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Chef Spotlight: Ricky Webster of Hotel RL found joy in the kitchen as a kid

Ricky Webster, corporate executive chef for Red Lion Hotels, poses for a portrait at Hotel RL in Spokane. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Ricky Webster moved to Spokane not quite a year ago for a new position as the corporate executive chef for Red Lion Hotels.

He’s responsible not only for developing menus for Spokane’s newly renovated Hotel RL but other Hotel RLs and Red Lion Hotels across the country.

Before moving to Spokane, he worked in Los Angeles as the executive sous chef and executive pastry chef for the Ace Hotel.

Webster, 34, has been cooking professionally since he was 17.

What’s your favorite dish to cook at home? Anything with items from my own garden. Recently, I did a salmon with a rhubarb chutney. The rhubarb came from my yard.

Where do you eat when you eat out? Since relocating to Spokane in February, I’ve found a few places I really love. But I mostly find myself dining out at Wandering Table and opting for the choose-your-own-price menu. It’s nice not having to think about what to order since I’m thinking about food all day while working.

Who or what inspired you to become a chef, and how? My family really instilled this lifestyle into to me. Besides a great-grandmother who worked professionally in kitchens, the rest of them do it in the home and do it well. They showed me that food is an instant way to bring people together and it creates a feeling of abundance. I was in the kitchen with Mom and my grandmas from the age of about 7, and by the age of 12, I could cook an entire Thanksgiving dinner for 20. I didn’t know I wanted to be a professional chef until I was in my late 20s, but I always knew I wanted to nurture people and bring them together.

What are your go-to ingredients? I have been focusing a lot on bright and pungent flavors lately. Citrus has always been a go-to, but items like anchovy, brined or pickled vegetables and chilies seem to be filling my pantry as of late. They really help to add an instant pop of flavor and can make a simple dish that much more complex.

What was the first dish a customer ever sent back to you, and how did you handle it? I started my professional career as a pastry chef. So the first item sent back was dessert. Someone had ordered some decorated sugar cookies. She liked how they were decorated, but not the flavor. We ended up giving her a discount, and she was happy. She kept coming back and never had another complaint.

What’s a dish you’ve never made but would like to, and why? A Burnt Almond Cake! Very random, I know, but, it is my favorite cake, and I want to continue to enjoy it. I feel that if I make it, I’ll no longer enjoy it, or I’ll compare every other version to the one I made, thus taking out the enjoyment. I want to continue ordering them for my birthdays for years to come.

What dish or ingredient best represents you? I think my spirit food is Thai. Although I don’t always cook Thai food, I like everything to have that pop of flavor while being comforting. I also think that is a good explanation of me. I am passionate, and once you get to know me I can be a bit bold, but no matter what you’ll always feel comfortable being around me.

Herb and Hazelnut Gremolata

From Ricky Webster of Hotel RL in Spokane

A gremolata adds a lot of punch to roasted or grilled meats and vegetables, even hearty cheese. It’s also great to sop up whatever’s left on the plate with some bread. In this particular recipe, I added hazelnuts since they’re abundant in the Pacific Northwest, but you can use a different nut all together or just omit them.

1 cup flat-leaf parsley, leaves from about 1 bunch

1 tablespoon thyme leaves

1 teaspoon oregano leaves

Zest of 1 lemon, peeled into strips with a vegetable peeler

1 clove of garlic, peeled

1/4 cup hazelnuts, lightly toasted

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Place all the ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and process in short pulses until finely chopped, but not puréed. You should still be able to make out the individual flecks of citrus zest and parsley. Alternatively, you can chop the ingredients by hand.

Slowly stream in about 1/4 cup of good quality olive oil. If you would like the gremolata wetter, feel free to add more. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve, up to 2 days.

Use to top grilled or seared meats and fish, soups, pasta or as an accompaniment for a nice loaf of French or sourdough bread.