The Ice Queen cometh.
Hope Clarke, the ice chef at Chicago's James Beard Award-winning cocktail bar The Aviary, will move to Houston to open a high-end ice business in conjunction with The Hospitable Viking, the new bar and restaurant group that recently opened The Commoner and The Boulevardier in downtown Houston.
Clarke tells CultureMap that she worked at a variety of front of house positions in both Louisville and Chicago before finding her calling at The Aviary. She explains that the position has been difficult for the bar to fill, because it takes a certain kind of person with an appropriately "nerdy" disposition for ice.
As the ice chef, she's responsible for creating 25 to 35 different kinds of ice, including the bar's signature hollow ice ball.
"Chefs didn’t want to take it because they weren’t working with food. Bartenders didn’t want to take it because they weren’t working with people," Clarke says over a margarita at El Big Bad. "I staged, loved it. Just loved the job. I’ve done nothing but go in and make ice in a basement for the last 10 months."
As the ice chef, she's responsible for creating 25 to 35 different kinds of ice, including the bar's signature hollow ice ball and hand carved cubes and spheres. Her tools include a variety of ice picks, knives and saws (this article shows her at work). She's embraced the title of "Ice Queen" as an indication of her skill in her medium — it also beats being dubbed "Elsa."
"We call it ice chef because a lot of people are working with Clinebell and Clear Ice (two kinds of ice machines) but it’s not for consumption in drinks. The reason we call it a chef is because all we do is think about ice and the way it can be consumed. That’s the culinary aspect of it," Clarke explains. (This video documents The Aviary's ice program.)
Although some Houston bars already devote attention to ice and downtown cocktail bar Moving Sidewalk has introduced hand-cut, crystal-clear spheres, the skills Clarke learned from Aviary beverage director Micah Melton represent the next level of attention to detail in this area.
"When I think about creating a piece of ice for a drink or a cocktail, just as a bartender, there’s definitely a culinary aspect," Clarke says. "I don’t want to do it just to cool the drink down or just to look pretty. It had to contribute something as well. Flavor, the dilution rate, you have to think about the way it’s interacting with the guest. I personally really enjoy creating an interactive type drink.
"A drink that changes or evolves over a period of time that the guests can interact with."
Clarke says she always knew her stay at The Aviary would only last for a year or so and began to plan her next move. After meeting Treadsack bar director Leslie Ross during Ross's weeklong stage at The Aviary last year and an Aviary regular from Houston with a passion for ice, she began to consider the Bayou City. Originally, she thought she would divide her time between Houston and Chicago, but that changed when she met Hospitality Viking beverage director Joe Stark and owner Carson Hager.
She's embraced the title of "Ice Queen" as an indication of her skill in her medium — it also beats being dubbed "Elsa."
"We had plans for an ice company from the beginning," Hager says. "There really isn’t a great source for it here. We knew it was going to be critical to our success and having a quality product . . . . Joe catches wind that Hope, the Aviary ice queen, is possibly coming to Houston. He asked me if he should get in touch. Absolutely, feel her out. See what she’s up to. He did. She had a great conversation with Joe first. I talked to her. Actually, she talked to me for about an hour on the phone; I don’t think I got a word in edgewise."
Clarke quickly chimes in. "I just wanted to make sure it was right. If it wasn’t going to be mine, I wanted to make sure it was going to be right."
Finding they had similar ideas, Clarke and Hager agreed to form a business that would supply ice commercially to The Hospitable Viking's concepts as well as other bars and restaurants in Houston. Their plan also calls for what Clarke thinks will be the world's first retail ice shop. Hager says he has a space for the business and will begin building it out to Clarke's specifications prior to her relocating to Houston in May.
"I’m not sure there’s a demand today," Hager concedes. "People don’t think of it. But I think once you offer something at this level of quality there’s a certain demographic it will certainly appeal to. It’s our job to find them, market to them and make it easy for them to buy it."
Some of The Aviary's signature elements, including the hollow ice ball, will remain in Chicago, but Clarke plans to develop new shapes and flavors that she thinks will appeal to Houstonians. As for her soon-to-be former employers, she says they're happy for her.
"They’re very excited for me. I’m blown away by their support."