Pumpkins Galore!

Don’t miss this year’s jack-o-lantern carving event at the Atlanta Botanical Garden on Oct. 24 at 7 p.m. when local celebrity chefs square off to create the most ghoulish gourd!

by Alexi Wilbourn

The whir of power tools fills the air as the crowd looks on in excitement. The sun hangs low beneath the tree line as the clock strikes seven. Incandescent lanterns dimly light the contest area, and plastic tablecloths cover every surface. The chefs position themselves in front of their soon-to-be masterpieces and wait for the signal to begin. Yes, it’s the annual pumpkin-carving contest at Atlanta Botanical Garden’s Fest-of-Ale, and the finest chefs from around the metro area have been selected to participate.

Pastry chef Victor Dagatan, 37, of the Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead, took home the title of champion in 2009, the first year of the competition. He met his match the following year in Antonio Alberto, former Hilton hotel kitchen artist for 18 years. The two Filipino men are friends and both grew up in Paete, Laguna, considered the woodcarving capital of the world. Dagatan and Alberto are true artists and showcase their incredible skills through detailed ice sculptures, intricate fruit carvings and the 25-minute pumpkin competitions.
“Pumpkins are fun because each has a different shape, so I have to use my imagination,” Dagatan says. Some of his previous carvings include pirates, fairies and abstract designs. The fairy and princess designs are favorites of his daughters, Vilenda and Gladys. Although difficult to execute, he enjoys carving the pumpkins with his daughters and likes to use the pumpkin seeds as teardrops for crying pumpkin faces. Dagatan uses a boning knife, small paring knife, wood chisel and loop tools (found at most art supply stores) for his creations.
Like Dagatan, Alberto, 54, has carved many pumpkins for his six children over the years. Now that his kids are older, he only carves pumpkins with his 4-year-old grandson, who loves his grandfather’s spectacular dinosaur designs.
Alberto has been carving since 1991 and uses woodcarving tools for his three-dimensional designs. He warns others to be very careful and only use those tools if they have prior experience. A basic carving knife, jigsaw blade and spoon to remove seeds are better options for at-home carvers, he says.


Dagatan’s Advice for At-Home Carving:

  • Begin with the design, and pick a pumpkin with a shape that fits the design. 
  • The pumpkin must be at least 9" tall if a lighted candle is placed inside.
  • Make sure the pumpkin is clean and dry. 
  • Draw the design freehand by using a water-based marker that will allow for any mistakes to be erased, but you can also use a stencil and transfer the design to the pumpkin. 
  • Start in the middle of the design, moving outward to avoid touching and putting pressure on areas that are already carved. 
  • The most important thing is to have fun while carving!  

Alberto’s Words of Wisdom:

  • Bigger pumpkins work best for carving, especially the tall ones.
  • Carve the pumpkin about a week before Halloween so it still looks new on the 31st.
  • To keep the pumpkin fresh, soak it in a bucket of water for about 30 minutes to an hour every two days.
  • Place a low-wattage light bulb inside. Candles give off more heat and dry out the pumpkin.
  • Craft stores are good places to find stencils and patterns for designs. Kids can draw the designs and parents can carve them.


OK, so not everyone enjoys carving pumpkins. Pumpkin carving can be a daunting task – the goo, the seeds, the scooping and the fact that the carving utensils never seem to be precise in executing the jack-o’-lantern designs. But all is not lost. There are many alternatives to this Halloween tradition:

Embellish It
No carving required, and this activity is perfect for young children who cannot use sharp objects. Use stencils, paste-on gems, shaped craft foam or paint. Another option is to paint white glue over the surface of the pumpkin and cover it in colored glitter.

Fake It
Craft and hobby stores offer artificial pumpkins in a variety of sizes. Some are considered “craft” pumpkins, made of thick foam and can be carved. Others are “decorative” and perfect for painting. The best thing about faux pumpkins is that they will last for years and you’ll never have to explain to your children why their precious creations ended up in the garbage after Halloween.

Ice It
This idea is perfect for upcoming Halloween parties, or just for a delightful October dessert. Bake a cake in a circle or bundt pan, use orange icing, then hand your pint-size Picassos black decorator’s icing and let them go to work! If you have several children who want to work independently, let them make mini-pumpkins out of a batch of cupcakes. Boxed mixes produce a lot of cupcakes, so suggest bringing a few cupcake pumpkins to neighbors and friends to share the spirit.

Paint It
Who says Halloween pumpkins have to be pumpkins at all? Paint a paper plate with silly, spooky or happy jack-o’-lantern faces and glue a piece of green construction paper to the top for a stem. Another idea is to use a terra-cotta flowerpot. Paint it completely, or use markers to detail the face. A light can still be placed in this “pumpkin” if the pot is painted open side up. The pot can even be used as a candy dish!