Stephan Baity carves with slow precision, etching delicate roses into crisp radishes and starbursts into a succulent honeydew. He reaches behind him for the tools of his trade—V-shaped knives, peeling implements, and shaping molds, all contained in the many drawers of a large rolling cart. Despite the concentration it takes to create his designs, Baity easily chats with me and answers questions from his young children, stopping to offer his 3½ year-old daughter, Olivia, a morsel of the food that is his canvas.
Baity travels the country as an award-winning chef and speaker, serves as the University of Mount Union culinary director, operates his own company, and is often recognized near his Canton home after a star turn on the Food Network program Cake Wars. Early on in his career, Baity received a valuable piece of advice—to find a way to set himself apart in his field. Little did this motivated chef know that his sweet spot would involve a rolling tool cart and significant time in the produce department choosing fruits and vegetables the way a painter might select oils and brushes. Baity has been recognized for his accomplishments as a traditional chef, but it is his work as a fruit and vegetable sculptor that has garnered acclaim.
Baity’s initial designs originated from stencils, but his work soon evolved into intricate freehand creations. As he continued carving, he utilized social media to post photographs of his creations. Unbeknownst to him, these photos were viewed by James Parker, the first food sculptor to be featured on the Food Network. After learning that Parker would be in Canton for an event, Baity attended his demonstration and met the sculpting pioneer, who ultimately recommended him for Cake Wars.
“I thought I was being punked,” Baity says, recalling the initial invitation. Working on a team with two other artists, the trio competed against six other teams for a total of 12 challenges. In the end, his team triumphed.
Despite his many successes, Baity shows humility and an appreciation for the influence of good teachers in his life. “I keep this on my phone,” says Baity, producing a photograph of Rebecca Labowitz, the culinary arts instructor whom he credits with initiating his path toward success. A Canton native who grew up in public housing on the southeast side of the city, Baity was raised in a home rife with addiction. He was the first in his family to go to college, an achievement he credits almost entirely to Labowitz. She pushed him not only to apply himself in her kitchen at McKinley High School, but convinced a representative from the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute, in Pittsburgh, to drive to Akron to meet with Baity. Upon his acceptance, Baity and Labowitz met every day after school to search for awards and scholarships for culinary arts students. Baity received six.
Following his graduation at age 19, Baity returned home and was hired as a chef in a nursing home. While preparing for a banquet, Baity purchased a pumpkin carving kit on a whim and carved a watermelon to use as a decoration. His creativity impressed the owner of the facility, who requested similar designs for future banquets. Through a handful of foreign books on fruit and vegetable carvings, which Baity purchased online from overseas, he taught himself techniques by studying the photographs that accompanied the foreign languages.
Baity’s first serious foray into the world of professional carving came in the wake of tragedy. After he and his wife, Lonette, lost their first daughter at the end of their pregnancy, the family welcomed son Seth nearly six years ago. Wishing to be an inspiration to his son, Baity entered his first carving competition, finishing fourth. From this, his company, Graffiti Carving, was born. “The first form of art I saw was graffiti,” Baity says. “I never wanted to forget where I came from and my upbringing.”
Baity’s new public persona has led to a role reversal for the young chef—from student to mentor. Baity speaks to inner-city high school students throughout the nation and receives fan mail from students encouraged by his message. One such student is Akron-born Ashten Garrett, whose mother brought him to one of Baity’s demonstrations. Garrett introduced himself and told Baity that after watching him on Cake Wars, he too wanted to be a chef. “I saw someone who looks like me on TV,” Garrett says. “I know I can do it now.”
Baity became a mentor for the young man, who is currently studying culinary arts and hospitality management at Johnson and Wales University. “I was so influenced by his life and the way he could overcome his obstacles that it pushed me to become more proactive in my life,” Garrett says.
In addition to his speaking and teaching engagements, university work, and Graffiti Carving endeavors, Baity currently participates in one or two carving competitions each month, with each piece requiring 30–40 hours to complete. At home, Baity is now a proud dad of three. “Life is so real right now,” Baity says. “I don’t sleep a lot.”
Moving forward, he plans to extend the Graffiti Carving brand to include the Stephan C. Baity name. He realizes that people identify with the person behind the work, and he seeks to continue to spread a positive influence. “I’m embracing who I am,” Baity says. “I had a lot of help along the way. If I embrace it, there are so many kids I can help just by being me.”