Keystone executive pastry chef Ned Archibald has held his ‘dream job’ for over 20 years
Photos by Ben Trollinger
Ned Archibald measures chocolate by the ton.
Since the Keystone executive pastry chef began building his chocolate village in the lobby of Keystone Lodge and Spa 21 years ago, he’s added something different every year — a new building, more presents under the tree, another detail to the growing chocolate town. What started as a simple village has grown into a 5,000-plus-pound spectacle, which causes children and adults alike to pause in awe when they catch sight of it.
The most difficult decision for a viewer facing the chocolate village is what part to look at first. Rather than a static snapshot, the village teems with movement, from the chocolate waterfall (5 gallons of milk chocolate fed through a pump inside the chocolate mountain), the chocolate gondolas moving up and down the mountainside to the two trains (with chocolate cars, of course) coursing over the tracks. Intricate detail attends each of the colorful gifts under the 650-pound chocolate Christmas tree, not to mention the giant nutcrackers or any of the other hidden features viewers are challenged to find by nearby chocolate signs.
The chocolate village is just one aspect of Archibald’s job. In addition to making desserts for different outlets within the resort (such as truffle boxes for the spa, or sorbet ice cream for a restaurant), he creates designer birthday and wedding cakes and is responsible for the well known and highly anticipated chocolate spread at Wine in the Pines, the annual fine dining charity event.
After over 20 years in the position, Archibald still calls it his “dream job.”
“To be able to have both my dream life in the mountains and my dream career job, it’s very very rare that people find that combination. I never take it for granted,” he said.
BORN TO BAKERS
Long before he was making mountains of chocolate in the mountains, Archibald was standing on milk crates in his grandfather’s bakery on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, experiencing his first foray into the world of desserts.
On weekends, Archibald’s father would take him in to perform little tasks like greasing pans, putting muffin cups in the tin and sweeping up flour. When he got a little older, he worked there five days a week, putting in as many hours as he could “as long as I could still stay awake in school and keep up my studies,” he recalled. At age 16 he made his first wedding cake.
With connections through his aunt, a well-known chef, Archibald was accepted into the Culinary Institute of America, and graduated in 1981. There wasn’t much emphasis on baking at the time, and he worked in regular restaurant fare for the next several years.
Archibald got a job working for Marriott hotels, and relocated to Dallas, Texas, where he was a kitchen manager and sous chef. But he missed making pastries, and one incident, which remains clearly in mind, marked his shift back to desserts.
“I can remember this night like it was yesterday,” he said. While working in the kitchen one evening, someone ordered a brownie sundae dessert, and his creation delighted the waitresses.
“People were oohing and aahing and drooling, and that’s when it kind of hit me, that pastry is the ‘wow.’ I like that reaction. I love to this day the reaction I get when people see my dessert table at Wine in the Pines, when people see the birthday cake or the groom’s cake I made them, their wedding cake,” he said. “Pastry, cake, it has such an input, such a profound impact on somebody’s 90th birthday, somebody’s baby shower, all those little things, and I realized that night, I want back into pastry.”
He applied for a pastry chef opening in California and never looked back.
COMING TO KEYSTONE
Archibald was in San Jose, California, when he was contacted for the job opportunity at Keystone. Having loved living in Denver for several years, he was intrigued with the idea. He was also tired of living in a big city, so small-town mountain life appealed to him.
His idea of ski resort food options as “cafeterias” was revealed to be outdated. “I got here and I was blown away by the culinary operation, the dedication to it, the commitment to it to be fine dining in the mountains,” he said. “I had no idea.”
Archibald and his wife, Karen, also fulfilled their personal dream by purchasing a 20-acre ranch between Alma and Fairplay, where they still reside. Performing his own home renovations has become a hobby for Archibald.
“What I do for a living translates into home repair more than you’d ever think,” he said.
From the moment he arrived at Keystone, Archibald was itching to put together a chocolate village. He’d done a gingerbread village while in Denver, and a gingerbread-chocolate mash-up in California. But his vision was for one of pure chocolate, and lots of it.
“Every pastry chef across this country in a big hotel does a gingerbread village for Christmas,” he said. “But when you look at them, they’re just still, they’re just sitting there. … They’re really not intriguing.”
He wanted not only a chocolate medium, but one that moved.
“I just wanted a train,” he said. “I was tying in that classic American Christmas, that Norman Rockwell Christmas morning, (where) there’s a train going around a track, there’s a few presents open.”
Archibald started with a piece of plywood and began building. The mountain came several years in, requiring extra support, infrastructure and a custom table. But just a 750-pound mountain wasn’t enough. Archibald wanted a running chocolate waterfall, like in the movie “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (the 1971 Gene Wilder version, of course), so he put a pump up through the mountain and thinned the chocolate with syrup to make it runny. A second train and a working gondola came next.
“Little by little it evolved. It started to take up more room of the lobby,” he said.
When he couldn’t think of anything else to add to the village, he suggested replacing the real tree next to the exhibit with a chocolate one. Now the tree (as big as he could make it at 650 pounds) and overflowing presents meet in the middle, creating a colorful spectacle.
The process of creation is rarely simple, and Archibald ran into a few snags along the way.
“I’ve had every disaster or breakdown you could ever have,” he said, from train wrecks to falling gondolas, sun-melted chocolate and even one train car that was snatched up for a bite by an overenthusiastic reveler on New Year’s Eve.
All of the chocolate (medium-grade, from Switzerland and Belgium) is edible, but not all of it is chocolate you’d want to eat. Archibald estimates that about 90 percent of the village, as well as the tree and presents, are the same chocolate as in years previous. In addition to adding something new, Archibald and his team annually “refurbish” the chocolate they already have — spraying it with new chocolate, fixing breaks and making it all look like new.
“They’re all edible,” he said, and while a nibbler wouldn’t exactly get sick, “it won’t taste good, that’s for sure.”
Those interested in trying Archibald’s more taste-bud-friendly desserts are better off ordering them from a restaurant, or attending Wine in the Pines in October.
While Archibald might love chocolate as an artistic medium, that’s where it ends for him.
“Honestly, honest to God, it shocks people — I kind of dislike chocolate,” he said, but added that he doesn’t mind. “It would be a hazard if I loved chocolate. I’d probably be 400 pounds. It’s probably a good thing.”
What Archibald loves best about creations like his chocolate village are the reactions from those who come to see it. One lady approached him last year with a small girl in tow.
“I’ve been coming to this since I was 15 years old, and now I’m bringing my kids here,” she told him. He smiles just thinking about it.
“It inspires me when I get up every day,” he said. “It’s like, that’s why I’m getting up, that’s why I’m coming to work, to impact someone’s life.”
This article was originally published Jan. 4, 2015, and also appeared in the 2018 Explore Summit winter magazine.
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