The moment we arrive on the hotel property, it’s clear something big is going down. There’s a long line of cars in front of a set of glass doors, surrounded by people clad in festive t-shirts and bustling around with jolly-but-stressed expressions. Just inside those doors, a group of competitors gathers around a table that marks their first stop on the way to the 31st Annual Omni Grove Park Inn Gingerbread Competition.
A gingerbread journey
This first stop is gingerbread triage. Competitors wheel their creations in on luggage trolleys or homemade carts and whip out the icing to repair any damage incurred on the journey here. Because even though this is technically the official first stop before display, it’s hardly the beginning. Some competitors have been working on their houses since Jan. 1. One competitor, Beatriz Mejia, traveled from Guatemala, while another bought their gingerbread house a seat on a plane from California.
This is serious baking business — which shows when the competitors + their entries move past registration, take a harrowing ride up an elevator, stop at the top for professional photos, and get ready to transport the gingerbread houses into the Grand Ballroom. Competition staff meet them at the door to point out potentially hazardous bumps on the ground and direct them to their spot in the long rows of tables.
No matter the competitor — kid or adult, professional or amateur — there’s a moment, as they lift the creation off the cart to set it on display, that everyone holds their breath. (Luckily, we witnessed no gingerbread accidents.)
This year, there are around 200 entries, with everything from traditional holiday scenes to alien abductions, Barbie Dreamhouses to sea monster shipwrecks. And everything is edible. Entries have to be at least 60% handmade (some 3D printing or laser cutting is allowed), and at least 75% of the main structure has to be gingerbread. With those rules in mind, the artistry of these pieces is a little staggering.
Any dessert we planned on bringing to Thanksgiving dinner now feels woefully inadequate.
And the winner is...
Once competitors have (very carefully) dropped their gingerbread houses off in the ballroom, they don’t get to see them until the next day when the judges arrive for the competitor-and-family-only competition. This year, the judging panel consisted of six returning judges, Mark Seaman, culinary applications chef for Barry Callebaut; Geoff Blount, pastry chef and teacher; John Cook, executive pastry chef at The Omni Grove Park Inn; Steven Stellingwerf, pastry chef, author, and teacher; Aaron Morgan, executive pastry chef at the Stable Café on the Biltmore Estate; and Ashleigh Shanti, chef/owner of Good Hot Fish — as well as one new judge, celebrity cake artist Yolanda Gampp.
This year’s grand prize winner, the recipient of $7,500 and a prize package, was “Christmas at the Tongkonan” by Faith An and Deborah Kinton, collectively Difficult Dessert Devotees. The creation was inspired by the Indonesian traditional ancestral home of the same name.
But this top prize wasn’t all. There were also top three awards in all age categories, a People’s Choice Award voted on by all the competitors, and various Chef Nicholas Lodge Awards, like Best Use of Sprinkles + Most Innovative Structure. Check out all the winners.
See the scenes for yourself
You don’t have to take our word for the talent, though. From Monday, Nov. 27 through Tuesday, Jan. 2, you can see the entries for yourself in all their gingerbread glory. Those who aren’t staying at the resort can check out the display after 4 p.m. on Sundays or anytime Monday-Thursday. The gingerbread houses will be on display throughout the property, so you can enter at the lobby and explore the resort to see everything.
There isn’t a fee to see the display or a preregistration, but you will have to pay either $35 for valet parking or $25 for self-parking. Access to the display is always based on hotel capacity and pedestrian traffic.
Fridays and Saturdays are reserved for guests of the hotel or people with dining reservations. The display will also not be open to the public on Dec. 23-25, 30-31 and Jan. 1.