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Originally published November 22, 2011 at 5:32 AM | Page modified November 22, 2011 at 9:52 AM

All aboard for the Sheraton Gingerbread Village

A behind-the-scenes look at the 19th annual Sheraton Gingerbread Village, which opens Nov. 22 in downtown Seattle.

Seattle Times staff reporter

IF YOU GO

19th annual Gingerbread Village

Through Jan. 1, Sheraton Hotel lobby, 1400 Sixth Ave., Seattle; free, donations accepted for the Northwest Chapter of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (www.sheratonseattle.com).
quotes I went to this last year for the first time although my wife had been several times. I ... Read more
quotes In case anyone is wondering, JDRF supports research for Type one diabetes, which...iron... Read more
quotes A benefit for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation? Oh, the irony! Read more

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Bowls of candy canes, gumdrops and colorful chocolates are scattered. The sweet smell of gingerbread permeates the air. It's a week before the Sheraton Hotel gingerbread village will be revealed, and on this day, teams of red-cheeked workers, faces scrunched in concentration, apply finishing touches to their creations. A definite sense of holiday excitement lingers in the room.

No, this isn't Santa's workshop. But Santa would be proud.

This time each year, the kitchens of the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Seattle are overrun by six teams of gingerbread builders — each constructing a building for the 19th annual Sheraton Gingerbread Village. Each team is overseen by a Sheraton chef and architect from a local architectural firm. Volunteers — mostly firm employees, family and friends — do the majority of the decorating.

The gingerbread village will be unveiled on Tuesday. The theme is "Holiday Express" — visitors get to "travel" to various train stations around the world before ending up at the North Pole. Stops along the way include Dunedin Railway Station in New Zealand and Grand Central Station in New York.

The two weeks before the unveiling are the most labor-intensive — chef Wally Walberg said he logs more than 40 hours each week before the unveiling. As head pastry chef, he bakes gingerbread for each team — 1,200 pounds of dough, to be exact.

But the creation process begins as early as August, when architects and chefs first collaborate. Once a theme is selected, architects begin sketching and chefs start finding ways to re-create their ideas. After the basic design is constructed, volunteers begin helping to decorate.

Amber Snellgrove, a volunteer from Master Builders, meticulously cut sticks of Freedent gum to use as trim on the replica of the Gare Du Palais, a train station in Quebec, Canada. For inspiration, she occasionally glanced up at photos of the real building, taped up on the wall behind her.

"We just thought this kind of lent itself nicely for a gingerbread house and had kind of a castle look to it," she said.

Chef John Hart, who oversaw the creation of Kings Cross station, chose to tackle that London site mostly for the challenge. Just like in the Harry Potter books, Hart's Kings Cross will have its own Hogwarts Express.

"Every year we try to do something different," he said. "I'm a perfectionist; I try as much as I can to make something perfect."

Materials to create the stations include more than just icing and candy. Snellgrove glued chocolate Pez and dried noodles onto the Gare du Palais. Cheez-Its and pumpkin seeds were used on others as roof thatching, and dried spaghetti made the bars on a red telephone box.

But Walberg said that sneaking some of the trim or a piece of a station is not the best idea.

"The gingerbread doesn't last very long; I don't recommend eating it."

Each structure can weigh up to 500 pounds and can stand as high as 5 feet.

Walberg says it's well worth the time each year to bring this village to life. Donations collected from visitors aid the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. Over the years, more than $500,000 has been raised for the foundation.

"The money goes to a great cause; that's the underlying thing, that's why we do it," Walberg said. "It's something that's become such a tradition that I'm not sure there's anyway around it, to tell you the truth. It brings out the child in just about everybody."

Kirsten Johnson: 206-464-3192 or kjohnson2@seattletimes.com

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