Recipe for Tradition

While the Thanksgiving unveiling of The Ritz-Carlton, Naples’ gingerbread house is nothing short of magical, behind the scenes, the staff spends the night before tirelessly assembling gingerbread walls, piping frosting embellishments and carefully placing each and every gumdrop.

BY December 1, 2021
The Ritz Carlton, Naples annual gingerbread house
(Photography by Vanessa Rogers)

Try letting the community at large know that the over-the-top holiday gingerbread house might be missing from the Yuletide trimmings in The Ritz-Carlton, Naples’ lobby. That’s exactly what happened last year when the upscale hotel briefly considered a display devoid of the festive treat.

But then, a Christmas miracle: Management decided the house had to be present—pandemic or not. “[Residents and guests] were so happy,” executive pastry chef Lerome Campbell says. “People came in and were thanking me and thanking everyone for doing it. They said it’s a tradition in their family—something they look forward to every year.”

Chef making a Gingerbread man trimmings for Gingerbread house
Executive pastry chef Lerome Campbell and his team begin work on the 13-foot-tall, chalet-style gingerbread house in September.

Campbell has a history with the gingerbread house: He began working for The Ritz-Carlton resorts in Naples almost 10 years ago. Though he left for three years to pursue other gigs, he returned in 2016. He currently oversees pastry operations for the two resorts and has managed the confectionery construction for the last six years. Although the blueprint for the 8-by-12-by-13-foot home stays the same from year to year, Campbell and his team create one-of-a-kind details for each season. They’ll tweak the chimney, add embellishments to the porch or redesign a roof. Last year, as a nod to the coronavirus, many of the 200 gingerbread men that populated the house were outfitted with face masks.

Pastry chef Diana Wen, one of two supervisors, says fine-tuning is key. She lists her favorite things as: “Planning how to make it different and better than the last one; coming up with new ways to impress our guests without steering away from having a traditional gingerbread house; and eating the peach rings until we almost don’t have enough.” Wen also places Campbell’s encouragement on her “nice” list. “We pitch our own ideas and he’s very open-minded to new designs,” she says, adding that her boss’ joy shines through in the decorating.

Gingerbread house toppings

Campbell’s love of gingerbread houses began as a pastry chef at the Woodstock Inn & Resort in Vermont. When he returned to The Ritz-Carlton, Naples, it was a no-brainer to turn over the responsibility to him. And make no mistake: It is a major undertaking that requires months to pull off, beginning when temps are still high and people are more focused on trick-or-treating than season’s greetings. 

Dough-making and planning start in September. The chefs do not use preservatives—everything is edible, which they accomplish by replacing the butter in the gingerbread dough with shelf-stable shortening. While the team goes that extra mile, guests are prohibited from feasting on the residence. Instead, the kitchen prepares gingerbread cookies daily (made with butter) for visiting guests who come to witness the final embellishments done on Thanksgiving Day or to admire the completed house—and take a selfie, of course—during the six weeks that the structure is up.

What kind of a grocery list does one need to build a house that size? Campbell carves out room in the pantry for 550 pounds of flour, 325 pounds of brown sugar, 100 pounds of shortening, 70 quarts of eggs, 65 pounds each of ginger and cinnamon, 30 pounds each of honey and molasses, 20 pounds of baking soda, 750 pounds of powdered sugar and 150 pounds of egg whites.

Baking begins three weeks before Thanksgiving when the team gets to work creating all the moving parts: bricks, chimney stones, shingles, gingerbread men and Christmas trees. While all that magic happens in the kitchen, the resort’s on-staff carpenters attend to the framework.

The 10-chef team embellishes the gingerbread house
While the carpentry and baking happen behind the scenes, on Thanksgiving Day, the 10-chef team embellishes the gingerbread house in the lobby for all to see.

Then, a week before Thanksgiving, the kitchen takes possession of the frame and begins construction. When the pastry chefs aren’t busy crimping crusts, filling more than 200 pumpkin, pecan and apple pies, and baking all the other Thanksgiving goodies required by the restaurants at both resorts (including a massive holiday buffet in the beach resort’s Grand Ballroom), they’re gluing gingerbread elements onto the framework using royal icing, made of powdered sugar, lemon juice and egg whites. “We do all that tedious work in the kitchen and a ballroom,” Campbell explains. “Then the structure magically appears in the lobby, where my team and I put the finishing touches on the house throughout the day. We can see firsthand the excitement and wonder from guests of all ages.”

Santa’s helpers have nothing on the work that goes into pulling off the big reveal. Carpenters clock in at midnight on Thanksgiving morning to assemble the framework sided with gingerbread. At 4 a.m., the 10-chef team arrives to repair any baked goods damaged during construction before they begin their public performance of embellishing the house with approximately 600,000 pieces of candy, ranging from gumdrops to candy canes to chocolate bars to wheels of strawberry licorice laces. “Since we are around pastries all day, our team typically shows restraint around the candy, but we occasionally sneak a bite or two along the way,” Campbell says with a laugh.

Gingerbread house setup in the main lobby of The Ritz Carlton, Naples
Royal icing adheres the decorated cookies and 600,000 individually placed pieces of candy to the gingerbread siding.

The crew divides into teams armed with cheat sheets that map out where each type of candy goes. “We diligently plan on decorating the house differently each year, so the day of decorating can be challenging,” Campbell says. Some elements of the home—a Swiss-chalet design since 1999—are mainstays, like Santa in the chimney, his sleigh on the roof, toy soldiers at the door and poinsettias and gingerbread fir trees in the yard. There’s also plenty to see if you peek inside, including fun furnishings and a fireplace video loop. A white picket fence pulls everything together and keeps nibblers at bay.

The pageantry never fails to draw a crowd. Hotel guests coming down for a morning coffee are often pleasantly surprised by the spicy aroma of gingerbread and the team of chefs applying final touches. Locals also make it a tradition to stop in, watch the show and enjoy the hot chocolate and fresh cookies served throughout the day. Some sit in the lobby and watch the entire production, then go home to get their loved ones and return to celebrate the completed work.

Many families visit later in the holiday season to take part in gingerbread house workshops, where pastry chefs provide ready-made houses primed for decoration. 

“It’s very fulfilling when a gingerbread workshop is the highlight of a family’s visit,” Wen says. “It’s rewarding to see all of the work we put in being appreciated and cherished by so many families.”

Nutcracker on display next to the gingerbread house

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