After decades of sugary magic, Hotel Captain Cook pastry chef ices his final gingerbread village

Joe Hickel has put countless hours into his yearly creations, which have brought holiday joy to downtown Anchorage since 1978.

Joe Hickel brushed powdered sugar from his jeans and stepped back to look at his enormous gingerbread creation. Hotel Captain Cook guests and old friends paused to admire his work as they filtered by on an afternoon in late November.

This is the 45th time Hickel, a pastry chef, has created the 270-square-foot village of gingerbread, icing and candy at the downtown Anchorage hotel. Viewing it has become a holiday tradition for some.

Hickel said this year’s gingerbread village will be his last — and likely the hotel’s last, too.

“I’m just tired,” the 69-year-old longtime pastry chef said Saturday, citing ongoing health issues. “But I’m going to be sad. It’s touched a lot of people’s lives.”

He built the first one in 1978. “I’ve always loved details,” said Hickel. “I want to make this thing look like where I want to live. And that’s exactly what it is.”

This year, small figurines sled on giant toboggans down snowy hills of icing past chocolate trees and lampposts, and skate on bright blue ponds made of glossy sugar.

The tiny, smiling people build snowmen, look into shop windows and sing carols. The names of local shops and people are written in cursive above the doors of the gingerbread buildings.

All told, the village requires over a thousand pounds of sugar and chocolate. Each year, Hickel begins baking the gingerbread houses in July in order to finish by early December. During that time, he spends hours designing, baking, melting and pasting as part of his full-time job at the hotel.

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He bakes and builds the gingerbread houses first, which he assembles himself with melted chocolate as glue. When he starts building the village, he knows where a few of the more special houses will go, including his wife, Marlene’s.

“She has a great piece of property,” he said with a grin, pointing out her house, which is positioned at the corner of the village up on a tall hill overlooking a pond with the words “I love you, Marlene” written in icing.

The rest, he creates as he goes.

The village has gotten a little bigger each year, Hickel said. As he works, he stops to talk to many of the people who walk by. Some have heard this is the last show.

“I’m going to miss this!” said Michelle Gillette. She has been coming to see the finished project for decades, since she was 5 or 6 years old. “It’s fun because it’s always different places in Alaska. So you can relate to it. And he’s always done such a wonderful job.”

“I can’t believe this is the last one,” said former Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, who said he has visited every village since the first one in 1978.

Treadwell said he wasn’t convinced this will be Hickel’s last village.

“I’ve seen literally thousands of people enjoy this,” he said. “I don’t think it can go away.”

Hickel smiled and shook his head. He said that the hotel had looked into having someone else take over making the gingerbread village once he retired, but that he has been told that it’s unlikely they will.

It would be expensive for the hotel, he said, and he doesn’t think anyone else could do the job. Hickel retired last year as the hotel’s head pastry chef but stayed on this year to make the gingerbread village one last time.

As a family paused to admire the rows of chocolate and gingerbread, exclaiming over the sweet smell and the intricate details, Hickel cheerfully answered their questions and offered them a taste from a vat of fresh icing.

He said that’s his favorite part: talking with people who find joy in his creation.

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A while back, hotel management talked about putting a curtain up around the room while Hickel worked so he wouldn’t be interrupted so much, and could get his work done a little faster, he said.

“And I said, forget it. We’re in the hospitality industry. We love people.” he said.

Hickel said he remembers the first time he saw a gingerbread house as a young child in the display case of a Piggly Wiggly grocery store. He said that’s where he first got the idea for a gingerbread village. He’s been a pastry chef at the hotel since his early 20s, after leaving a job in construction and never looking back.

His father is the late Alaska statesman Wally Hickel, who served twice as governor, in the 1960s and in the 1990s, and was secretary of the U.S. Interior Department under President Richard Nixon. Joe Hickel said his father, who died in 2010, was always one of his biggest fans.

“If you know my father, he’s met with presidents, with leaders around the world,” he said. “And he would walk by me when I’m working, and say, ‘That’s my son. I’m really proud of my son. There’s nothing like that in the world.’”

Once fully retired, Hickel said he’s not sure what he’ll do with all the extra downtime.

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“Probably just relax. Maybe try to do some more skiing. Go see the grandkids on the weekend. I don’t know. It’s going to be weird. I’m going to miss it,” he said. “But that’s life, right?”

Daily News photojournalist Emily Mesner contributed to this story.

Annie Berman

Annie Berman is a reporter covering health care, education and general assignments for the Anchorage Daily News. She previously reported for Mission Local and KQED in San Francisco before joining ADN in 2020. Contact her at aberman@adn.com.

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