Making the world's largest gingerbread village is a full-time job for a New York City chef

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(Photo: Emily Faber, Sinclair Broadcast Group)

NEW YORK CITY (SBG) - The sweetest neighborhood in Queens has every sort of shop, dining establishment, and attraction that you could possibly desire. There’s a hot chocolate brewery, a coffee shop specializing in pumpkin spice lattes, and a store selling a wide variety of exotic teas. You’ll find handmade quilts, stained glass windows, and artisanal baked goods. And for all of your holiday needs, there’s an ornament repair shop, a sled factory, and a post office delivering letters to Santa. You can even join a snowball fight club.

Unfortunately, no matter how much you’re willing to pay in rent, you won’t be able to move into an apartment in this neighborhood. That’s because every single building is made entirely out of gingerbread, icing, and candy, and the whole village is housed within the New York Hall of Science. It’s called GingerBread Lane, and according to Guinness World Records, it’s the largest gingerbread village in the world.

Jon Lovitch doesn’t particularly enjoy the taste of gingerbread, but the warm, inviting scent permeates his kitchen year-round. Constructing and decorating hundreds of edible houses is a full-time job for Lovitch, a New York City-based chef with a passion for Christmastime. Lovitch creates the entirety of GingerBread Lane by himself, an enormous endeavor that keeps him in the holiday spirit even when the weather outside is far from frightful. His basement serves as his primary workspace, as well as a temporary holding zone for all of the houses that he completes over the course of a year.

While Lovitch traces his interest in Christmas decorations all the way back to his childhood in Missouri, it was a 1993 gingerbread house competition that led him down the path to GingerBread Lane. The following year, the hotel where Lovitch worked asked him to create a gingerbread village of about 12 houses. “It just got bigger every year after that,” Lovitch said.

When GingerBread Lane first found its home at the New York Hall of Science, the exhibit included 157 gingerbread structures, which was enough to clinch the Guinness World Record in 2013. This year, there are nearly 1,300 miniature buildings. “There are about 600 pounds of dough, 800 pounds of candy, 2,300 pounds of icing, 1,800 candy canes, and about 6,000 sticks of gum,” said Lovitch of the scale of his 2019 display.

Before the project became as massive as it is now, Lovitch worked on GingerBread Lane in his spare time, spending many late nights and early mornings baking, decorating, and transporting his elaborate pieces. With the New York Hall of Science and the constant expansion of the village from year to year, he found the opportunity to make “gingerbread house creator” his full-time job.

“My wife and I joke all the time that I’m going to win career day at school,” said Lovitch.

Because it’s truly a full-time job, Lovitch gets very few breaks throughout the course of the year. As the rest of the world moves on from Christmas, Lovitch almost immediately begins to plan next year’s exhibit, sketching out ideas for the buildings and shopping for discounted Christmas candy. During the holiday season, Lovitch also teaches gingerbread workshops to both children and adults.

If you’re not able to make it to one of the workshops in person but still want to level up your gingerbread game this Christmas, check out a few helpful tips that Lovitch has to offer to any novice baker.

Don’t make the entire thing in a single day.

The secret to building a better gingerbread house is patience. Rushing the process will only result in a sticky mess of wobbling walls and candy-coated chaos.

“If you buy a kit, you look at the box, and it says that it’s a fun family activity for the day. But if you try to get one of these done in a day, it’s not a fun family activity. It’s a good way to end up in family therapy,” said Lovitch. “These things take time. What I recommend, especially if you’re going to do a kit, is to build it on Saturday and decorate it on Sunday. Give it time to get solid.”

Your choice of candy matters.

Once you have a solid foundation, you might be tempted to reach for your favorite candy to decorate the building’s exterior. But just because you like the taste of a particular candy doesn’t mean that it’s the right candy to cover the house’s facade. Some types of sweets simply will not work, no matter how hard you might try to fight it.

“Licorice is a real pain in the butt. It likes to fall off anything. And anything that’s a gummy won’t really stick very well, unless it has sugar on it. But if it’s just a hard, compressed sugar candy, those are the best. They stick great,” explained Lovitch.

Reindeer corn is one of his top choices for decoration, given its festive nature and its ease of use.

Use a ton of icing.

Lovitch suggests that you should pick up an extra tub of icing to go with your gingerbread house kit or whip up some royal icing at home to supplement the contents of the kit. Royal icing, made of egg whites, cream of tartar, and confectioners' sugar, will harden as it dries, serving as an edible glue to keep the whole thing from falling apart.

In addition to holding the houses together, the icing is essential for all of the detail pieces that Lovitch creates.

“The detail pieces are definitely one of the trickier things to make. They all start out one-dimensional, flat on a piece of parchment paper, and then I do several levels of icing,” said Lovitch. Though it’s a time-consuming process, the finished figurines, lamp posts, and Christmas trees are adorable components that help the candy-filled neighborhood to feel complete.

You don’t need to be an artist.

“Remarkably, I flunked art,” Lovitch confessed.

It’s an unexpected admission, given the creativity and artistry that’s on display at the New York Hall of Science. But despite a few bad grades, Lovitch always had an interest in artistic pursuits, from the days of decorating his childhood home in Missouri with Christmas lights to the 27 years that he spent working as a chef at various fine dining establishments.

Whether or not you share Lovitch’s sense of imagination, you can still find joy in the process of creating a gingerbread house of your own.

“I see people walk out of my workshops with their little house, and it’s the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. And then I see people walk out with everything in a pile, like a bomb went off. But as long as I see them smiling when they leave, that’s cool,” said Lovitch.

You can preserve your creation to last for years.

In order to qualify for the Guinness World Record, the village has to be entirely edible. As such, every single component of GingerBread Lane is made up of gingerbread, icing, or candy. To a child with a sweet tooth, walking into the exhibit certainly might feel like the ultimate dream come true, at least until their parents begin to thwart all attempts to yank gummy Santas or candy canes off the roofs of the houses. But if any unsupervised children did manage to snag a piece of the display, it’s likely that they’d be sorely disappointed when they bit into it.

“Once these things make it into the middle of January, it’s a very loose definition of 'edible' at that point, because they’re very, very old,” said Lovitch. ”The candy is sometimes two or three years old.”

But rather than simply discarding all of his hard work once the holiday season wraps up, Lovitch allows visitors to take a piece of GingerBread Lane home with them on the final day of the exhibit. Following a demonstration on how to preserve the gingerbread indefinitely, all of the buildings are given away on a first-come, first-served basis. “There are many people who come every year, and they’re first in line, because they want a certain house,” Lovitch said.

The houses can then be used as holiday decor year after year, but some have found more unconventional uses for the structures.

“I’ve had people come and get the smaller, less ornate ones, so that they can turn them into bird feeders. One year, I had pig farmers who came with some tubs toward the end of the giveaway, and they were wanting every little crumb I had left to feed the pigs,” said Lovitch.

Want to go for the world record? You’ve got some competition.

“I’ve had people reach out to me, different groups that wanted to give the world record a shot, and I tell them to just be aware of what they’re getting themselves into,” said Lovitch.

Despite this interest, all attempts to usurp Lovitch’s gingerbread throne have been unsuccessful as of yet.

One of GingerBread Lane’s biggest and fiercest competitors is Pepperkakebyen, a gingerbread town in Norway. The Scandinavian tourist attraction is also a major feat of edible architecture, but the use of a few non-edible components disqualifies it from the strict guidelines that Guinness has set in place for the category.

“We competed three times head-to-head for the record, and I got it all three times,” Lovitch said of Pepperkakebyen. However, he appreciates the relationships that he has formed with his Norwegian opponents over this unusual mutual hobby; they’ve actually flown Lovitch and his wife over to Norway to see their gingerbread village in person.

Satisfied with his current title, Lovitch isn’t so concerned about maintaining the record in the future. “We’re happy with our size. We’re not trying to go much crazier. So if somebody does beat us, good for them,” he said.