Todd Webster is very thankful this holiday season. He has a new job as executive chef at the Front Porch Café in South Beach. He has a lovely wife and healthy 5-year-old daughter. And, yes, after years of doing without, he even has a dining room table.
Like many in South Florida, Webster and his family suffered financially when the real estate bubble burst. After losing a lucrative real estate-related job, he and his family had a financial meltdown.
One morning when he went to the kitchen to heat his baby daughter’s bottle, he found the electricity had been turned off at their Boca Raton home. The family was in such bad straits that they had to sell nearly all their possessions.
“All we had left was a bed and a crib,” he says.
And now, he, like many of us, has learned to live with less.
When he was looking for a new job, his sister-in-law suggested he stop trying to make a lot of money and instead do something fulfilling. So in 2008 he enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Miramar. He’s been cooking ever since.
Four years later, Webster, 41, has a job he loves, a home in Homestead and he’s even bought a dining room table on which to enjoy the holiday meal.
“We went from my daughter getting her Christmas presents off the back of a Toys for Tots truck to our life as it is now,” he says. “I’m very thankful.”
So we turn to Webster for recipes to make your holiday feast particularly flavorful, especially easy and, shared with family, meaningful. To round out that meal, we also get a holiday pie recipe from the café’s pastry chef, Stuart Whalan, who has also served as executive pastry chef for Ritz-Carlton South Beach.
Webster began cooking as a latchkey kid growing up with a single mom in Winter Haven. “I was home alone a lot and cooked in order to survive,” he says.
On Thanksgiving, his mother would take time from her waitressing job to make dinner for her three boys. There would be a turkey, stuffing and cranberry jelly from a can. Her stuffing recipe was right off the Stove Top Stuffing box, Webster recalls.
But that didn’t seem to matter.
“We’d all get around the table and rip it all up, then sit down and eat,” he says.
Today it remains important to Webster to be with his family for the holiday meal.
Of course, given his new job, he’ll be working at the restaurant on Nov. 22. But he and his wife have developed the tradition of a day-after celebration.
“I insist we have a Thanksgiving dinner in our house — even if it is a day late,” the chef says.
On Friday, he’ll make his wife’s favorite picadillo stuffing, a recipe he got from his Peruvian mother-in-law and shares with us.
You may be taken aback that this dressing is based on rice instead of bread cubes. So was Webster the first time he tasted it. But he’s come to relish this dish. “It’s really good,” he says adding that it never gets mushy like some bread stuffings.
And to make life easy, the combination of rice, ground beef (you can use some chorizo, too, if you wish), onions and pimento-stuffed olives is cooked on top of the stove while your turkey roasts. This colorful melange is flavored with adobo and cilantro to make it savory yet sprightly.
Webster suggests serving the whole turkey atop a bed of dressing and then carving it so the meat juices moisten and flavor the rice.