San Francisco–based chef Anthony Strong has a Yuletide tradition of crafting elaborate gingerbread houses. It makes sense, given the Minnesota native’s background in construction-he even served as the general contractor for his restaurant, Prairie, which recently shuttered due to COVID-19. Last year, he built one in the form of a midcentury Lake Tahoe ski cabin. This year, Strong found inspiration from a socially distant pastime-watching lots of TV.
"My girlfriend and I finally binge-watched Ozark and knew immediately that we had to do a gingerbread replica of the house," says Strong, who goes on to admit that his sense of humor is a bit dark.
"Not only is it a gorgeous home in the perfect setting for a gingerbread winter scene, but I figured that a lighthearted, holiday-bedazzled reference to a show about a family trafficking cartel money would be fitting for 2020."
Microplaned gingerbread and caramelized isomalt comprise the L-shaped, gable-roofed home.
Jokes aside, Strong’s Ozark Lake House deploys serious amounts of toothache-inducing sweets. The L-shaped layout features a skewed gable roof, cut and formed out of homemade gingerbread; candy rocks imitate the chunky look of a brick chimney. Caramelized isomalt-a type of sugar substitute-create floor-to-ceiling windows that, in theory, provide unobstructed views over the lake. A gingerbread path leads down to a gingerbread dock that’s held up by cinnamon-stick pilings, and powdered sugar dusts the landscape and pine trees-those are made of sprigs of upside-down rosemary-to complete the wintry scene.
To round out the Ozark theme, a matte-black SUV is parked in the driveway. Strong says, "I couldn't help myself from making a replica of the ominous SUV parked out front-it is frosted with a standard royal icing and tinted black with activated charcoal!"
This year, Strong challenged himself to hew to a more refined aesthetic. For example, instead of relying on an "epic amount" of just one kind of icing, he batched a few different consistencies: one for the mortar to assemble the home, one as a glue for dried coconut and rocks, and another for delicate finish work. Another trick gives the Ozark residence a leg up over last year’s ski cabin: "I formed perfectly clean, straight edges of gingerbread by shaving the just-baked pieces down with a microplane as they cooled," he says. "Pretty sweet move."
A replica of Strong’s 1989 Whitestar Vanagon, Stella, rests at the edge of the property.
Though Strong’s restaurant has unfortunately been forced to close in the pandemic, the chef has started a new side hustle while he searches for another restaurant space. The white van parked by the Ozark gingerbread house exists IRL as Stella, a 1989 Whitestar Vanagon that’s been converted into a dining room–on–wheels that can be booked for private dinners. Up to four people at a time can enjoy Strong’s glamping-inspired, four-course menu, which features fare similar to what was served at Prairie (think lobster paired with fermented chili fondue).
While Strong looks for a new restaurant space, he’s providing a pop-up dining experience from Stella, a renovated 1989 Whitestar Vanagon.
Next year, Strong says he may just enter the National Gingerbread House Competition. Until then, find him roving the Bay Area in Stella the Vanagon.
The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.