DOWNTOWN — Last January, when Aya Fukai stepped onto the elevator at the Trump Hotel on her way to interview for the executive pastry chef position, she knew what she was getting into.
Literally, it was an elevator clad in gingerbread. Figuratively, it was a dream job — she got the job — that includes, among other duties, decking out an entire elevator in gingerbread.
Gingerbread is sugar and spice and nice and all, but in December, at downtown hotels, the quintessential holiday cookie comes with bragging rights.
This is when hotels bust out festive teas, cookie-baking classes and, finally, their icing-coated, gumdrop-studded gingerbread extravaganzas.
Janet Fuller says there have been problems with people trying to eat or lick the elevator display at Trump:
From the life-size village at the Drake Hotel to the Dr. Seuss-inspired "Whoville" scene at the InterContinental, these edible constructions have been months in the making, and they're getting more elaborate every year, pastry chefs say.
"The thing is, with Trump, we don't do it because somebody else is doing it. We want to do it better," Fukai said. "I think that's how this whole elevator thing got started. We try to one-up everybody."
"Oh yeah, the elevator," said Eric Estrella, executive pastry chef at the Ritz-Carlton, whose collection of 29 gingerbread houses set in the lobby's fountain isn't too shabby. "My friend works there, so I heard about it. I want to see it. Do you have to pay" to ride it? (No, you don't.)
"We've begun planning for next year already," said Nicole Mieske, marketing manager at the Drake. "This is [senior sous chef Christina Schubert's] baby."
Of course, there is a feel-good element beneath all that cinnamon and clove. Some of the cookies in the Drake's display were baked by students in the After School Matters program, who also helped with the installation.
The Ritz puts its houses up for "sale" to the public and donates the proceeds to Lurie Children's Hospital. (Buyers don't actually get to take home the houses, but their names are written on a big board next to the display.)
While doing good with gingerbread, pastry chefs also get to flex their artistic muscles. At the Ritz, the houses range in architectural style from pagoda to lighthouse. There are two sets of battery-operated toy ski lifts running on wires between houses.
Estrella and his chefs donned boots to arrange the houses on long wooden planks in the fountain. All told, his pastry team spent 12 full days on gingerbread detail, he said.
"It just gets bigger every year," Estrella said.
TheWit Hotel's pastry chef Toni Roberts started planning her igloo-style display in October. The replica of the Loop hotel is made of peanut butter Rice Krispies Treats covered in white chocolate and surrounded by rock sugar glaciers, meringue snowmen and chocolate animals. There's even a Nik Wallenda reference — a candied snowman walking on a tightrope.
The Drake also ramped up its gingerbread production this year, graduating from its usual "little city" of intricately designed houses to a life-size, chocolate-walled display that required the help of two carpenters, two electricians and some painters, Mieske said.
At its centerpiece is a 300-pound tree made of more than 600 cookies.
"It was a gift from God that it didn't break," Mieske said.
The most interactive display has to be the Trump's gingerbread elevator, which runs express from the lobby to the 16th-floor restaurant and lounge.
Hotel engineers lined the elevator in plywood and installed a fake window, Christmas tree and LED-screen fireplace. Fukai and the pastry team did the rest with 446 pounds of flour, 98 pounds of butter, 90 pounds of molasses and 450 hours of work.
Chocolate rocks surround the fireplace. Jars of candy are glued to the mantel. The "Gingerbread Express" sign above the elevator is edible, too.
"I went on YouTube to learn how to tile a bathroom," said Fukai, who laid out the gingerbread panels in subway-tile fashion on the walls.
It's a fragrant ride that elicits touching — and more.
"We have people trying to lick the walls, trying to grab fondant off the candy canes," Fukai said. "I think it correlates to how much they've had to drink."
As the holidays come to an end, so too will the gingerbread. The Trump and others will discard most of it after New Year's. And then, plans for next year will begin to take shape.
"I'm sure as soon as it gets torn down, that's going to be the first thing to be discussed," Fukai said.
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