When Jon Lovitch made his first gingerbread village as a teenager in Kansas City in 1994, he could never have dreamed that he’d someday turn the hobby into his full-time job, display his creations in New York City and set the world record for gingerbread houses.
Fast forward 28 years, and the “Gingerbread Man,” who holds the Guinness World Record for largest gingerbread village, is ready to unveil Gingerbread Lane at Essex Market on the Lower East Side later this month. The spectacular display will return to Manhattan after heading outside of the city for two years amid the pandemic.
This year, Lovitch is making about 1,500 gingerbread houses, with 500 each going to displays in New York City, Salt Lake City and Kansas City. The village includes precious details, like jelly bean roof tiles, candy cane decor and clever signs made out of icing. It takes 1,000 pounds of gingerbread and 8,000 pounds of icing to create 1,500 gingerbread houses, along with the help of several hardworking dehumidifiers to keep everything dry.
The process takes all year with the season ramping up to 100-hour weeks in the fall when the air constantly smells sweet and gingerbread houses cram into every nook and cranny of his basement in Queens.
For Lovitch, this year-round project is truly a labor of love. He uses the knowledge and work ethic he developed as a professional chef working in some of America’s most coveted hotel kitchens to push through the challenges of creating such intricately detailed, time-consuming work.
After each season, he gives away the gingerbread houses for people to display at their own homes. While the houses are made mostly of food items, they are not edible, he cautions, especially considering many of the materials are expired.
As soon as the holiday season ends, he’s on the lookout for discounted, expired candy to use for next year’s display, delighted to score things like boxes of candy canes for 10 cents or jelly beans from 2018. When the winter solstice rolls around even before the year 2023 begins, he’ll start making next year’s Gingerbread Lane.
Right about now is when you find yourself on your hands and knees trying to make houses fit on this shelf or in that area.
Lovitch’s passion for the project began when he was working as an apprentice chef at a hotel in Kansas City where the pastry chef made a gingerbread house. He noticed visitors’ positive reactions to the chef’s creation, so he wanted to try his hand at making his own. That first year in 1994 as a teenager, he made 14 gingerbread houses, what he’d now consider a small display.
“It came out looking pretty good for somebody who had no idea what they were actually doing and people really liked it,” he recalled. ”Back in the ’90s, when you took a picture of something, that was a real commitment back then. … And people were taking all these pictures of it. It was a really euphoric feeling for me right away to realize that I was creating something that people were identifying with.”
Over the years as he lived in different cities for work, including Washington, D.C. and Pittsburgh, he’d display the growing Gingerbread Lane in those cities as well. It even found a home at the Smithsonian for a while.
When he moved to New York City and saw a news article about the world’s largest gingerbread village, he realized his was actually larger. So he set out to provide the proper documentation to Guinness World Records, which certified his epic gingerbread village as the world’s biggest.
Each year, he pretends to be a regular visitor to Gingerbread Lane, so he can hear people’s unfiltered reactions.
“Kids are in awe. I’ve had seniors in tears looking at it,” he said. ”In a world dominated by so much negative stuff … it has a real escapist quality when you come see Gingerbread Lane.”
See Gingerbread Lane at Essex Market on the Lower East Side from Saturday, November 26 through Sunday, January 15.
Ex-Brit turned Manhattan resident since 2008.