You say potato. Bang-on Roulet says Picasso.
To Roulet, fruit and vegetables are palettes for edible art that looks too amazing to eat. In her hands, melons, radishes and squashes quickly become intricate flowers, faces and fish. The local chef's hobby has made her one of the world's top food carvers, evidenced by her collection of medals from competitions across the globe. Even more impressive: She's only been carving since 2008 and doesn't have an art background.
"No art. I can't draw. I don't know how I do it," she said with a laugh and a shoulder shrug during an interview in her South Anchorage home.
That's just how Roulet rolls -- her massive talent matched by a dogged drive. In her first competition, a national showcase in Las Vegas in 2010, she won gold and silver medals, then left the venue promising judges she'd get even better. She has. She recently returned from the 2012 Culinary Olympics in Germany, where she won a bronze medal in the high-stress, three-hour live carving competition.
"It changed my life. It was really, really big," Roulet said of October's Olympics, in which nearly 2,000 chefs from more than 50 countries competed in a variety of kitchen challenges.
"I cried at the opening," she said. "I came to America from Thailand. I don't know English; I learn to cook cold food, hot food, vegetable carving -- not many people can do that. All from my hands."
Roulet, 35 and known to friends and coworkers as On, might be relatively new to carving, but she's had her hands on food most of her life. Born and raised in Thailand, she started cooking for family at 7 after her mother passed away. Shortly after moving to Alaska to be with her husband Marcus in 1999, she began charming Ketchikan locals with her Thai cooking. A catering business quickly evolved into a restaurant, On's Thai House, which was such a hit that she spent years working 16-hour days there.
Roulet said she was relieved to sell the restaurant in 2003 when Marcus' job transferred him to Anchorage. Here, she found a regular working life in the Hotel Captain Cook's kitchens. Still learning English and with little experience cooking American cuisine, she rapidly advanced from line cook to manager and sous chef of the main kitchen.
Roulet found food carving the same way many pro and amateur cooks find their inspiration -- by watching Food Network, where she saw a special on a food carving competition.
"It's in my head, 'I want to learn that!' " she recalled.
So she did, devouring books and online videos while constantly carving fruits and veggies at any opportunity. "That's my mind -- practice, practice, practice," she added.
Roulet instantly discovered a knack for reproducing things she sees, whether it's a child's action figure, a dragon figurine or a bouquet of flowers. She also has a stubborn streak and a work ethic that pushes her to go sleepless for days when carving elaborate displays for static carving competitions.
"My lovely bride can be a bit focused," Marcus said with a laugh. "She doesn't accept mediocrity in anything."
She proudly said that she learned to drive in just a few months after moving to Alaska and aced her U.S. citizenship test on the first try. After teaching herself the carving basics, she took a 16-hour knife and carving training session with master carver Jimmy Zhang in San Francisco.
Shortly after, Marcus was ordering carving tools for his wife over the phone from master carver Ray Duey, who asked to see some of Roulet's work. That night, she carved a honeydew melon to replicate one of Duey's best works. Marcus took a picture and emailed it to Duey, who called immediately and invited Roulet to compete in the Las Vegas Culinary Challenge.
She has been a sensation at national and international carving competitions ever since: a grand champion in Vegas, best in show in Arizona, gold and silver at an invitational in France. Her work occasionally pops up on tables at the Hotel Captain Cook when she has extra time in the usually busy kitchen, and she's become long-distance friends with Zhang, who has flown her around the country to carve displays for high-profile dining events.
Roulet is also training for her next big challenge: the 2014 Culinary World Cup in Luxembourg.
"I want to win gold medals and impress the judges and myself," she said with a smile. "If I don't win, I can see how they won, go home, practice, try again. Some day will be my day."
•See more of Bang-on Roulet's food carving by visiting onsedibleart.com or by friending her on Facebook.
By Josh Niva
Daily News correspondent
Alaska Dispatch Publishing