Grier Rubeling has a talent for crafting with a sweet and unexpected medium.
by Lori D. R. Wiggins | photography by S.P. Murray
If the holiday season has visions of gingerbread dancing in your head, you better run, run, fast as you can—because Grier Rubeling has a huge head start.
“For me, gingerbread season is all year,” Rubeling says. She’s not exaggerating: Rubeling is a national, award-winning, competitive gingerbread architect. She uses gingerbread like building blocks, transforming the sturdy cookie into showcase-worthy creations that awe crowds and judges alike. She uses an arsenal of bakers’ tools—fondant, molding chocolate and a specially-developed gingerbread recipe—as well as actual power tools to create her intricately detailed gingerbread sculptures
Gingerbread competitions start in November, so many gingerbread crafters begin thinking of ideas and honing techniques at least four months earlier. A single project can take weeks to assemble, and for true competitive gingerbreaders like Rubeling, the work to design, plan and bake begins even sooner—say, March—and sometimes as soon as the last competition ends. “If you really want to get into gingerbread, it’s all year ‘round,” Rubeling says. “It’s fun and challenging and super versatile to work with, so I think every season is gingerbread season.”
Rubeling met gingerbread in 2014 with a friend’s nudge to enter the Raleigh Winterfest Gingerbread House Competition. “I went, I won, and then I was addicted,” says Rubeling, who, in her former life, baked cakes and cupcakes for the office at her corporate job. “I just really like to create things with my hands that people can appreciate.”
Rubeling aims for crowd-pleasers. “My inspiration comes from something in my life that inspires me,” she says, adding that she purposely chooses ideas that “no one has ever seen before.”
In 2016, Rubeling won the Cary Heart of the Holidays competition, and in 2018, she hit the national stage, winning third place at the National Gingerbread House Competition in Asheville. Inspired by the painting Dogs Playing Poker by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge, Rubeling created an entry called Reindeer Playing Poker, a sculpture of four card-playing reindeer, complete with lime-garnished drinks, tiny cigars and a rug woven from lengths of gingerbread. The entry took days to complete and broke on the way to the competition, requiring nearly three hours of repair work—but it caught the attention of the Food Network. They invited her to compete with other top culinary talents in the network’s Haunted Gingerbread Showdown last fall. Rubeling won her episode, themed When Aliens Attack, and went on to compete as a finalist for the $25,000 grand prize. She didn’t win, but her friend, Meghan Morris of Apex, did, which made her happy. “I know Meghan from the gingerbread world, so if I didn’t win, I wanted her to win,” says Rubeling.
Last year, Rubeling turned her artistry into King Gingerbread Nutcracker to compete in the Triangle Family Services Annual Gingerbread Benefit. She also entered the national competition in Asheville again with Viking Santa, which featured Saint Nick and some elves on a longship, riding a wave. Although she was pleased with the piece, it didn’t place in the Top 10. That doesn’t bother her, because she’s got bragging rights that’ll linger a lifetime. “I can call myself a Food Network finalist for the rest of my life,” Rubeling laughs.
Between managing her own consulting firm, perfecting the design and architecture of gingerbread, and enjoying time with her family (husband Kyle and daughters Eleanor and Evelyn), Rubeling says, “I don’t really get to create just for fun anymore—only sometimes, but that’s what I love to do.”
She shares much of her work on her blog, The Craft Crib. She started it years ago to share her DIY projects, including furniture makeovers, woodworking, crafting and designing Halloween decorations (and, of course, gingerbread creations). “What I really love to do is to create things I can use for myself, and then make tutorials to teach others how to do it,” she says, acknowledging she’s no expert crafter. Rubeling says she simply loves it when folks comment on her posts, or try it themselves.
It’s a passion Rubeling hopes to make her full-time focus, income included, perhaps with templates for gingerbread houses for others to use. “I’ve got big plans for myself.”
Truth be told, when Food Network invited her to compete, Rubeling had to dig deep and push past her sense of imposter syndrome to take the national stage. “Notoriously, I’ve always underestimated my talent, so I thought I was woefully unprepared and unready for a Food Network show,” she says. “I kept thinking, they’re going to find out I don’t even know how to bake!” Even so, she says, “I’m all about rising to the challenge. The only way to find out what you’re capable of is to push yourself beyond the limit.”
That bravery landed Rubeling at the judges’ table for a 2019 gingerbread competition in Cary. “It’s helped me in my business; in all aspects of life,” Rubeling says, noting that today she’s less camera-shy and more confident speaking to competition big-wigs and media alike, with or without preparation. “I’m cool with it; I like it and it’s fun.” And, maybe, Rubeling imagines, “the Haunted Gingerbread Showdown might make it to Netflix. What a fun family experience that would be!”
The whole family has gotten into it. “Now, my kids love gingerbread,” Rubeling says. “They get it!” Her daughters join Rubeling in the art of sculpting, painting and building her creations. “And I love that they are interested in this hobby that I found after three decades of my life,” she says. “I wish I had discovered it sooner. But I’m really excited my kids get to experience something I have a passion for. Who knows what they’ll be able to create?”
Click here for some of Rubeling’s gingerbread house making tips and favorite recipes.