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This chef's sumptuous creations are almost too pretty to eat

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''The question is, will it fly?'' says Eli Alperowicz, using his paring knife to carve a cardinal out of a large beet. He holds the bird in front of him to study it, and with a few more strokes gives it a dignified crest and graceful tail. Then he puts the cardinal on its bamboo skewer perch.

Eli Alperowicz is a chef who specializes in fancy garnishes. With sleight of hand he turns improbable vegetables into exquisite flora and fauna. Beside the cardinal, a basket of flowers made out of turnips, radishes, carrots, and onions adorns the counter where he has been working.

''Now, how do you think I will make the cardinal's cage?'' he continues. Taking a honeydew melon, he first slices a thin piece off the bottom to give the melon a stable base. Then he puts his paring knife in at midline.

''You must remember where the middle is and always come back to it with each scallop,'' he explains, quickly circling all the way around the melon's circumference in even arcs. He pulls the two halves apart, inserts skewers around the scalloped rim, and puts the canopy top onto the open ends of the skewers.

The brilliant beet-red cardinal perched in its pale green honeydew cage is one of several table decorations Alperowicz has suggested for Christmas. As a garde manger chef, who specializes in the cold buffet table where pates, cold meat and fish dishes, fancy salads, and vegetable garnishes are presented, he is full of ideas for holiday ornaments made out of food.

Dressed in his chef's toque and whites at this demonstration at Newbury Junior College, where he teaches garde manger, Mr. Alperowicz speaks directly to his audience about his metier: ''The major thing is time and patience.'' To encourage those less practiced than he is, he says that no matter how skillful, he must still watch closely and take his time. Rushing will only ruin whatever he is making.

He refers to his knives and other tools as ''my study kit.'' Besides the razor-sharp paring knives and thin, curved tourner knife for fluting mushrooms and other round surfaces, Alperowicz has a wide assortment of implements.

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