When we think of competitive sports, the obvious ones come to mind: football, baseball or NASCAR. As a chef for 15 years, I never thought of gingerbread-house-making as a sport, much less competitive. Well, I am here to say in all honesty, “Boy, was I wrong.” I caught wind that the Grove Park Inn Resort & Spa was hosting its annual Gingerbread 101 workshop recently, so I decided to head up the mountain to Asheville to get a little insight.With the resort only a couple of hours away, I decided to make an overnight trip out of it and take the family. The folks at the Grove Park Inn were kind enough to put us up for the night in order to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for our morning workshop.The Grove Park Inn will host its 19th Annual National Gingerbread House Competition this November – the entry deadline is Nov. 7. Competition judging takes place on Nov. 14 and all of the entries (300 are expected) will be on display from Nov. 16 to Jan. 1 at the resort.Before the workshop, I was thinking I might be submitting an entry myself. I mean really, how hard could it be to build a house out of gingerbread? I am a chef, I cook all the timepiece of cake (well, gingerbread).The gingerbread competition isn’t just for bragging rights (winners are named in different age groups and categories). It also rewards the competitors with cash, prizes, awards and a featured spot on ABC's “Good Morning America” on the morning of Dec. 23.Serious competitorsAs I sat quietly in my seat before the workshop, I was introduced to last year’s third-place winner, Linda Carney, and got the feeling right off that she is all business – which made me a little nervous.“Great to meet you. Will you be entering the competition this year?” Linda asked. I stumbled for words, a little taken aback by the forwardness of her question. Finally, I stuttered, “I am - considering it.” Soon after, I met Executive Chef Denny Trantham. He was also a little intimidating, standing there in his tall French-style chef’s hat and a perfectly pressed bleached-white chef jacket. Chef Denny’s formidability subsided when he said hello with his southern Appalachian accent. Raised in Haywood County, just west of Asheville, Chef Denny knows local food and works closely with local farmers to bring in the freshest local ingredients possible to the resort.“This is as fierce as any competition I have ever seen, even more so than any UFC fight. These folks aren’t here to just make a pretty house. They want to be the best and win,” explains Chef Denny, who is also one of the judges. “Some of the spouses of the competitors stake out the lobby and watch as the other competitors enter the resort with their gingerbread houses. They report back with ideas of detail and what the competition looks like.”With all that going on, he adds: “When the winners are announced, I take off my chef whites and get out of Dodge.” Now was my chance: I had an idea for a house for the competition and I could run it by the “man” himself. Mustering up the courage after a brief hello, I made my move and described my concept. Without completely giving my idea away, I’ll just give a hint and say it’s a sports structure in its off season, with an entirely different sports activity taking place.Chef Denny listened carefully as I described my idea; he smiled and politely explained that as a judge, he couldn’t offer any recommendations to contestants. He did, however, tell me to pay close attention to the chefs conducting the workshop, as they had prepared a lesson in the proper way to construct a sturdy gingerbread house.As the room started to fill up, folks made their way to their seats. The stage was flanked by two huge projection screens, where the demonstrations would take place. A long table next to the stage was decorated with hundreds of tools used in gingerbread making. To me, it looked more like a booth at hardware convention.The chef opened the class with, “Welcome to the cult. None of you will leave this room the same person.” “What have I gotten myself into?” I asked myself, out loud enough for the person in front of me to turn slightly towards me.Anybody who really knows me knows that the classroom atmosphere is not my thing at all. It certainly wasn’t my ideal way of spending an early Saturday morning, but I have to say I was immediately sucked in to the fascination with this craft. The chefs of Grove Park Inn’s three restaurants taught the class with lots of knowledge, energy and humor, sharing stories from competitions past. One first-timer to the competition worked months on her house and drove hundreds of miles to get there, they recalled. When she arrived, a Grove Park chef approached to help carry her house to the entry area. She insisted on bringing it in herself. As she entered the lobby, a veteran competitor passed her with a perfectly detailed house. The newcomer turned around, put the house back in her car and drove off, never to be seen again.We learned the proper way to make gingerbread dough from scratch, how to make a glass window out of cracked hard candy, the importance of making templates with ultimate precision and that royal icing (a mixture of egg whites and powdered suger) is the glue that holds it all together.Much of the lesson was dedicated to the strength of the structure. Using extra wall pieces positioned in the inside corners of the wall before putting the roof on will make the overall structure more sturdy for travel and longtime display. Some of the veteran contestants claim that they still have houses displayed in their homes from as long as ten years ago.Everything has to be edible, except the two-foot by two-foot base that is required for the gingerbread house to be constructed on. “We have had some folks think that this is our first trip to the ball, and try to use non-edible material to keep their house together during construction and travel. For the record, not only does glue not taste good, it doesn’t look like royal icing either,” declares Chef Denny.“Some folks even went as far as using wooden dolls inside the structure to make the house secure during travel, but we always find them,” he adds.I could see in Chef Denny’s eyes that my idea for a house is a good one. However, am I ready for the commitment? Am I ready to adopt the same competitive spirit as a winning quarterback or NASCAR champion? The instructors taught us: “Be patient, be creative and be ready for a real competition.” Maybe I’ll stake out the competition this year and wait to build my gingerbread idea next year. Chef Troy Gagliardo is a local television personality, author, restaurateur, businessman and blogger for SouthParkMagazine.com. He lives in the Lake Norman area with his wife and two daughters.
The Grove Park Inn
The inn was built in 1912 by pharmaceutical guru Edwin Grove and was constructed in exactly 364 days. It took several hundred workers to complete the resort. The workers lived on the grounds in a huge circus-size tent and worked for the meager salary of one dollar a day, six days a week. Two additions followed in 1983 and 1988; the spa was added in 2001 and currently ranks as the sixth-highest-rated spa in the U.S. and 13th overall in the world.More information:
Grove Park Inn Resort and Spa
290 Macon Ave., Asheville.
RECIPE: Royal IcingWant to try your own gingerbread creation? This is the glue to hold it together, courtesy of Chef Troy.Basic Royal Icing 2 large egg whites 2 2/3 cups powdered sugarMix together the egg whites with half of the sugar until smooth. Add the remaining sugar. Using a stand-up mixer or electric mixer, combine on high speed until stiff peaks form. It should have the texture of toothpaste. Store covered at room temperature while assembling.
National Gingerbread House Competition
Much like the historic resort hotel that hosts the event, the gingerbread houses competing in the National Gingerbread House Competition are architecturally stunning. And visiting the competition display is a sure way to get into the holiday spirit.Each year, artists from around the country bring their confectionery masterpieces to compete for the top prize. Last year’s competition included a gingerbread Noah’s ark, rocking horse, tree house and church.And this year’s competition brings a new twist: dog-friendly edible houses. The Grove “Bark” Inn Gingerbread Doghouse Competition & Display takes place December 4-7 and benefits local animal charities. The criteria for the gingerbread doghouses are the same as the National Gingerbread House Competition, but all materials must be dog-edible. Competitors must avoid ingredients harmful to dogs, including chocolate, raisins and walnuts.The non-canine confectionery and architectural wonders will be on display from Nov. 16, through January 1, The public is invited to view the displays any Sunday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Resort Guests may view the display at anytime.The National Gingerbread House Competition also conducts “Stories of Gingerbread” tours, which take guests behind the scenes of this popular holiday event to learn about the construction of the intricate homes.This holiday season marks the 19th year for the popular contest, which has gained national recognition since The Grove Park Inn Resort & Spa held the first competition back in 1993.A panel will judge the entries across four categories: Adult (18 and older), Teen (13-17), Youth (9-12) and Child (5-8). Entries are judged on overall appearance, originality/creativity, difficulty, precision and consistency of theme. Except for the base, the entries must be constructed entirely of edible materials.ABC’s “Good Morning America” has been hosting winners of the National Gingerbread House Competition since 1998, and the Food Network and the Travel Channel have also featured the competition. Several of this year's entries will be featured on “Good Morning America” on Dec. 23. – Christopher Lux