Pastry chef Rodney Diehl and his 11-member crew create breads and rolls, magical desserts and confections, out of simple ingredients for the taverns and hotel restaurants at Colonial Williamsburg. This time of year, they turn out thousands of items each day, from the sugary gingerbread cookies that are a holiday favorite to the elaborate replicas of historic buildings crafted out of gingerbread and icing.
Dressed in his white chef's jacket and traditional toque, Diehl oversees several rooms devoted to pastry preparation located in the basement of the Williamsburg Lodge Conference Center. His calm demeanor identifies a man who has knows his craft and has been at it for years. On the wall of one of his workrooms is a sign that reads, "Life is uncertain ... eat dessert first."
How did you get started?
"In all culinary fields, you start out at the bottom end. I started out scrubbing floors in the kitchen. Over the 30 years I've moved from washing pots and pans to making out work schedules. In this job you need culinary skills and the ability to manage people and control finances. Your skills will get you to a certain level, but you've got to have management skills to become a chef.
"I'm not the best pastry chef in the world. My forte is mass-producing large quantities of product. It's about recruiting talented people and guiding their careers."
What's your guiding philosophy in your job?
"I've been at it for 30 years now. You don't create anything new anymore. You take what you've seen and adapt it to the product you're trying to put out. The pastry swans we make have been around since Escoffier when pastry was born. My philosophy is simple but elegant. I take the ingredients and the spices and combine it to where I think it's good."
You've been creating gingerbread houses for 27 years. How are they assembled?
"We have four groupings made up of 15 gingerbread houses that are displayed throughout the historic area in the Williamsburg Inn, Williamsburg Lodge and Williamsburg Woodlands. All the houses have patterns that we lay out across sheets of gingerbread. Then we'll cut them out and bake them off in those shapes. Next we'll take a poured sugar and put it into the windows to give them a glassy look.
"The replica of the Governor's Palace (that sits in the hallway outside the lodge ballroom) weighs 100 pounds. It took four people working four days to assemble it."
Are there other creations you're particularly proud of?
"The hazelnut ice cream cake has been here forever. Our pecan pie is something no one else has been able to mimic. At the Grand Illumination each year, we usually sell 10,000 gingerbread cookies. Some people come just for these and they'll go home happy."
What is it like overseeing pastries for such a large operation?
"We're open seven days a week...we never close. The bakers start at 2 a.m. Bakers do not like working 9 to 5. Their biological clocks are geared to working overnight. The pastry crew comes in at 6 a.m. and we stagger hours because there are times when we work right up until 9 or 10 o'clock at night.
"On a daily basis, the bakery will send out more than 3,000 muffins. On Thanksgiving Day we prepared 4,500 pieces of pastry — individual creme brulees, sour cherry trifles, pecan pies — just for the Lodge."
Whatdo you see as the ups and downs of your job?
"Working with my crew is a plus. We're like a family so if something happens to them good or bad, we cheer or we help them through it. In August 1989, 11 inches of rain fell in Williamsburg and my house collapsed. My crew pulled together and helped me and my family pull through it. They got us a house in the historic area so we could get back on our feet.
"The down side is you spend a lot of time here. The first year the Lodge opened, we were here every day, 60 to 70 hours a week. Now it's not as bad. My family is used to it. On Christmas Day, we open gifts and do dinner whenever I get home."