Food Matters: It Takes a Village | AspenTimes.com

Food Matters: It Takes a Village

by Amanda Rae

WHEN NEW EXECUTIVE chef Samir Roonwall and pastry chef Carolina Polo conceived of this year's holiday gingerbread house design at the St. Regis Aspen Resort, they considered the all-important real estate adage: location, location, location. So their creation, unveiled last Sunday in a hotel lobby passage where guests typically snag morning newspapers and afternoon hot chocolate, takes full advantage of the long, narrow space. Make that creations: Instead of a single structure, they crafted an entire village out of some 40 miniature gingerbread houses of varying shapes and sizes, each intricately decorated and all 100 percent edible.

"We're going off the beaten path," chef Roonwall says, leading a behind-the-scenes tour just a few hours before installation. "We have trees made with ice cream cones and glazes, candies, candy canes, reindeers flying, Santas…chateaux, cabins… It's an awesome display."

Making the multicolored confection that stretches 12 feet was no small feat — that's clear upon inspecting the tiny dwellings fit for sweet-toothed elves. Beyond the typical frosted ornamentation of swirls, swooshes, and dots are crisped-rice bushes colored forest-green and a towering evergreen "tree" draped in candy garlands with clusters of petite presents molded from colored marzipan. Every gingerbread abode is one-of-a-kind, with sparkling rooftop beadwork, icing icicles dripping from eaves, and sugary snowflakes placed just so. The effect, Roonwall says proudly, glancing over to Polo, "Looks like a handbag in the Louis Vuitton store right now, doesn't it?"

We're in a makeshift production room adjacent to the property's restaurant, where Polo is putting the finishing touches on a gilded star ornament. "This is my first one!" she says of the gingerbread project. "I used to make wedding cakes, so that helps a lot. You can see all the pictures online, but you'll never have a natural sense until you start making it. It's fun — I learned a lot."

Roonwall estimates that the gingerbread village required more than 500 hours from the kitchen's five dedicated pastry chefs, not to mention at least 400 pounds of flour and 80 pounds of sugar. (Learn more in "Gingerbread by the Numbers," opposite.) Prep work began in mid-October and the chefs have been chipping away at tasks — baking base materials, assembling the diminutive structures, and decorating it all with dazzling designs in bright red, green, and white — ever since.

"We made tiny gingerbread houses that are a garnish for drinks as well," Roonwall says. "You can hang a house on the side of a cocktail like a candy cane! It's fun times."

Recommended Stories For You

Guests staying at the property on Christmas Eve will receive a small house — 5 or so inches tall — during evening turndown service, along with a box to take away.

"When I told [Polo] we need 300 houses for turndown, I would have expected her to slap me or something," Roonwall quips. "But she said, No problem. She brings so much calmness to the team."

The gingerbread project is the first way in which Roonwall — who assumed the post at the St. Regis Aspen in March — is spicing up resort programming with a jam-packed itinerary of events and amenities focused on festive flavors. This weekend the Shadow Mountain Lounge debuts a new menu of specialty drinks, including mulled wine and four types of hot chocolate, some spiked with liqueur and loaded with the St. Regis's beloved, boozy marshmallows. (Nonalcoholic versions are available for kids.)

Children's events open to the public include workshops to create holiday ornaments (Dec. 19), spa gifts (Dec. 20), wrapping paper (Dec. 21), gingerbread-cookie decorating (Dec. 22), and Hanukkah crafts (Dec. 26). As always, the annual St. Regis tree-lighting ritual brightens up the Fountain Courtyard on Dec. 17 from 5 to 7 p.m., featuring the Aspen High School Choir & Band, Santa Claus photo ops, holiday cookies, and a dual champagne sabering.

Sunday brunch returns on Dec. 11 for the winter season, marking a high point for Roonwall since he helped to rebrand the hotel restaurant as The Portal (formerly known as Trecento Quindici Decano) with a pop-up menu showcasing worldly flavors.

"There are enough awesome Italian restaurants in this town, and we don't want to compete with them," says Roonwall, fresh off a three-year stint working in Dubai. "The gingerbread experiment is built on achieving…a wow factor. It's a proud moment for the hotel; food and beverage is back on track. Products are coming out, restaurant's moving forward, the bar is buzzing, and the pastry concept is thriving again."

Though the Portal menu showcases flavors from around the globe (India, Korea, Vietnam, Japan, Thailand, Italy, Mexico, the Middle East, the American South, and, of course, Colorado), Roonwall is most excited about the pastry program's reinvention in the hands of chef Polo. Currently for lunch, Polo is creating "Tiramisu in Box," replete with a bamboo presentation chamber; cherry clafoutis with stracciatella ice cream; and pillowy beignets with butterscotch sauce.

"Pastry is a dying concept in this part of the world," Roonwall explains. "Most hotels don't have pastry kitchens [anymore]. Personally, pastry is my favorite kitchen. And [Polo] is, by far, the best talent in the state. My ultimate goal is to see that we run a great brand pastry shop: Pastries by Carolina."

While a retail shop in the hotel may be many months away, Roonwall is focused on the holidays for now. He calls over to Polo with a last-minute idea about the gingerbread village display: A security detail.

"Let's make sure there are stanchions there," he muses, "otherwise the houses might disappear…"

amandaraewashere@gmail.com

IF YOU GO …

St. Regis Aspen Resort Holiday Events

Gingerbread Village

On display through December

Annual Tree-lighting Ritual

Dec. 17 at 5-7 p.m.

Gingerbread Cookie Decorating

Dec. 22 at 3- 4 p.m. and 4:30-5:30 p.m.

Hanukkah Crafts

Dec. 26 at 3- 4 p.m. and 4:30-5:30 p.m.

To view a full calendar of holiday events, visit stregisaspen.com