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Chef’s table: Undone by the real-estate crash, he’s thankful for a fulfilling new career

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.

When it comes to turkey, Webster is a dark meat fan. But for the holiday he knows the whole turkey is an important part of tradition. In fact, he brings the gorgeous golden turkey to the table whole, then takes it back to the kitchen for carving, then presents it again.

“My daughter looks at me like, ‘Hey Dad, when can we eat?’ ” he says with a laugh.

Webster used to slip just butter under the skin of the turkey before roasting it. But after four years working for chef Michael Schwartz at Michael’s Genuine in the Design District, he learned a lot about fresh ingredients, including all sorts of herbs.

So now he tucks butter as well as fresh thyme, rosemary and sage under the skin of the turkey before roasting it at 325 degrees for as long as the cooking instructions on the package direct. “Just smelling the herbs makes me think of the season,” he says.

He recommends buying 1 pound of raw turkey per person. “This allows for seconds and plenty of leftovers, which really are the best part of Thanksgiving,” he says.

He also suggests roasting two small birds instead of one large one if you are feeding a crowd. That way the cooking time is less and you’ll have plenty of drumsticks, white meat and crisp skin to go around.

For a side dish, he tosses crisp green beans in a rich mixture of reduced heavy cream and Parmesan cheese. Then he tops it with the de rigueur fried onion bits. “It’s a new spin on a very identifiable dish — green bean casserole,” he says.

For another side dish, try roasting a Seminole pumpkin. Webster opts for this variety because it is a Florida native enjoyed by the Indians and early European settlers. He gets his pumpkin fresh from a Homestead farm, following his farm-to-table philosophy.

“I believe in buying as local and as sustainable as possible. Not just for the good of the environment but because it tastes better,” he says.

If you can’t find a Seminole pumpkin, use whatever type is available at your market.

Webster cubes it and then sprinkles it with plenty of fresh sage, rosemary and thyme, ground allspice, cinnamon and nutmeg as well as a sprinkling of brandy.

He tosses the roasted pumpkin with melted white chocolate that adds a velvety texture and just a hint of sweetness, then garnishes it with toasted almonds. It reminds him of a savory sweet potato pie.

For dessert, pastry chef Whalan offers a recipe for pecan pie with the addition of chocolate and a subtle touch of allspice.

“It puts a real holiday spin on this traditional pie,” says Whalan, who not only makes pastries for the café but has his own bakery business, Avant-Garde Cakes & Sweets.

This year, Thanksgiving is particularly important to Webster, who will cook dinner for his family, enjoy leftovers in sandwiches and, most of all, give thanks.

“This holiday we’ll stop and look over our shoulders and think about that Toys for Tots truck and think about living from hand to mouth, which we did for a while. But now I’m in a good place where I don’t have to be afraid,” he says. “The electricity is on.”