When most people think of building houses, they imagine stacks of wood, sheets of metal, hammers, and hand-saws. Jim Shalkoski, on the other hand, uses some unlikely materials—think hundreds of pounds of gingerbread cookie dough, rolling pins, rulers, and even buzz-saws. As a self-identified “gingineer,” Shalkoski rightfully earns the title. Having spent the past nine Christmas seasons creating masterpiece gingerbread mansions, he’s become a household name in the Salisbury area.
Each year, Shalkoski crafts a gingerbread creation to be featured in the entrance of Sea Glass Restaurant & Lounge—an event space of which he’s general manager. This year’s design is dubbed, ‘Ginger-pocolypse: The Ice Man Cometh’ by Shalkoski. “It’s titled like a movie. You see the action of the gingerbread house, what’s going on in that world. It becomes a world that you’re looking at…visually, your eyes dance around the piece…you notice something different every time, as you would if you were watching a movie.”
It features a well-loved character from the holiday classic ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,’ namely Bumble the Abominable Snowman and his crew attacking Santa’s village days before Christmas. The stately residence measures ten feet tall, glued together by royal icing.
Along with the construction of the structure comes the annual gingerbread house lighting complete with complimentary hot cocoa and cookies and some classic festive jingles played on the piano as the crowd counts down to the very moment when the house is lit all a-glow. This year the ceremony took place on November 21.
But Shalkoski wasn’t always a gingineer. He was an actor with a penchant for baking. He studied theatre in college, receiving his undergraduate and masters at Salem State University and Rutgers University, respectively. When he found his way back to Massachusetts around 2007, he wound up in the restaurant industry to support his acting career and was baking a slew of cakes on the side.
One year, his boss Kathy Aiello proposed the idea of a table-top gingerbread house for the entrance of Sea Glass and from there the tradition took off. Each year the creations became larger-than-life, jolly spectacles spanning the entryway into the restaurant, and became outlandish enough that they needed structural support to last the entire winter season.
Eventually, being a full-time general manager, actor, and baker became a heavy load to bear, and Shalkoski had to scale back, sticking to general managing at Sea Glass with his gingerbread house being the big project of the year. In preparation for the lighting, Shalkoski spends the months leading up to the end of November planning out his house, spending around 90 hours a week in the kitchen baking, sometimes starting as early as 4 a.m. and ending at 9 p.m.
“I start with a whimsical idea, and really it’ll come to me one night probably in September as it’s getting closer to wintertime and I can’t sleep. I’ll just get up in the middle of the night and start sketching. And I’ll just sketch out a rough idea; usually it’s very cartoony and I’ll tweak it from there.”
He then creates 100% to scale blueprints to ensure that the structure will look good from all angles. After about ten to fifteen different iterations of the piece, he will settle on an idea and spend about a week creating a plywood form for the base and to put together the electrics and wiring. Once complete, he’ll dive head-first into the kitchen to begin the baking process, using around 25 pounds of dough a day.
“If you constantly try to outdo yourself, compete with yourself, work really hard, and keep doing it, eventually someone’s going to notice,” said Shalkoski. And boy was he right! The Food Network scouted him out across thousands of other gingerbread experts from around the country for their 3-episode series, ‘Holiday Gingerbread Showdown,’ in which he appears in an episode called “Worst Christmas Ever,” airing on December 1.
Shalkoski was surprised by the Food Network’s inquiry to star in the competition, unsure of how they found him—he’s pretty off the grid. (No social media for this gingineer!) After a number of phone interviews and discussions, Shalkoski became one of nine competitors on the show.
Because of his background in acting, Shalkoski wasn’t thrown off his game by the camera. He said the most challenging aspect of the competition was designing something 100% edible that could survive a cross-country trip to California where the show was filmed. They had three to five weeks to prep their designs before sending them to the Golden State. Heat also posed an issue, since he usually bakes these gigantic structures in the midst of a New England winter—humidity, unpredictable weather, and ever-changing temperatures were all trouble factors on the journey to the West Coast in June.
Because he doesn’t have cable, Shalkoski and his girlfriend will be watching the premiere at his parent’s house with his two brothers. The first episode in the series will air tomorrow, December 1.