Fred Martineau likes to play with his food.

He’s never been sent to his room without dessert for it, though. Rather, people pay him to do it.

Martineau has crafted Italian plazas, tropical paradises, whimsical scenes, adorable animals and complex kaleidoscopic patterns using only fruit, vegetables, cheese, crackers and a lot of imagination.

For five years, Martineau worked as a garnishier – the person responsible for making sure that the food at an upscale restaurant looks as good as it tastes – at the Grand Summit Hotel at Sunday River.

It was an unexpected career trajectory for the Rumford area native, who spent most of his working life on the maintenance crew at an area paper mill. When Martineau was laid off in the late 1990s, at age 50, he had an opportunity to go back to college, so he settled on the culinary program at Central Maine Community College.

“I needed a job to get me to retirement, and I’ve always liked cooking. I worked at some little roadside places when I was younger, so it seemed like something I could do,” said Martineau.

He eventually landed at the Grand Summit, which is where he began to experiment with food art, starting with simple plate decorations.

“When we were slow in the morning, the first eight or 10 customers would get flowers on their plates, until we got too busy for that,” said Martineau.

Eventually, he tried his hand at a more complex piece. Copying a design from a book, Martineau carved two doves bursting from a heart-shaped cavity in a watermelon.

That was the first and last idea he got from a book. From then on, Martineau began to work from the manual in his head, dreaming up his own designs and figuring out for himself how to execute them.

“I have a machinist’s background, so some of this comes naturally to me. Working with metal, you’re cutting shapes into the metal and figuring out how to make it into something three-dimensional. Shaping metal and shaping fruit peelings isn’t all that different. Once I figure out a cut for one thing, I can change it somewhat and make two or three different things from that same cut,” he said.

Martineau also has a background in visual arts. As a young man, he used to paint in oils and acrylics. He’d wanted to become an art teacher, but opted, instead, to follow what he thought at the time was a safer career path in his area’s once-prospering mills.

From April through November each year, outside of ski season, the Grand Summit’s primary business is catering parties, such as wedding and conferences. During his tenure there, Martineau’s food art was often the centerpiece of these events. He worked under head chef Patrick Friel, who was very encouraging of Martineau’s unusual talent.

“I had a good boss who let me play around with stuff. He would say, ‘We have this party or that party coming up, what do you need?’ And he would get me whatever I wanted. He’d let me know how long I had to do the job, because we had other jobs to do. What I could make would depend on that,” he said.

Martineau would often spend his half-hour commute between Rumford and Newry inventing ideas for future creations.

“Sometimes if I could find out who was having the party, I would try to do something that had to do with their party,” said Martineau.

Once, when a scrapbooking club had an event, Martineau used roast beef and cheese to turn the buffet into an edible scrapbook.

For an Italian wedding, he used fruit to craft a miniature version of a Venice plaza, complete with an ornate canal bridge and a tiny gondolier.

At another wedding, Martineau created an enchanting tableau of a two ducks getting married in a pond, surrounded by water lilies and cattails. The duck couple even had a fish — emerging halfway out of the water and using a lily pad as a pulpit — for an officiant.

Over the years, he’s brought a virtual zoo of animals to life, including rabbits and pigs from melons, and doves, hummingbirds and peacocks with ornate tails from chopped fruit.

One of his party standbys is a turtle-shaped dip bowl for crudites, complete with a hinged shell, fashioned from melon rinds.

He’s even constructed towering wedding “cakes” from nothing but fruit.

Martineau officially retired from food service a few years ago, but still brings out his magic on occasion, including special events at 49 Franklin Street, a reception hall in Rumford.

He had considered starting a specialty catering business just for his artistic food creations, but realized he didn’t have enough refrigerator space to do it on his own.

“Besides, some of the bigger things I make don’t transport too well,” he added.

He’s also tried a few times to teach classes on his craft through the adult education programs in Rumford and Mexico, primarily just to have an excuse to continue “playing around” with it. Though many people have shown an interest in learning how to do what Martineau does, the material costs have proven prohibitive for the classes.

“Most of what I make isn’t from the edible part of the fruit. It’s from the peelings and stuff, but you still have to buy all of that food. It adds up,” he said.

If you want to learn the craft for yourself, Martineau recommends just jumping in and giving it a try.

“I’ve never met anybody else who does what I do anywhere. There’s no one who tells me how to do this stuff. I just have to dream it up and think it through for myself,” he said.