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Cooking under pressure

Dragonfly Caf&

233; and Gardens Chef Neil Clooney spent this past Sunday in the kitchen, as he does on most weekends. But this time, he had scores of people watching over his shoulder and pressure-inducing music constantly reminding him that he had only 70 minutes to produce an award-winning dish.

Clooney and his sous chef Noah Edwards went home with the bronze skillet in the first-annual Food and Wine Classic hosted by the Ashland Chamber of Commerce at the Historic Ashland Armory this weekend.

The duo beat out seven other teams of local chefs over the two-day "Iron Chef"-style competition that required cooks to advance through three rounds, producing dishes from all local fare, including a special mystery ingredient.

In the final showdown Sunday afternoon against the father-son team of James Williams and Skyler Golden from Omar's Restaurant, Clooney and Edwards won over the judges with a dish of potato-crusted cod on a sunchoke, bacon and parsley puree with wilted Swiss chard and cream of leek sauce paired with a caramelized pear tartin with lime sour cream, crystallized ginger and chocolate sauce for dessert. Each pair was required to use cod filets and chocolate.

"I wanted the cod to come out better, but obviously it was good enough," Clooney said. He was most proud of his pear dessert, a dish that surprised judges by its last-minute chocolate addition and awed the crowd when he ripped the cardboard tube from his box of aluminum foil to use as a make-shift pastry rolling pin.

"Doing this twice in one day is not easy," said judge Corey Schreiber, who started the Wildwood Restaurant in Portland. "I'm noticing a little more study this afternoon."

But both teams said the grueling schedule was no different from an average day on the job. Clooney cooked breakfast at the Dragonfly, competed in the semifinals from 10 a.m. to noon, then returned for a quick lunch shift before the finals.

"I had to clear my head," he said. "The best way to do it was to cook."

The bigger challenge was the increasingly limited selection of ingredients as the competition progressed.

"I definitely had to rack my brain a bit more," Clooney said.

As the chefs toiled away, audience members sampled chocolate truffles and sipped wines as they watched the pressure build. Nearly all of the competing chefs returned to watch the finals from a decidedly more relaxed standpoint.

"It feels pretty good to sit back and have a glass of wine," said Cucina Biazzi Chef Chandra Corwin, who advanced through Sunday morning.

Others tried to predict what the competitors were thinking.

"It's really hard to be in the audience and tell what they're doing," said Kate Cyr from Larks Home Kitchen Cuisine at the Ashland Springs Hotel.

Cyr correctly guessed Williams was dreaming up a chocolate mousse as he whipped up egg whites and folded them into melted chocolate early on in the competition. Clooney proved a bit more elusive, however, as he kept returning to the ingredients table, tossing limes in the air as he searched in vain for powdered sugar for his sour cream topping.

Fifteen minutes after the final drizzle of chocolate and one last swipe of the plates, the judges had their decision and presented the skillet to Clooney and Edwards.

"I didn't think I'd be standing here today," Clooney said. "I'm looking forward to keeping my championship next year."

And Williams and Golden are already planning a rematch.

— — A dessert dish made by James Williams of Omar’s Restaurant.

"It was a good run," Williams said. "The best man won today. I'm after him next year."

Williams will get his chance in a bigger and better showdown next year, said Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Sandra Slattery.

"I am so happy with the results, and the energy, the competition and creativity of the chefs," she said. "We know we have great chefs in Ashland, but to see them in competition, everybody was at the top of their game. It makes you really proud to live in Ashland. We're spoiled rotten."

Staff writer can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or . To post a comment on this story, go to .