Each year before Keystone Chef Ned Archibald leaves to erect his chocolate village in the Keystone Lodge -- a masterwork created entirely from chocolate and, in the case of the ornaments on the six-foot-tall white-chocolate Christmas tree, hand-blown sugar -- his wife gives him a hug and tells him, "Just remember, you're going to make so many people happy."
It's important to remember that, because Archibald's chocolate village is not a simple enterprise, and frustrations can run high. The chocolate fountain, for example, needs almost-constant monitoring to check the viscosity and ensure the chocolate won't clog up the fountain pump.
"It’s all the little tweaking and fun things that happen," Archibald says. The morning he set the village up, "the waterfall just started and spilled all over the track of the train," he laments. "If the chocolate's too thick, the pump seizes up, and I call the manufacturer, and they say, 'It’s not made for chocolate, you know.' And if I thin the chocolate down too much with simple syrup, it splatters. And it’s a very fine line. You’d think being a pastry chef I could just figure it out. But due to air conditions, whether it’s dry or humid, and the heat, the temperature of that pump and the amount of chocolate in there, the viscosity of the chocolate changes almost hourly, and definitely daily. I never knew it was going to be that hard.
"This morning I was so mad," he continues. "The train stopped, and I thought, 'maybe I’ll make the waterfall look like an ice wall and put some little climbers on it and be done with this Willy Wonka thing." But it will be difficult to bid farewell to the fountain: "It’s fragrant, and really, when people walk in, they’re like, 'Mmm, chocolate.' It’s not the chocolate in the display, per se, it’s the waterfall."
This is the thirteenth year of the village, and each year, Archibald adds something new. "I've totally eliminated any free space in the lobby," he says. "We barely have anywhere for our guests to sit down, so the things I add are subtle and small." Things like the miniature wind turbines Archibald's sprinkled across the mountain. "I've got three of them so far, and I might just pop out another three or four or five and stick them here and there and everywhere and have my own little wind farm out there. I'll wait until it looks stupid and stop." The turbines are a salute to Vail Resorts' CEO. "I'm not stupid," Archibald notes. "I understand who pays for all this chocolate, and his name's Rob Katz. If I can do anything in my village to make Rob Katz happy, I'm going to do it."
Archibald's also added a solid chocolate ore cart (in honor of Keystone's mining history), laden with chunks of chocolate that have been coated in 24-karat gold leaf. And some popular culture makes its way into the village, too. "I loved the show Northern Exposure," he says. "That was a show I would watch and just go, 'I'd love to live there.' Well, I live there now. The opening scene from that show is a big moose walking through the town, and this may be coupled with the experience that I saw my first live moose this spring, in the backcountry hiking by a stream. So this year I've added -- and this is also stupid pastry humor -- a chocolate moose."
Archibald doesn't reconstruct the whole village each year; the climate in Keystone is actually perfect for storing the chocolate village when it's not on display in the lobby. "The village itself breaks down," Archibald says. "I have these cases that we store them in. They're climate-controlled; we basically have to keep them from freezing, not from getting too hot. Here with the lack of humidity and the ambient temperature, it's ideal storage conditions for chocolate. Anywhere else that I've ever been, not only will chocolate maybe melt on you, but it will do something really bad, which is go rancid." Sound yummy? "It's the worst smell in the world," Archibald maintains.
But his village is still in fine condition. "Just yesterday I was in the lobby, and literally put my nose up to one of the mountains and thought, 'It's got no smell whatsoever, and it's twelve years old.' For a pastry person, it's like the most perfect of conditions. Many of those components are definitely nine, ten, eleven, twelve years old. They will discolor, but I can fix that. I can recoat it with chocolate, hit it with a blowtorch, shellac it with an edible lacquer. I can put powdered sugar on it. But once it smells, you can't put it in the lobby.
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"Each year we bring it out late October, early November, out of the storage to evaluate the condition and start refurbishing, and the refurbishing takes a lot of time. There's a lot of maintenance every year so it looks fresh. I don't ever want it to look like something that's been around twelve years. I have, like, five people working on it for three weeks straight to get it back to its original condition. I try to switch up the personnel, because it's painstaking. It's very detailed work."
But those who have seen the chocolate village grow from year to year certainly appreciate his efforts. "I have people pull out pictures with their kids -- who are like twelve now -- in front of the village when they were three, and that really means something. I think there was a young girl there last year who was about fourteen, who has been coming since she was five. I don't ever stop and realize, it's part of these people's lives, they're carrying pictures around with them," he notes. "I kind of forget how simple a pleasure it is. Someone’s going to come in and it’s gonna make their day, and that’s kinda cool."
Next year, the village might look a little bit different because the Keystone Lodge is remodeling its lobby. But Archibald takes it all in stride; he loves seeing people excited about his village, his version of Frankenstein's monster.
"It's just kind of overwhelming. It is kind of, in a weird way, a monster I've created because it's such a success that it's never going away, as long as I'm at this resort." -- Amber Taufen