'It's like living in your freezer': Ice Sculptor Won't Let Coronavirus Melt His Business
August 17, 2020
Meet the Ice Man of Tinton Falls, NJ
Kevin O'Malley transforms 325 lb blocks of ice into works of art.
It’s 88 degrees with stifling humidity outside, but that’s not a problem for Kevin O’Malley. He has what must be the coldest workplace at the Jersey Shore, and maybe anywhere.
The 62-year-old Colts Neck resident spends his days in a 5-degree warehouse-sized freezer on Route 33. His unusual, fascinating job: full-time ice sculptor.
“You have to be a certain kind of animal to work in here for eight hours a day,” O’Malley told a reporter and photographer who were fighting off frostbite after 45 minutes inside his lair. “It’s like living in your freezer at home.”
O’Malley’s attire on this day: a winter jacket, hooded sweatshirt, baseball cap, gloves, sneakers and … wait for it … shorts.
“Once I start working, I build up heat and I don’t even think about it,” he said. “My wife calls me Mr. Freeze.”
"Mr. Freeze" sculpts with ice in Tinton Falls, NJ
Kevin O'Malley has worked as an ice sculptor for years.
Unfortunately, Mr. Freeze’s livelihood has all but melted away since March.
“Weddings are 90% of my business,” he said. “No one is having weddings.”
The sad proof sits in the warehouse: 19 ice sculptures he created for occasions that were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Among them are a three-foot Eiffel Tower, hot air balloon, snowflake and a pit bull. There’s a leprechaun that was commissioned by a bar shortly before it shut down.
“I guess someone could use that for the next St. Patty’s day,” O’Malley said.
Still, he keeps coming to the freezer, fulfilling a few orders and scratching his creative itch.
“You have to stay positive, but things haven’t been good,” he said. “I think it’ll get better. Weddings have to come back.”
From Muhammad Ali to MTV
O’Malley got hooked on ice sculpting while attending the Culinary Institute of America in the 1970s. He then landed a job with Hilton running a cold kitchen — carving fruits, vegetables and ice. On one occasion, the Meadowlands Hilton commissioned an ice bust of Muhammad Ali for a visit by The Greatest.
Faces, O’Malley said, are the hardest thing to carve.
“I did it from the waist up, with boxing gloves,” O’Malley recalled. “He (Ali) comes in, leans against the wall and goes, ‘Not bad.’”
Eventually O’Malley opened his own business, contracting with banquet facilities throughout Central Jersey. He said there are just two other full-time ice sculptors in the state — one in the north, the other in the south.
“Kevin is really an artist,” said Hassan Mohamed, executive chef at Clark’s Landing in Point Pleasant Beach. “He has such a passion for the job.”
So high is Mohamed’s confidence in O’Malley that he lets brides and grooms pick whatever design they want for their ice sculpture.
“They give me weird things sometimes,” he said. “One bride loved her dog and she wanted the ice sculpture at her wedding to picture the dog,” Mohamed said. “I gave a picture to Kevin and he did it. If you looked at the sculpture and the picture of the dog, it was almost the same. At the wedding everyone was looking at the ice sculpture and saying, ‘Wow, this is Michelle’s dog.’”
In November, O’Malley created the giant “ice bar” used at the MTV-aired wedding of former "Jersey Shore" cast member Angelina Pivarnick.
Last week, among his handful of orders was a luge run for a Penn State graduation party, complete with the blue Nittany Lion logo and the school-slogan words “We Are.” O’Malley drilled a hole through the ice for the booze to slalom down, so it comes out cold. In a sanitary nod to COVID-19, he built in a spout that shoots the libation out into a small cup — so revelers don’t press their lips against the ice.
Luges are the only occasional request O’Malley gets from family members.
“They don’t want it fancy,” he said. “Just something where you put the liquor down there and it makes it cold.”
Imagine having Emeril Lagasse as an uncle but only asking him to grill hot dogs.
“It’s like a shoemaker who walks around with holes in their shoes," O'Malley said.
Chainsaws and Chisels
O’Malley’s frozen workshop is situated in the warehouse of Ice King & Cold Storage, a leading supplier of ice to Monmouth County's shore towns. His medium is a 325-pound block of ice that is 42 inches long, 22 inches wide and 11 inches deep. The ice is made of filtered water, which gets the best results, and carving it in the freezer — as opposed to outside — prevents cracking. His chief tools are a marker (a special kind that doesn’t smear), chisel, drill and chainsaw.
“They have machines that do a lot of this stuff now, but I’m old-school,” he said. “I love hand-carving. I love the feel of creating, hands-on.”
O’Malley passes that preference along to students at Hudson County Community College’s Culinary Arts Institute, where he's a longtime professor. His one concession to modernity, with students, is using a battery-powered chainsaw. No cord, less hassle.
“My No. 1 thing (to teach) is safety,” he said, “because you’re working with chainsaws, you’re working with 300-pound blocks of ice, on slippery floors.”
He’s never been hurt on the job, but accidents happen. One time a hockey sculpture for the New Jersey Devils fell off a loading dock and broke; he had to crank out another very quickly.
Right now O’Malley has time on his hands. A typical wedding season might require him to churn out four sculptures in a day (the average cost runs from $250-$500). Now he’s doing maybe four a week.
But it’s a labor of love, and he has no intention of hanging up the chisel.
In fact, he predicts that whenever the pandemic ends, he’ll be busier than ever.
“My caterers tell me there will be Wednesday weddings, Thursday weddings, Friday weddings, Saturday weddings, Sunday weddings,” O’Malley said.
That’s a lot of time to spend in five-degree air.
For the record, the thermostat at his home is set to 74.
“Sometimes,” he said, “if I get the shivers at night, I know I was in the freezer too long.”