The ability of chef Stephan Baity to transform watermelons, pumpkins and cantaloupes into sculptural art has earned him adoration from fans and accolades from peers. The professional chef-turned-self-taught carver is a Food Network champ, a culinary Olympian and a multiple American Culinary Federation Chef of the Year award winner.
A career as a chef wasn’t on Baity’s radar growing up in Canton, Ohio. But at 16, a high school culinary arts teacher changed his destiny. “I was actually being a little mouthy to the instructor in the hallway and she said, ‘If you join my class, I’ll make a man out of you,’” Baity recalls. “So, I joined just to be combative.” What started as a lark would come to be life-changing when a dish he prepared blew his teacher away. “She made a deal with me that day that if committed to giving her my all she would give me hers. And the rest is history. She helped me go to culinary school. She helped me with all my scholarships. She was that rare breed of a teacher who poured herself into me and made sure that I made the best of my life.”
Baity was still a teenager when he began experimenting with food carving and admits his early attempts were “trash. I was hacking up fruit. It was terrible.” Still, he stuck with it, and when his first son was born, “the light bulb went off,” he says. “I was sitting, rocking him in a chair and telling him he was going to be anything he wants to be, and that he’s going to change the world.” But as confident as he was about his son’s future, in that moment Baity realized he had yet to take a chance steering his own future. Soon after, he entered his first fruit and vegetable carving competition, scored a respectable finish and launched his business, Graffiti Carving.
His carvings can be avant-garde or cascading and full of movement. Baity’s takes on fruity floral centerpieces are always scene-stealers. “If I don’t make you take your camera out, I haven’t done my job.” It’s some consolation that Baity’s perishable creations are preserved on camera, but their temporary nature is what makes each one precious. “Each carving is a beautiful thing that can never be encountered again in this world.”
These days, Baity, a father of four based in Greenville, South Carolina, is more than “the culinary guy who carves.” He is also a private chef and the founder of a line of seasonings named Pop’s Secret Seasoning in honor of his late father.
He is also, somewhat unexpectedly, a role model.
“I didn’t think about this, but people tend to forget that if you Google ‘fruit and vegetable carving,’ respectfully, you’re not going to see a lot of Black and Brown people doing it. It’s just not a skill that you see that Black and Brown people do.” Judging by the young people of color who show up to his events, write to him and follow him on social media, that may be changing. They‘re inspired, they tell Baity, because they see someone on TV who looks like them.
The human connection is what animates Baity most. “Food is how we survive, but it’s all about the relationships that you build through food. It connects you with people that for no other reason on God’s earth would you ever have a reason to connect with. And that’s what I absolutely love about it.”
Why Mercer Culinary
“If you can dream it, you can create it. I always tell people the utensils and knives you have in your hand are an extension of your mind. If you have the right tools, you’re going to have a great outcome.”