The first semester of culinary school can be a bit nerving. You have to learn about new instructors, meet other students and prepare for your hands on lab classes. What you’re not quite prepared for is the invitation for 5 students to compete in a gingerbread contest in New York City on Broadway known as The Gingerbread on Broadway at the Marriott Marquis . It gets better. These are 5 students who have never baked a cookie, rolled a rolling-pin across a sheet of gingerbread let alone 120 sheets of gingerbread, used a commercial convection oven or a 30qt. Hobart mixer…until now. This gingerbread house had to be made entirely out of edible products. How hard can that be?? Read on…
The challenges come into play when the contest is first announced. Everyone wants to go. Now the weeding out process begins. This contest requires 40 hours of work which is after class 4 days a week. You have to participate in every class. There’s a lot of work that has to be done by everyone. One by one they filed out the door until there was 6 (one alternate). We’re building a team. I thought this was more of a challenge than building the house or transporting it 5 hours in a rented van.
Eventually we build a team and the work begins. For me, the most important condition was that who ever was in this, wanted to learn. They were willing to listen and try new techniques. This is all about learning. It’s a quick crash course on baking and decorating but more important, a course on trust and working together.
First order of business is what to build. They decided they were representing Maine and a lighthouse was the perfect way to do that. They chose the Nubble Lighthouse as a team. My insides were saying, “A light house? And it has to travel all the way to NYC down the Massachusetts Turnpike and through the streets of New York?? Don’t scare them. Keep this thought to yourself”. And so I did.
We start by building the house out of cardboard and constructing it together. This became our template. Then a quick course on mixing and rolling out dough. This was not so easy. Not a problem as this is where the learning continues. Then we had to decided how to stabilize the house. After staring at the picture of the Nubble for what seemed like hours but was only one hour, it was decided that the land would be made out of Rice Krispie treats and we could dig a foundation to sit the house in. Genius! I have learned that two of my team members work construction during the summer.As I learn the members, I learn their strengths. I have another person who loves to make beaded jewelery. She was perfect for the window work and trim. Each night was a new experience. There was excitement, tension and a lot of concentration. These would eventually be students in my baking and pastry class the next month. The house is constructed and now the creativity for the outside begins. We have a sugar made santa in a boat. This actually happens at the Nubble every year so that was important to include. We made lobster traps all out of sugar, a rocky shore and Christmas trees decorating the yard made with local candies. You can’t see them but behind the house are woodpiles made of pretzels and two cats playing in the snow. We used writing gel for the water. We used and made so much candy!!! It looked great!! I was so proud of my team.
Travel time! In all of my years making wedding cakes, I can tell you the delivery is the most painful. If it’s going to happen, it’s during the delivery. The entire night before, I prayed that every horrible driver take the day off from work. We loaded the van and created a “crash” kit of extra gingerbread, candies, icing, pastry bags and Tylenol. After a long drive and solid white knuckles and a lot of laughs, we arrived.
We made it in one piece as did the house. However, we made the maximum size house allowed under the rules. No one told use we had to reserve a handicap room if we did that. The house wouldn’t fit in our room.I offered to sleep with it in the lobby but the staff said no. How out-of-place would I have looked sleeping in the lobby in New York? After a conference with the hotel staff, our house got its own suite, two floors a bar and a piano. We could not sleep in the suite but our gingerbread house would be safely locked in the room with a window view of Times Square.
After a sleepless night, we retrieved our gingerbread house and went to the conference room to set up. The room was decorated beautifully. There were 6 other schools there. We were the underdogs. I brought the students around to meet the other schools and to check out their work and make mental notes for next year. The judging began and consisted of culinary experts, architects and hotel staff. We walked away and sat in the next room chatting about the other incredible houses. My students were up against some pretty well known schools. I had complete faith in them because I watched them all grow in 6 short weeks. Once allowed back, the judges would come to your table and critique the work. This was a very important step for the students to experience. The awards were announced except for the People’s Choice which the public votes on and they have 3 weeks to do so while your house is displayed. Unfortunately we did not win the grand prize. I explained it was the People’s Choice award they wanted. It’s the award chosen by the public. Just three more weeks. I told the students they were winners long before we arrived here. They learned to build a team, work together, be creative, learn several new skills and put together a beautiful gingerbread house. There wasn’t much I could say to make them feel better. It was a long ride home.
Three weeks later, we get the call from the Marriott. We won the People’s Choice award!! The students were thrilled!! The college was thrilled and the local news covered the story.
This was the most incredible 6 weeks I spent with brand new students. We all learned so many lessons including myself. We walked away with an award, new skills and most important, new friends.
Gingerbread houses don’t have to be this big. Start with a small house for little hands. Build a tradition with your kids or in the community. It builds strengths, courage, self-esteem and creates memories that will forever be remembered.