Around the holidays, the Ritz-Carlton, Naples, is transformed. You can’t miss the life-size gingerbread house in the lobby. Like so many, you may even have to stop and take a picture in front of it.
The house made of cookies and candies is only one of Lerome Campbell’s many culinary touches at the resort.
The week before Christmas, the head pastry chef is in the kitchen building one of the 100-pound chocolate sculptures for Christmas brunch.
Afterward, they're melted down, Campbell says.
"We’ll make brownies with it," Campbell said. "We’ll make chocolate ice cream. We’ll make ganache. All that stuff.”
35-year-old Campbell is originally from Jamaica. You can hear his roots in certain words, but more so, you can taste it in the flavors he always comes back to.
“I think I tend to go more tropical with what I do," Campbell said. "I love coconut. I love banana. I love, like, you know, pineapple, passionfruit, all this stuff, so whenever I make anything, I tend to go more tropical.”
Chef Campbell’s subtle homage to his homeland is no surprise to fans of Food Network’s Holiday Baking Championship, though, where Campbell has been competing and standing out since episode one of the show’s fifth season.
Campbell says his two young daughters don’t care too much for the show – even though, their dad has made the top three.
“They’re not focused is what I would say," Campbell said. "You know, I can’t get them to sit there and watch the TV. They watch, like, five, ten minutes of the show, and they’re, like, ‘Good. We’re going to go play now.’”
What his 3- and 6-year-old can focus on, though, is pastry – much like their father and like his mother, who first got him interested in the craft.
“My mom, she’s a retired pastry chef," Campbell said. "So, I’ve been in the kitchen with my mom ever since I could walk.”
Campbell says his mom tested his dedication to pastry at first.
“When I graduated from culinary school, my mom told me, ‘I don’t want you to do something you’ll end up quitting after a year,'" Campbell said. "So, she had me try, like, multiple things each year. You know, I was a mechanic for a year, electrician for a year, carpenter for a year, and I think I was a computer technician as well.”
Now, he’s a bona fide pâtissier, but Campbell is still lacking the skills in one dessert. So, he’ll need his mom, and their go-to holiday baking tune: Jingle Bells by Frank Sinatra.
“This coming week, we’re going to be making the traditional Jamaician fruitcake together," Campbell said. "It’s something we do every year, and I love it because that’s one thing she can do better than me still. I think I’ve surpassed her with everything else, but I still cannot bake a better fruitcake than my mom.”
Her secret? Campbell says, it’s the rum.
Chef Campbell is competing for the $25,000 prize on the finale of the Holiday Baking Championship, airing Monday at 9 p.m. on the Food Network.