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Ashlander tops in state — again

In what is becoming a familiar sight, an Ashland chef cooked up a winning dish to emerge the winner over other top Oregon culinary concoctioners to take home the Bite of Oregon’s coveted Iron Chef award last weekend in Portland. Chef Josh Dorcak, two-time winner of the Ashland Culinary Festival’s Top Chef award, faced tasty competition from around the state, but when the judges spoke Sunday, it was Dorcak who was left atop the podium.

The Bite of Oregon, a fundraiser for Special Olympics Oregon, draws its talent from regional competitions around the state. Dorcak’s performance the last two years at the Ashland Culinary Festival earned him a chance to compete head-to-head with winners from Eugene, Bend and Portland, ultimately landing him the opportunity to face last year’s winner, Billy Buscher, formerly of Ashland’s Alchemy restaurant, who now runs the kitchen at Seven Feathers.

“The winner of those rounds goes against the winner of the previous year of The Bite," Dorcak explained. "And this year it just happened to be against Billy Buscher who used to be the chef at Alchemy. So it was kind of cool because there were Ashland chefs going head-to-head, which makes our Southern region look pretty cool I think.”

But this isn’t the first time two Ashland chefs have squared off in the final event: Just last year, Buscher took the title home after competing against Omar’s former chef, James Williams, who Buscher brought back as his sous chef for the 2017 competition. But ultimately it was Dorcak’s take on pan-seared sea bass that won over judges. He says the competition’s format allowed him to let his creative side run.

“They give you a lot of product to work with. So you kind of go through and cherry pick out the best portions and trim everything up, which is something you don’t typically do because it’ll cost you money. So you can definitely make it all look really nice. And it just kind of clicked. There were cherry tomatoes on the stage, so ginger, tomatoes and cranberry — it just sounds good! So I made a simple vinaigrette with candied ginger, cherry tomato seeds … I didn’t use the tomato, just the juice from inside it, and rehydrated cranberries. So it was the most simple dish, but I think the best executed.”

The judges agreed. The diverse group included top Portland food bloggers, beauty pageant winners, old-time restaurateurs and culinary instructors, who rotated between rounds. Dorcak says he thought the judging format caused the contestants to bring their most creative work to the competition.

“I thought that was really cool because you couldn’t just hone in on what that one judge was jiving with that you cooked in the previous rounds. So it really made for a level judging field, for sure.”

While the judging format works to level the playing field, so does the nature of the competition. Contestants are given a basic pantry to work with, some standard kitchen tools, and are allowed two personal cooking items (Dorcak brought a blowtorch and cooking knives), but they are not appraised ahead of time as to what the kitchen setup will be or what will be in the pantry. But the real twist, and what classifies it as an “iron chef” competition, is the mystery ingredient.

“For each round there is a black mystery box. So we don’t know what we’re cooking. We all have a base pantry of carrots, onions, mushrooms. But as far as what we’re being judged on, the secret ingredient, we don’t know. So it’s either an ‘Oh, sh*t’ moment, or it’s a ‘yes!’ moment.”

Dorcak says his winning dish was definitely an “oh, yeah!” moment.

“I usually just focus on vegetables and fish because that’s where my palate is and that’s what I like to eat.”

But his most challenging moment came when Spam was revealed as the secret ingredient for the second round. For a chef who cooks exclusively with locally-sourced vegetables and uses very little red meat, it presented a unique challenge.

“It’s really bad pate, essentially. You keep this stuff in your bunker and eat it when there’s nuclear fallout. So it was like, 'this isn’t an ingredient, really, it’s a product.' That was the only real curve ball because I really had no idea how to use it. After opening it and tasting it, it’s just salty meat product. So I tricked my mind into thinking of it as anchovy. At least something that I can wrap my head around opening a can and using. So just thinking of it as sodium steered me in the direction of diluting it and mixing in some herbs to make it taste like something. And then it was just on the side of the plate. And you’re being judged on this, and it’s grainy and broken and oily. But steak and anchovies is a pretty good flavor affinity, so that’s where my mind went.”

While it might have been challenging, Dorcak says MÄS, his pop-up format culinary project in Ashland, prepared him with the improvisational aspects of the challenge.

“As far as cooking from this mystery basket of ingredients? That’s what I do! With the MÄS thing, I go out to the farms and walk around and I hand pick all my stuff. So that farmer doesn’t really care if I need that flowering cilantro next week. He needs the land to plow and reseed. So every week I go out there and say, ‘OK, that’s not here this week.’ It retrains you into being okay with being spontaneous, I guess.”

Dorcak says he enjoyed the performance aspect of the competition as well.

“It’s my first big food festival, and especially being mic’d up in front of hundreds of people. I’m pretty quiet. But I think when food’s involved, it’s a little more freeing because I know exactly what I’m talking about in that sense. And the crowd doesn’t necessarily know what’s going on. I found it pretty easy to engage the crowd by telling them what I’m doing, talking them through as much as I could. Throw some jokes out and do some banter. I thought it was really fun.”

He says MÄS helped him prepare for the theatrical aspects as well.

“It’s brought me out of a ‘cook’s shell.’ It’s really easy to hide in the kitchen because you’re behind a wall. You don’t need to really engage with your guests typically. But with MÄS, I’m a very big part of that experience for the diners because the food is … they’re all ideas, and they kind of need to be explained. They need a roadmap. So I’ve been able to improve my skills in the sense of being a gracious host. And I think that did help up at the competition.”

He also said he feels the competition has multiple benefits for those in the industry.

“I think if any chef has the opportunity to do something like that, as much as you might not want to, it’s all good experience. I mean, it’s a win for everyone, you know? It’s good exposure, it’s good practice. If you’re going to own a restaurant, or promote your personal brand, you have to get used to doing this kind of thing. Whether in a bigger capacity or in a small town capacity, it’s just good to do and experience the whole thing.”

It doesn’t hurt that the competition raises money for a worthy cause, either.

“All the proceeds go to Special Olympics. And we were making six dishes and they would auction one of them off to the crowd. So people were paying $400 for these meals … which was rad!”

While he says the Portland competition was a great experience, he says the Ashland Culinary Festival has been an exceptional event, even when compared to the biggest competition in the state.

“Ashland has a really good festival. It’s amazing. The ingredients they have available … they have audiovisual. It’s very crowd interactive. They have TV screens going. At the Bite of Oregon, there wasn’t any of that. There wasn’t even a mirror. And it was an elevated stage, so to be in the crowd, you’re just watching two people cook. So we just started streaming it live on Facebook and trying to narrate what we were doing. In Ashland, the high school does the AV stuff, there are photographers there. There’s lots of movement behind the stage. So as far as Ashland goes it was pretty cool to have that experience. You know, this is Portland and it’s an event that’s been going on for 30 years, but there’s a lot more push in Ashland as far as the festival and the overall experience for the people paying to come. That was cool to witness.”

Whatever Ashland is doing, it seems to be working. Three consecutive statewide Iron Chef titles is an impressive run. Dorcak says he’s looking forward to the next round.

“This year we’ll just maybe have a little more fun. I know Melissa from Sammich is competing, and she’s really fun. The Ashland Culinary Festival is just really fun. I mean, there’s just no other time when all the chefs that are going to be competing are in the same place. The summer is always too busy for anyone to have time off. And in the winter everyone is either working or doing their own thing. It’s the one time of year when everyone gets to hang out. To me it’s a fun time and not so stressful. And a huge crowd shows up!”

The next Ashland Culinary Festival will take place in November at the Ashland Hills Hotel. More information is available through the Ashland Chamber of Commerce. You can catch Dorcak twice a week for a 12-course locavore treat at MÄS, his pop-up restaurant in the Mix basement on the Plaza.

—Alec Dickinson is an Ashland-based freelance writer. Reach him at AlecAlaska@gmail.com