Somewhere in this house, there remains a photo of the “Gingerbread House”, but I cannot find it. It was a spectacular creation. As an annual tradition, all the hotels in New Orleans had a pastry chef competition for the best gingerbread house. I entered one time…. and won….. the whole thing… which came as a big surprise to a whole lotta people.
The story behind The Great Gingerbread House is better. That one grand and indulgent confection made me who I am today…. in a way…. it “hatched” me. Strange how events evolve. It turned into a life lesson on why taking chances is usually a good thing, and why forgiveness is easier to obtain than permission.
Here’s the backstory.
In school I skipped a few grades, so by the time college rolled around, I wasn’t 18yrs old. It created problems for me, socially, when it came to friends who were of driving or drinking age, but I tried to fit in as best as possible. I was lucky, however, with a new law passed in Louisiana against elder discrimination. It meant employers could no longer ask a person’s age on an application. It meant, they didn’t know how old I was…..
One of my first jobs was as a hostess for a local Sheraton Hotel, about 2 miles from our home in suburbia. Didn’t have a car at the time, but I did have a Honda Mo-Ped, which required a helmet, but it also meant Daughn was mobile and no longer dependent on others. The hostess uniform was a rust-colored-bullet-proof-polyester-formal-evening gown with a big slit up the middle. Obviously, I could not wear a formal evening gown on a Mo-Ped. Thus, every day, I packed a bag, wore shorts into work, changed clothes in the restroom, and re-curled my hair. It was the 80’s and big hair was mandatory.
The new job started on a Monday, early summer, after graduating high school. Surely, this job would be so much better than working as a cashier at A&P. I was excited. After a day or two of training on the register (which was easy after A&P), and training on how to seat people and be polite (no kidding – lessons on how to be polite), I blended into the group. Miss Gloria, the other hostess, was an elderly lady who had been there a long time, but she wasn’t good at adding up tickets and dividing up tips correctly, and I quietly rechecked her numbers.
Unknown to me, the restaurant business has added tension, stress, and a great deal of drama. The Restaurant Manager got into a scuffle with the Food and Beverage Director, while the General Manager was there. Restaurant Manager was fired, on the spot, the first Friday. On the way out of the door, still upset, the GM handed me the keys to the front door and promoted me to Restaurant Manager. I hadn’t been there a week.
The ride home that night was exhilarating. I was a MANAGER, my first promotion! My little Mo-Ped rolled along the right side of the thoroughfare, top speed of 22 mph, but I wanted to ride in the middle of the road and scream to the heavens. Of course, I wasn’t REALLY a manager. I wasn’t REALLY in charge of anything. All it REALLY meant was I was responsible enough to have the keys, remain last and come in first, vacuum, turn in the receipts, and lock the doors. BUT I was oblivious to all that…. after all, I had a new name tag which said, MANAGER.
Glory of new status faded quickly as I waded through the drama of wait staff and kitchen chefs who argued all the time. Why couldn’t they just get along? As part of my new duties, I had to go to “meetings” for “managers”. Ohhhh, I was so happy and felt so important…. only to be crushed. I learned a new Restaurant Manager would be hired by a “corporate” office in the faraway land called….. Pennsylvania. They owned over a hundred similar hotels. I was sad. At least they let me stay in the meeting.
It was a real managers meeting, where we talked about “revenue” and “sales”. Gee whiz, Dad was an exec. Yeah, I knew what “revenue” and “sales” meant. I knew they had to go UP, otherwise I was a bad manager…. and now I was fighting for my job. Hmmmm…. what to do?
Well, if I had to pass the keys to someone older and more experienced, at least I should hand over a clean”ship”, right? I started deep cleaning, re-organizing old storage closets, when I found a mountain of old banquet equipment, tiki bars that rolled into place, and decorations for every holiday. The next day, I asked Miss Gloria about my find. She confirmed “those were the days”, the “heyday” of the hotel.
Sometimes ignorance and naivety is a good thing. It sure helped me. Too young to realize I couldn’t do something and too young to be intimidated. As an added plus, I went to work at about 3:00pm, and the REAL managers left the building at about 4:00pm, which meant….. I had no one to tell me I couldn’t do something.
I was UNSUPERVISED.
Naturally, I assumed if we brought back the “heyday” of the hotel, then revenue would go up, and Daughn could keep her job as a manager. Pretty simple formula, win-win situation, and made sense to my teenage brain. I had a long talk with the “Bar Manager” and he liked the idea. We never asked anyone else for permission…. to expand. Our joint boss, the Food and Beverage Director was an Italian, who spoke broken English, and was never there.
The restaurant and bar were configured in a large “L” shape, with a gorgeous but “BARREN” hotel pool nestled in the middle. Yet, the restaurant had heavy curtains across the glass wall, always drawn, so no one could see the pool. I wondered, “Why?” The far side of the pool had a wrought iron fence, next to a busy interstate intersection. So, if you were wearing a bathing suit, you might “feel” naked in the middle of an intersection and awkward, as Gloria explained to me. I was confused and frowned. “Well, why not just put up a bunch of plants and screen the traffic?”, I asked. “Good idea.”, she said. At some point in the evening, I went to the restroom, down a long corridor, glass wall on one side, lined with tall PLANTS. I stopped about half-way, realizing, those were the plants which were supposed to be outside, along the fence. We moved the plants/trees, cleaned off the pool furniture, and spruced it up. The pool was lovely and inviting.
As we geared up for our first “pool party”, we needed special drinks and food, right? The bar manager was totally on board but another problem surfaced. My head chef, master of the kitchen, was Swiss, barely spoke a word of English, mid-30’s and highly temperamental. He hated the sight of me and the kitchen was his domain. Message was clear – I should keep out. Yet, our menu offered nothing from Louisiana…. which didn’t make sense. He told me the restaurant catered to people who were travelers and not familiar with the “spice” indicative of Louisiana. I reread my “Dale Carnegie – How to Win Friends and Influence People” and, as best as I could, asked him to add a couple of recipes for the pool party….. boiled shrimp, oysters on half-shell, etc. I even brought him mom’s recipe for marinated shrimp. Can’t remember how it happened, or what I had to trade him, but he conceded. Vaguely, I recall, he was convinced the idea was doomed to fail…… and he wanted to watch me go down in flames.
The first pool party was a great success. I called friends who were young and attractive to attend. All the activity brought guests to the pool. We made money… which was a GOOD thing. Revenue was increasing……….. and all of a sudden, there was no more talk about replacing me with a Manager from “corporate”. Our events (and even Mom’s shrimp) made a few local papers. We became a hot spot for the locals.
We added items to the menu, slowly but surely, traditional LA fare. A killer red beans and rice on Mondays as was tradition. We added a lunch buffet after church on Sundays to draw the local crowd, and a late night burger stop on Friday nights after local football games, and LA chicory coffee and fresh beignets at Check-Out desk. More revenue. Looking good. Every time I turned around, I was getting a raise… but I was having the time of my life.
College started but classes were easy as a freshman. It did cut my sleep and I was burning the candle at both ends, but young people can handle it. There were several big events which happened. The Swiss Chef quit in a big kitchen ruckus (a whole nother story)……. and I learned to be a temp chef that day… there was no one else. He was replaced quickly. The Italian F&B Director quit and a decision was made not to replace him. A busboy was completely out of hand and I fired my first person. He vandalized my Mo-Ped, killing it. Bummer.
As the weeks rolled by and more people were fired, I took over the food and bar ordering, and I still was not 18yrs old. It was far more involved than I thought – again, ignorance and naivety was my friend. A few mistakes but nothing serious. Not supposed to be in a place serving liquor, let alone ordering the liquor. It worked out well though, because I knew all the Bacardi/Seagram’s/Beer and Wine vendors from time spent at A&P.
I was spending a lot of time at the hotel, and the GM offered me a suite to use. I moved a few things in and sometimes slept there. That’s when everything came to a sudden crash.
Dad was not happy with my newfound business sense and independence. Spending the night in a hotel was not working for him at all. Of course, nothing was happening, I wasn’t sleeping with anyone. Heck, I lost my boyfriend because I didn’t have time. Didn’t matter to Dad. I had to come home after work….. Okay, fine. I still had the suite at my disposal when I needed it to nap or change clothes/shower/whatever.
The fall passed quickly and we geared up for Christmas season. Suddenly, we had a banquet division, and we were scheduling big office parties for the month. Again, the “heyday” was back! December was approaching and soon I would be 18yrs old. The GM called me to his office for my Christmas bonus and offered to pay for my college tuition if I would major in HRT. Wow, paying for my college as well? I was thrilled.
But Dad had other plans. I had to have my wisdom teeth removed before age 18 and while his insurance would pay for it. I would be “down” for several days. “What?”, I objected. How could I possibly be absent from work during the holidays? Of course, I thought I was so important nothing would happen without me……. but I was responsible for the effort and wanted to see it through. No compromise. Dad made his decision. I told my GM and arranged for extra staff at work for a few days.
I went “under the knife” on December 8th, after my last final at school, but there were problems, and the Oral Surgeon had to break my jaw in three places to remove the impacted wisdom teeth. One look in the mirror and I was mortified. Sure, I was a shallow female teenager who looked like she had been in a car wreck, but I couldn’t possible let anyone see me with a purple face! The pain and swelling were terrible. When I leaned over, I thought my head would explode. The surgeon said I would be “down for at least 10 days”.
Phoning my GM with the bad news, he returned with more bad news. I would be….. “replaced”. Immediately, my mind raced to the threat of “corporate Pennsylvania”. My heart sank to my toes. I wanted to throw up. I was….. “fired”? Dispensable? Just wiped away with a brush…… casually. Someone else, stealing my glory….. but time marches on. After all I did, I was heartbroken, but it was a valuable lesson.
Moping around the house, I went from bad to worse. Gheez, I was foul. Not only could I not go out on my 18th birthday, finally able to celebrate being “legal”, but I lost my boyfriend and my job. I blamed Dad for my utter ruination. My social life was dead for the holidays, I lost my suite at the hotel, now had to pay my own tuition. I was a walking talking big black storm cloud.
Most of all, I was bored out of my mind,….. when I got a call from Miss Gloria that changed everything.
Apparently, I signed up the hotel for the annual Christmas Gingerbread Pastry Chef competition, but I made a mistake, and filled out the form in my own name as “entrant” for the hotel. Gloria told me that the hotel didn’t want the entry as they were scaling back “outside activities”, but I had to call the Association and withdraw myself, otherwise it would embarrass the hotel with a “Non-Entry”. I agreed, hung up the phone and started dialing the association ……… and then I stopped.
Why couldn’t I enter the competition? Again, ignorance and naivety, forgiveness instead of permission. No, I didn’t call my GM back and ask for permission. No, I had never made a gingerbread house. No, I wasn’t that good of a cook, and I sure as hell was no pastry chef on the level of grand hotels in New Orleans…………. but I was bored and mad, occasionally spitting lightning bolts from my fingertips.
I made up my mind.
I took over the dining room to make a gingerbread house, three storied Victorian, why not? I had a picture to go by and thought, “Sure, I can do this”. Over the next week, it consumed me. I worked late into the night, while my parents were asleep. Finally, Dad took pity on me and cut a piece of plywood for my masterpiece….. With a 2’x4′ piece of plywood, that meant I could make a garden and small village for the house. As the deadline approached, my step mother helped, teaching me to make frilly scrolls…. perfect touch. Dad and I were back to normal as I calmed down. He helped me engineer a licorice swing for the gingerbread garden. Dozens of trips to the grocery and specialty stores plus 60lbs of flour later, I was finished. It really was beautiful.
Dad and I took the House downtown to the competition, my jaw was still nine shades of yellow but I had almost recovered. Other pastry chefs had installed their exhibits and gosh, they were breathtaking. That was December 16th but the houses would not be judged until Christmas Eve. I walked away feeling better. It was good to be outside and in a Christmas atmosphere. Never in a million years did I hope for an honorable mention.
Over the next few days, I was back to normal, out and about, playing with friends, scurrying around to get ready for Christmas. Kind of forgot about the house competition because I didn’t enter to win it, I entered because I was bored.
Christmas Eve rolled around and all the repeat winners for the competition were awaiting the big announcements for this year’s division champs and grand prize winner. They were all dressed in their finery, waiting for the obligatory photo in the local papers. I wasn’t there….. cuz it was Christmas Eve…… Grandma and Grandpa were in town, and we had stuff to do.
And I won, grand prize.
I didn’t learn about it until Christmas Day and the news came as a complete surprise. MANY other entries, I thought, were far better than mine. My old GM called and told me the “hotel” had a “mystery entry” for the Gingerbread competition and THEY took first place. I got my job back, another raise, school tuition……. and still can’t remember what presents I received that year.
It was a good Christmas.
The decades flew by and I went to work in Manhattan, then Miami, in the Finance biz……. Yet, when I could afford to live where I chose to, and do what I wanted, I bought a little B&B back in Mississippi. And again, I’m thinking about making a Gingerbread House for Christmas.