Raising the Ice Bar …
Initially, it was curiosity that snagged Chef Kevin McDonald’s attention and steered him toward a life of ice sculpting. While working in Denver, Colo., he encountered the executive chef he was serving under working on an Easter ice sculpture on a back dock. Luckily, he was punched in for his shift, lent a helping hand with the piece and the rest, as they say, is history. The Wilkes-Barre native and his wife, Helen, returned to the area and have been the smiling faces behind Damenti’s Restaurant in Mountaintop for the last 36 years where he plays the role of chef and ice visionary. What started off as an ice castle display for his daughter (stationed in Damenti’s back yard) has blossomed into a full-fledged refrigerated igloo with an 18-foot-long ice bar featuring multiple ice sculptures, an ice luge and a dazzling light show. Now in its fourth year, the ice bar is in the midst of another busy season hosting various local charities, showcasing ice sculptures from multiple ice carvers and serving as a small museum where you can also grab an ice cold beverage. McDonald just wants all of his visitors to have a comfortable, good time and enjoy the interesting icy sights inside the ice bar. Meet Damenti’s Ice Bar owner Kevin McDonald…
How did you become interested in the culinary arts?
I needed a job and told the executive chef at the Mariott in Denver, “I need to pay the rent, I want to learn and I promise not to steal.” He said “Can you start today?” He took me under his wing. I always knew how to cook a hamburger. I would come home and my mother would have frozen hamburgers in the freezer, I would turn on the grill, eat it on a paper plate, wipe the fork off, put it back in the drawer and no one ever knew I was there. So boiling water, how hard is that? Helen and I are both good cooks and we like to entertain. We came back here from Denver and Damenti’s went up for sale. We went to the bank and they said would lend us the money. We borrowed $20,000 more than we needed for financial padding. The first night in business, Helen and thought we were rich! We had a business and $20,000 dollars in our checking account. Within two weeks, we were back at the bank asking for another $20,000. We’re here 36 years later. We have always been good at hospitality and now we get paid for it.
Where does ice sculpting come into the picture?
Once we took over the restaurant, I started putting ice carvings on the roof. Then I made a little ice castle for my daughter’s third birthday. Then I built a bigger one for her fourth birthday. By the fifth birthday, I incorporated an ice carving competition. We went wild and had a 250-ton ice palace in the back yard. We produced sculptures in Public Square and Montage Mountain. I’ve produced the national ice carving championship several times. In Kingston, we built a 186-foot train out of ice. We made a 50-ton eagle and dynamited it at the end. We’ve had a lot of fun. Ice becomes unsafe when you create a big structure. You can put up all the caution signs you want and people will walk right through it. You have to bring it down, so why not make it dramatic. Sometimes, it’s as much fun bringing the sculptures down as it is building them up.
And your work snowballed from there?
Absolutely. I was president of the National Ice Carving Association several terms. We competed at the world championships in Fairbanks, Alaska. We would go up there to have a good time. We would do a nice piece for the public, then go mushing, go see the Aurora and visit the hot springs. Everybody else can work 24 hours a day.
How much is ice sculpting artistic expression and having fun opposed to competition?
The competition is great. Everyone was self-taught way back then. It wasn’t until completions that you learned other people’s tricks. When I first started, I took a block of ice and I would scratch my design on it then cut through with a chainsaw. During my first competition, the kid next to me takes a piece of paper with a dove on it, sticks it on the ice and takes out his chainsaw. I’m still scratching away and he had his chainsaw out. I said “That’s a good idea. I’m going to use that technique next time.” You make some great friends and the camaraderie in this industry is amazing.
Talk about Damenti’s Ice Bar.
This is its fourth season. The first year we did a classic Roman arch with no ceiling. It was a big igloo. It threw the LCB off. They came in to figure out what a self-standing bar of ice was. According to liquor laws, you have to have table and chairs for a certain amount of people. I told them I had the chairs, but nobody wanted to sit on the ice so we turned them into another sculpture!
Where did the idea come from and how has it evolved?
We have been putting displays in the back yard for 35 years and you just can’t work outside anymore in Pennsylvania; you need refrigeration. The second year, we put a roof on the building. We added refrigeration in the third year. We are going to change the design this summer and Helen has been working on a new façade. It’s a patio bar in the summer and we serve beer at 28 degrees; beer doesn’t freeze until 27 degrees at this altitude.
What should people expect when they are visiting the ice bar for the first time?
Wear some real shoes! (laughs). A lot of people come in just for a drink. They visit the ice bar and then they come up to the restaurant. I’m OK with that. The bar itself is 18-feet-long with a polished top. We have rings on the bar to put your cup in so they don’t walk away. We have a luge in the shape of a Trojan helmet. It’s a small museum of ice sculpture that’s there for the public. It’s not a saloon. It’ a 900-square foot igloo that’s filled with neat carvings where you can happen to get a beverage. I want people to see it, whether they spend money in it or leave a donation. Take a walk through it. Tell your friends about it. Have a good time and be comfortable.
Are there any dos and don’ts while enjoying a night out at Damenti’s Ice Bar?
There’s not much you can do wrong out there. Everything is pretty solid; it’s not fragile. Don’t pull a wing off of anything and take it home with you.
Plans or goals for the future?
We will definitely do it again next year. We will keep doing charitable events and continue into the summer. In another year, I don’t know; maybe even have an ice bar in the summer.
— tom graham
The Ice Bar at Damenti’s, 870 North Hunter, Mountain Top, is open Tuesday through Saturday from 5 to 10 p.m. and Sunday from 4 to 9 p.m. For more information visit www.damentis.com or like them on Facebook.