Chef Ralf’s Gingerbread Winter Wonderland

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - December 22, 2010
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Princess Kaiulani Hotel executive chef Ralf Bauer with his traditional Christmas gingerbread village

When Ralf Bauer, executive chef at Sheraton Princess Kailuani, Waikiki, started making gingerbread houses 14 years ago, he had no idea he was beginning something that would become one of the city’s best-loved Christmas traditions.

“I knew that I wanted to create something special for the hotel that no one else was doing,” says the German-born chef, “but I had no idea it would get this big.”

“This big” is now a series of interlinked gingerbread villages joined by ice-skating ponds, working carousels, ski lifts and icy slopes - all made from chocolate, spun sugar, gelatin and gingerbread.

Bauer had never made a single gingerbread house before beginning his mammoth task in 1986. A self-taught “builder,” he worked long hours that first Christmas to create the original village.

“I stayed past midnight every night,” he recalls. “I was learning as I worked.”

Each year brought squeals of delight from children and smiles of approval from Waikiki visitors, but at the end of each season, Chef Ralf would disassemble the village and think he was done.

“Then, at the end of the summer, people would start asking, ‘Are you going to do the gingerbread village again?’” he says, “and I just could not say no.”

Beginning in September, Bauer and his small culinary team prepare more than 200 gallons of icing and use 100 pounds of dark chocolate and 70 pounds of white chocolate to make houses, churches, railway stations and working ski lifts. And while the structures are made from Styrofoam, each one is painted with real chocolate and then covered with tiny gingerbread bricks, each one just an inch-and-a-quarter long.

“People always ask why we don’t just use sheets or something else to make the buildings,” Bauer says, “but we will always use the bricks. It’s what keeps the village special.”

Today, the European gingerbread village looks more like a rapidly expanding city, and each year a new building is added. This year you’ll find Iolani Palace standing close to the Moana Surfrider, complete with rocking chairs on the veranda. And overlooking a bustling Honolulu historic district, you’ll find historic Kawaiahao Church with lights twinkling and palm trees almost swaying.

The gingerbread village draws thousands of visitors to the Princess Kaiulani, many of them schoolchildren who count the trip to Waikiki as part of their own Christmas tradition.

“We have school groups every day during the holidays,” says Bauer, “and when you stand back and look at their eyes shining as they look at everything, it really does make all the hard work worthwhile.”

With a team of talented and enthusiastic helpers that includes executive sous chef John Hightower and pantry chef Amie Tangpalan, Bauer considers this year to be the village’s best so far.

“Once we had brought the village to life, put on the icing and dusted the houses with snow, even we stood back this time and went, ‘Wow, did we really do that?’”

There’s still time to catch the gingerbread village and add a little magic to your holiday season. It’s on view daily through January.

You can listen to an interview with Chef Ralf and hear more about the making of Honolulu’s gingerbread village at

Happy eating!

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