Manor gingerbread village was a labour of love

LITTLE CURRENT—It’s been almost a decade since Chef Chris Lethbridge first began his annual tradition of building a gingerbread creation at Christmastime for the entertainment of residents at the nursing homes where he has worked.

“I was working at a nursing home about nine years ago when it just came to me, ‘you know, I am going to build a gingerbread house,’” he said. “I have been doing the same at every nursing home I have worked at ever since.”

This year Manitoulin Centennial Manor was the beneficiary of Mr. Lethbridge’s sweet creative muse, and how sweet it is, over 160 kilograms of sugar, along with about 80 pounds of flour and about 30 hours of elbow grease went into the baking of this year’s construction. “There was a lot more sugar this year,” he said. “All of the trees were made out of spun sugar.”

There was a lot less candy involved this year, however. “Not as much as previous years,” he said. “There were some budget constraints and I wound up using about $50 worth of candy.” The odd mint leaf or peppermint does go missing day-by-day, requiring some touch up work. “We lost quite a bit this year,” laughed Mr. Lethbridge. “I think there was one person who stopped by for a nibble quite a bit. I would replace about six to eight candies a day.” Not so bad considering the high traffic area at the entranceway the gingerbread creation sits in display each year.

The process of building the gingerbread village begins long before the first snowflake falls. “I started working this one last July,” said Mr. Lethbridge. “I have already starting working on this year’s.”

The Internet helps provide some inspirational foundation for the project. “I look around for ideas, but then it sort of takes off on its own and changes into something completely different,” he said. This year’s idea of having a working train in the production followed that genesis.

The construction phase involves a lot of cardboard cutouts and forms, as each panel for the buildings is planned in detail. You don’t learn this kind of work at your typical chef school. “I pretty much worked it out for myself,” admitted Mr. Lethbridge. “It has come together over the years.”

The Internet might provide the seeds of design, but the inspiration for the labour involved in building the creations comes directly from the heart. “I think if I can get one ear-to-ear smile it is all worth it,” he said. This year the dividend payoff in smiles was truly over the top. “It’s all about the residents.”

Mr. Lethbridge is already working on next year’s creation. Although he is keeping his cards close to his chest on the project, the chef is hoping to connect with a major cereal company sponsor for something truly spectacular next year. Think marshmallows and life-sized jolly old elves.

Michael Erskine