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Tongkonan, traditional Indonesian home, wins National Gingerbread House competition

Faith An was shocked to win the 2023 National Gingerbread House competition. An and her aunt, Deborah Kinton, made a Tongkonan.
Camille Nevarez-Hernandez
Faith An was shocked to win the 2023 National Gingerbread House competition. An and her aunt, Deborah Kinton, made a Tongkonan.

Faith An and Deborah Kinton took home the grand prize in the 31st annual National Gingerbread House competition.

The aunt and niece duo beat 200 other competitors to claim the title and a prize package of $7,500 prize check, a trophy and a suite of stays and amenities from the sponsor, Omni Grove Park Inn.

An has never been to Indonesia before, but she happened upon the Tongkonan when researching Christmas traditions in Indonesia.

“I saw this home and thought ‘that needs to be gingerbread,’” she told BPR.

The duo began construction on the house in May, but An said they spent many months ahead of time researching models and techniques, including silk screen printing for a pattern stamped on the doors of the building and pastillage, a technique where powdered sugar and gelatin is mixed together to form a hard, sturdy structure.

The Grand Prize Winner of the 2023 National Gingerbread Competition: a Tongkonan by Faith An and her aunt Deborah Kinton.
Camille Nevarez-Hernandez
The Grand Prize Winner of the 2023 National Gingerbread Competition: a Tongkonan by Faith An and her aunt Deborah Kinton.
“I saw this home and thought, ‘That needs to be gingerbread.'"
Faith An

The dramatic, saddleback roof is tiled with strips of mafaldine pasta, a thin, lasagna-like noodle, and layered with dried chives and other herbs to replicate the rattan and vegetation that typically sits on the roof structure.

“It took a lot of time to figure out dimensions because there’s not a lot of information in English about this particular building,” she said. “I made a joke that if I won that I’d go to Indonesia and now that I have this check, maybe I can actually go.”

In addition to the grand prize, the Tongkonan also took home the award for Most Unique Ingredient for its use of dental sutures. The sutures, which are naturally absorbable and therefore edible, are used as tassels on the home and women’s clothing.

The rules required entries to be made of edible materials, other than the base, and that at least 60% of each entry be handmade. The other 40% could be created using mechanical assistance such as 3-D printing. The rules also required structures to be comprised of at least 75% gingerbread, and mandated that at least some gingerbread be exposed.

Beatriz Mejia, who traveled more than 4,000 miles with her “Barrel Organ” house from Guatemala, was recognized as one of top 10 adult entries and earned an award as the Furthest Traveled Competitor.

The organ she based her creation on traces back to the 18th century, when musicians would play the instrument on the streets in France, Germany, and other European countries. Often, monkeys would serve as companions to these street performers. In Meija’s version, a gingerbread lever links to the monkey’s arm, lifting the monkey’s cap off its head.

Meija’s entry had to go through customs inside a suitcase in order to reach the competition.

“So I just bake everything in advance, put it in boxes with bubble wrap, put it in a suitcase and hope for the best. There’s always breakage but I put it back together,” she shared.

Meija has participated in the contest for three years and said it’s always worth the trip. “I love competing,” she told BPT. “From the moment you unload your piece, it’s just magical.”

Judging gingerbread

The newest addition to the team of judges was celebrity cake artist Yolanda Gampp. Gampp, who hails from Toronto, Canada, is a judge on “Crime Scene Kitchen” and has two best-selling cookbooks.

“I’m blown away by what I see here,” Gampp said. “We have traditional houses but then we’ve seen everything from pirate ships to Fabergé eggs. A lot of Barbie-inspired gingerbread creations this year and a lot of Christmas themes… Just the sheer time and effort and heart and love put into these creations will blow you away.”

Celebrity Cake Artist Yolanda Gampp at the National Gingerbread House Competition.
Camille Nevarez-Hernandez
Celebrity Cake Artist Yolanda Gampp at the National Gingerbread House Competition.

Gampp told BPR that she’s “hooked” and “can’t wait to come back next year” and serve as a judge again.

Returning judges included lead judge 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 & 2020 James Beard finalist.

Entries were judged on five criteria: Overall Appearance, Originality and Creativity, Difficulty, Precision and Consistency of Theme.

The People's Choice: Best in Show! Award went to the Love at Frost Sight team for a colorful diner-themed diorama "Rockin' at the Diner.”

The 2023 winners across the six Chef Nicholas Lodge Awards include:

  • Best Use of Color: Love at Frost Sight, "Rockin' at the Diner" – Woodbury, MN
  • Best Use of Sprinkles: Chloe Jennings, "Visions of Sugar Plums" – Purlear, NC
  • Most Unique Ingredient: with use of Catgut Dental Sutures and Stevia Leaves, Difficult Dessert Devotees, "Christmas at Tongkonan" – Fuquay Varina, NC
  • Most Innovative Structure: Andrea Watson, "Yo-Ho-Ho-Ho – Simpsonville, SC
  • Pop Culture Star: Shelby Pechtel, "Groot's First Christmas" – Troutman, NC
  • Longest Standing Competitor: Merry Spafford, "A Classical Christmas Carol" – Loudon, TN

Teen (ages 13-17) winners:

  • First Place: Courtland High School German Program, "Vintage Voyage" – Spotsylvania, VA
  • Teen Second Place: Toccoa Titans, "Grove's Miracle Tonic" – Blue Ridge, GA
  • Teen Third Place: Emma Rhinehart, "An Elegant Christmas" – Columbia, TN

Youth (ages 9-12) winners:

  • First Place: Frost Girls, "Fun in the Tub" – Woodbury, MN
  • Youth Second Place: Perry Reid, "Holiday Smackdown" – Travelers Rest, SC
  • Youth Third Place: The Fiddleheads, "Little Blue Truck's Christmas" – Clyde, NC

Child (ages 5-8) winners:

  •  First Place: Grace Webster, "The Night of Magical Memories" – Greenville, SC
  • Child Second Place: China Grove Cousins, "Ready, Set, SNOOOOWWWW!!!!" – Mooresville, NC
  • Child Third Place: Paul Frahler, "Bath Santa Takes Off!" – Greenville, SC

The winning entry by Faith An and Deborah Kinton will be placed on display at the resort for a year.

A gingerbread replica of downtown Asheville's Fine Arts Theatre.
Camille Nevarez-Hernandez
A gingerbread replica of downtown Asheville's Fine Arts Theatre.

Want to go?

Beginning Monday, members of the public can view the houses Monday to Thursday or after 4 pm on Sundays. The display is open to hotel guests or guests with dinner reservations at the resort only on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays until 4pm and the following dates: December 23, 24, 25, 30, 31 and January 1.

Valet parking is $35 and self-parking is $25. A portion of the parking proceeds goes to local nonprofit organizations.

Pets are not permitted.

Laura Hackett joined Blue Ridge Public Radio in June 2023. Originally from Florida, she moved to Asheville more than six years ago and in that time has worked as a writer, journalist, and content creator for organizations like AVLtoday, Mountain Xpress, and the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce. She has a degree in creative writing from Florida Southern College, and in 2023, she completed the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY's Product Immersion for Small Newsrooms program. In her free time, she loves exploring the city by bike, testing out new restaurants, and hanging out with her dog Iroh at French Broad River Park.