The Ritz-Carlton, Naples’ celebrated gingerbread house was erected in about 12 hours in late November, but it took a year of planning and preparation for Executive Pastry Chef Lerome Campbell and his team to get there.
“The planning [for next year] starts when you see the finished product,” Campbell says. “When you’re finishing it, all you start thinking is, ‘Maybe we could do this, or this?’”
If they worked straight hours, it would take three weeks. “We have to find the free time, a few hours here and there,” says Campbell, 38, who lives in Estero with his daughters, 5 and 8.
It’s a tradition that lures travelers and locals, and the ingredient list is monumental: 750 pounds of powdered sugar, 325 pounds of brown sugar, 550 pounds of flour, 20 pounds of baking soda, 150 pounds of egg whites, 100 pounds of shortening, 70 quarts of eggs, 65 pounds each of ginger and cinnamon and 30 pounds each of honey and molasses.
Dough was made in August and gingerbread sheets were cut and rolled in October when carpenters started work on the 13-by-10-by-12-foot frame, which would eventually contain electricity, an LCD screen fireplace, a Christmas tree and Santa Claus.
Forty different types of candies and chocolates (60,000 pieces), including licorice, Hershey’s Kisses, gummy trees and snowflakes, were ordered in October. Baking began in November, when large pieces were put together in the ballroom.
Two supervisors decide where to place candies, chocolates and dried baguettes. “They’re guiding every detail that goes on the house, because not everyone is as creative,” Campbell says.
Cookies ‘N’ Creme and Candy Cane Hershey Bars were game-changers. “It’s a cleaner look,” Campbell says. “We used to use just candy, but if you’re not careful, it can look like kids did it.”
Campbell grew up in Jamaica and loved building birdhouses, art and baking. “I started super early in the kitchen with my mom,” he says, adding that she had a shop and baked there. “Being in the kitchen with her was fun for me. After school every day, I would go to her shop and help out.”
He aspired to be a pastry chef, but she urged him to try five other careers first. He earned an art degree but found it boring. With each career, he found something wrong. “As a carpenter, something could get cut off,” he says. “As an electrician, I got electrocuted a lot. As a mechanic, I smelled like grease coming home. Being a computer technician was boring.”
He went to culinary school in Jamaica, got a job as a cook at Hedonism II Resort and rose to pastry chef in weeks. From there, he worked as a pastry chef at Gasparilla Inn & Club in Boca Grande, was lured away by the Ritz to be a cook in Naples, then wooed back to Gasparilla as executive pastry chef. He later worked at The Sagamore in New York and Woodstock Inn & Resort in Vermont, but when his Ritz boss heard he longed for a warmer climate, he brought him back as a pastry chef.
He’s popular at local fundraisers, gaining national fame in 2018 as runner-up on Food Network’s “Holiday Baking Championship” and winning a year later, when he became the Ritz’s executive pastry chef. Food Network, Disney+ and Netflix have called.
Campbell hopes to own his own bakery so his daughters can have that childhood experience. For now, he bakes with his daughters and mother, who lives in Florida, and takes his kids to the gingerbread house. “When the house goes up,” he says, “I save some work for them.”