Though a royal icing mishap in the first round had him worried about his standing, in the end Spokane chef Ricky Webster proved he had what it takes to be crowned the king of Christmas cookies.
On the seventh episode of the Food Network's Christmas Cookie Challenge series, titled "Modern Classics" and which premiered Monday, Nov. 26, Webster went up against four other bakers and cookie decorators — including Amber Stout of Flour & Frosting Spokane — before the judges named him Christmas Cookie Champion, a title that came with a $10,000 grand prize. Webster currently serves as Sysco Spokane's business resource manager and has been professionally baking for two decades.
"The experience was great; it was a wonderful on-set experience," he says. "They really let us communicate and build and foster relationships with other contestants."
Friendly competitive banter between the two Spokane bakers was especially highlighted in the episode's first half, during which the five contestants were tasked with designing cookies that showcased a creative new suit and mode of transport for Santa Claus.
Webster went with an underwater theme, creating a red scuba diving suit and a nautilus-inspired submarine sleigh. His brown sugar cookies were a hit with the show's three judges, Ree Drummond, Vivian Chan and Gesine Prado, but he lost a few marks for not quite perfecting the smoothness of his icing.
"The first round was a little tough," Webster reflects. "I dream big and have these big ideas and scheme and plan, and it stems from having this big imagination as a kid... I had some challenges with the cleanliness and precision to execute and convey exactly what I wanted to."
When it came time for the judges to eliminate two contestants, however, both Webster and Stout — who designed a charming plaid flannel shirt and holiday-themed four wheeler for Ol' Saint Nick — made the cut and moved on to round two.
In that round, the three final competitors were challenged to create a functioning photo frame made of cookies to showcase their own holiday family photos. Webster, drawing on his experience creating a life-size gingerbread house last holiday season inside the lobby of Hotel RL (now the Centennial Hotel), built his frame using spiced gingerbread dough with accents made of pecan sugar cookies.
"After round one I regrouped and thought, when we get the next challenge I need to think about how to maximize my impact I'm going to make without going too far," he says.
With a border of brightly iced holiday lights and a textured tree, Webster's second design was simple yet precisely executed, and the judges were left convinced of his prowess.
While Webster won't see his prize money for a while still, even though filming took place this summer, he says he might use it to fund a minor kitchen remodel at his Spokane home, or get some fun new cooking gadgets.
And though he can't speak to the results yet, Webster gets another chance to land a hefty prize pool from his second Food Network appearance this season on the new Holiday Gingerbread Showdown. Webster appears on that series on Sunday, Dec. 9 at 9 pm with his Spokane-based baking assistant Megan Gaines, who helped bake and construct last year's life-size gingerbread house.
The positive attention garnered from that project, Webster says, was a big reason the Food Network asked him to appear on both holiday-themed baking series. He hopes his personal love of the holidays stood out, too, both to the network and audiences.
"I have been celebrating Christmas since June. It's my favorite time of the year," Webster says. "I really got to live half my year this year in Christmas land."
The Holiday Gingerbread Showdown pits nine total teams against each other, three per episode, with one winner from each going on to compete in the finals, airing on Dec. 16 at 9 pm. The winner of the finale is awarded a $25,000 grand prize and a feature in Food Network's magazine.
Local supporters will have to tune in next Sunday, Dec. 9, however, to see if Webster and Gaines make the cut.
"I can't stress enough about how excited I am that the city that I relocated to just about two years ago is being represented and showcased," Webster reflects. "It's really exciting to be a part of the food scene here and at such a renaissance time, and I think all these things — whether it be a Food Network [show] or a magazine article about the city — ensure we have a spot on the culinary map."