Return Bookings of the Jedi
Many hotel B&C operations place limits on what they’re willing to try. But when it comes to dazzling B&C displays, as Jedi master Yoda would say, “There is no try; there is only do.”
The annual Gingerbread Village at the Sheraton Seattle Hotel has become a bona fide holiday tradition for locals and tourists alike, but the positive repercussions reverberate year-round for its B&C staff. The scope is staggering: In 2015, its 23rd incarnation centered around a timely Star Wars theme, with six hotel chefs collaborating with six architectural firms to create six mega-size, mechanized, illuminated structures—the result of five months of planning, two months of building, and roughly 7,000 volunteer hours. Creating the Sheraton’s Star Wars village required 500 pounds of flour, 250 pounds of brown sugar, 300 pounds of powdered sugar, 150 pounds of egg whites, one pound of ground ginger, and hundreds of pounds of candy.
Benefits certainly abound for all that hard work. The villages have informed the way staff members— some of whom have assisted since inception—approach events large and small, while garnering massive word of mouth about how the Sheraton Seattle is uniquely equipped to handle B&C events year-round, complete with finely honed, outside-the-box culinary artistry that goes above and beyond.
“Every year, the villages get more intricate and amazing, and we expose people to the possibilities,” notes Leslie McKenzie, assistant director of meetings and events. “For ‘regular’ meetings, we’re able to inject this new layer of creativity that raises the bar in our culinary and banquet departments and carry it all through the year. Then people come for a convention and make plans to vacation here in the summer, so every group is important.”
Indeed, 2015’s village attracted upwards of 110,000 onlookers who donated more than $85,000 to the hotel’s partner charity, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. “People come through and notice our work, then keep us in mind for an event they’re planning; it helps launch more and more business,” says John Armstrong IV, executive chef at Sheraton Seattle and member of Starwood’s North America Food & Beverage Council. “This becomes a 24-7 tourist destination, and staff are always available to discuss booking events as people snake through the lobby and out the door of the hotel.”
“We take the villages down in January, but I don’t think it ever ends; people remember it,” McKenzie adds. “We don’t experience that usual lull after the new year anymore, our tie to the community is so entrenched.”
Sheraton’s 2015 theme, dubbed “May the Holidays Be With You,” encompassed six structures to reflect each of the movies in the Star Wars franchise.Tracy Morin is a freelance writer and editor based in Oxford, Mississippi.
Photos By Spike Mafford.
In this piece created by Executive Sous Chef David Mestl and architectural firm Skanska, based on Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, satellite dish-shaped metal holds the protruding Death Star being shot down. Another section depicts a forest with Ewoks of fondant and almond paste among gingerbread trees accented with candy canes, pretzel sticks, licorice, sour strings and strips, and illuminated leaves made from poured sugar and rock sugar. Jabba the Hutt and Princess Leia spin next to Han Solo and Chewbacca. The scene also includes a ground of gingerbread scored during baking, poured molten sugar “glass,” “grass” made with colored coconut shreds, candy leaves, spotted jellybeans for rocks, and huts of green-tinged shredded wheat.
The Episode II: Attack of the Clones scene, a brainchild of Armstrong and Bailly & Bailly Architecture, featured a 3.5-foot-long Star Destroyer, made with hundreds of pieces of pastillage varnished with edible silver paint. Poured-sugar Yoda and Count Dooku figures, fighting with red and green licorice rope light sabers, were mechanized to turn with heavy-duty motors. The wedding scene with R2-D2 incorporates airbrushed fondant walls and a backdrop made with food coloring and almond paste. Armstrong crafted realistic-looking splashing water by pouring colored sugar over ice to create a “coral effect,” then using a torch to fuse sugars together. Santa Claus, in a Jedi cloak with a light saber strapped to his hip, rides a speeder, and Seattle’s Space Needle shows scale while integrating a local touch.
Banquet Chef Jay Sardeson, who oversees two structures each year, worked with 4D Architects on Episode IV: A New Hope and Master Builders/Gelotte Hommas on Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. The former’s centerpiece was R2-D2 with a spinning head, crafted with sugar cubes, Chiclets, poured-sugar glass, and round silver candies. Atop the gingerbread base housing Sand People, a hovering sleigh is capped with fans that flutter the candy off its back jets, plus figures of Han Solo and Chewbacca. The latter piece used four-foot-tall, four-inch-thick poured sugar lit from behind, encasing Han Solo, topped with spinning fighter ships and a Christmas scene. On one side of the molded gingerbread landscape, an olive oil “swamp” bubbles, while the other side depicts a snow scene in marshmallow.
Purchasing Manager Lee Baldyga, design consultancy CallisonRTKL, and Hargis Engineers teamed to create a piece based on Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, featuring a giant Death Star that encapsulated battle scenes and Darth Vader, with colorchanging LED lights flanking the spherical structure. Gingerbread forms the buildings on the base, among walkways of miniature chocolate bars, black licorice, and a perimeter ring of blue and silver sugar pearls. The pointed building includes red insets made with sheets of poured sugar, sandwiched with gingerbread for a sculptural effect. “We bake the gingerbread in our deck ovens, which are 13 feet long and have 10 rotating shelves,” Armstrong says. “All year ‘round, our staff sources candy; on the outside of the dome is a grey Korean gum we found.”
For the villages, McKenzie works with Armstrong’s culinary team to create architecturally challenging concepts. Past themes have featured Dr. Seuss, famous railroad stations, superheroes, and holiday song mashups. McKenzie calls the displays a “huge icebreaker” that connects the hotel to the community, while Armstrong believes they demonstrate the property’s points of differentiation. And, by making the behemoth sculptures, the staff has learned tips and tricks that can be carried over to other events, such as structuring the gingerbread around crumpled aluminum foil, sheet plywood, or metal rods as it bakes in deck ovens. “Every year, there’s a different learning curve; we might use coconut for grass or Shredded Wheat for thatched roofs,” Armstrong explains. “Some structures are brought down in multiple pieces and assembled in the foyer.” Pictured: AT-AT (All Terrain Armored Transport) Walkers used in battle on the frozen planet of Hoth from The Empire Strikes Back become giant mechanized reindeer hybrids, led by a dark-side Santa.
Episode 1: The Phantom Menace was created by Pastry Chef Joleen Anderson and architectural firm MG2. Anderson poured sugar over silicone forms for the molded blue and gold domes, and the cascading waterfall incorporates pulled sugar and rock candy; both are illuminated from within with imbedded LED lighting. Other elements of the structure feature stained glass windows formed by melting Jolly Rancher candies together, hundreds of crisscrossed red and white Tic Tacs to create silo-like buildings, a fondant Jabba the Hutt sporting a Santa hat, pretzel-and-candy guards, gingerbread building bases, and jagged-edge “stonework” made with shattered sheets of pastillage.