A room full of Lucky Dog Rescue supporters, including several delighted children, filled the Axis Lounge at the newly renovated, and dog-friendly, Royal Sonesta Hotel Houston for an evening of culinary, canine fun at the sixth annual Christmas Tail Gingerbread Doghouse Contest and Auction.
Proceeds topped $3,500 thanks to a suggested door donation of $25 and the auctioning of several gingerbread houses.
But these aren’t just any gingerbread houses. Some of the city’s most talented chefs generously made and donated one-of-a-kind, palatable gingerbread doghouse creations made with 95-percent edible materials.
The chefs gave their resources and spare time, spending days working on their gingerbread masterpieces, all in the name of charity. The event benefited Lucky Dog Rescue, which provides aid to stray and abandoned dogs.
Before being auctioned off, the gingerbread doghouses were entered into a friendly contest where they were scored on creativity and overall appeal. This year’s panel of judges included myself and fellow Lucky Dog Rescue enthusiasts, Chita Johnson of KHOU and Kaitlin Steinberg of the Houston Press.
After much deliberation — this was one tough competition to judge as all the houses were top-notch — first place was awarded to chef Eunice Grassa of Landry’s Signature Group for her village of three vibrantly colored gingerbread doghouses with decor of cotton candy, Kit Kat Minis, Frosted Mini-Wheats and more, plus a bright red fire hydrant, and several miniature dogs made with fondant including a snow angel pup.
Second place was a tie between chef Kevin Bryant of Eleven XI and chef Kelsey Hawkins of Osteria Mazzantini. Bryant, who has two dogs of his own, came into the contest as the returning, two-year champion. The creative chef constructed a version of The Lost City of Atlantis.
“I attempted to come up with a waterproof version of gingerbread, but in the end, I placed the doghouse in a small fish tank turned upside down to keep the gingerbread dry, and encased it in a larger tank filled with water," Bryant said.
Chef Kelsey Hawkins presented a house with her spin on the film, Wizard of Oz, which included a miniature Toto.
Amongst the experts, there was one chef who stood apart from the pack. The first student entry, fifth-grader Grace DeLaune, stole the show with her Polar Express movie-themed gingerbread doghouse.
DeLaune, whose father saw the event posted on Lucky Dog Rescue’s Facebook page, wrote an email requesting permission to compete against the pros:
“My name is Grace DeLaune, and I am interested in baking a scrumptious structure for our four-legged friends! I happen to be in 5th grade, and I’m interested in cooking. I also LOVE dogs, from Siberian Husky to German Shorthaired Pointer, Yorkie to White Highland Terrier, I love them all. I would find this experience an amazing new challenge to design, cook, and create a home for our beloved pets. I know I’m not a chef or an architect, but I would love to participate in this event. (I’m not this wordy in real-life, but for text purposes I am!)”
Holding her own, DeLaune took home the third place ribbon.
“I absolutely love dogs and want to be a pastry chef," she said. "I thought that since the money (raised) would go to save dogs, and I could bake, this event was a perfect fit for me.
"One day I want to have two big dogs. They get picked less than the small dogs. I want to save them, too.”
Other participating chefs on-hand were Samantha Mendoza of Triniti, Top Chef: Just Desserts alum Rebecca Masson of the Fluff Bake Bar (whose gingerbread house was purchased and then donated to the Ronald McDonald House), Catherine Rodriguez of The Houstonian Hotel, Club and Spa, and Patrick Escobar and Seth Couter of the Royal Sonesta Hotel Houston.
Sadly, two talented participants who have been past crowd favorites, Dory Fung of Houston Country Club and Johnny Wesley of Mr. Peeples, were unable to compete due to doghouse disasters on route to the hotel. However, they surely warrant honorable mention for good intentions.