen table next.”
The worst, he says, is when Wendy returns from grocery shopping.
“She’ll pull everything out and say, ‘This is to eat, this you can carve,’” he said. “So far, I’ve been pretty good.”