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Top chefs sharpen their blades for Ashland Culinary Festival

After putting together successful, well-attended Ashland Culinary Festivals for 10 years running, do you sit on your laurels? Not the Ashland Chamber of Commerce.

For the 11th annual festival, Thursday through Sunday, Nov. 2-5, there will be expanded competitions, new events and new workshops. With few exceptions, all events will be held at Ashland Hills Hotel & Suites at 2525 Ashland St.

“We’re excited about our new Celebrity Quick-Fire Challenge,” said Kelsey Frantz, festival coordinator for the chamber’s Visitor & Convention Bureau. “It should be very entertaining.”

Local celebrities will be paired with local chefs, handed a black box of ingredients, and given only 15 minutes to prepare a tasty dish in front of the audience, with each team hoping to win the coveted top prize. The Quick-Fire Challenge will be held Friday night, just prior to the Mixology Competition, scheduled from 5:30 to 7 p.m.

The Quick-Fire teams include festival judge and emcee Cory Schreiber and Rolar Yondorf from Porters Restaurant; festival judge Fabiola Donnelly and festival committee member Kate Cry from the Neuman Hotel Group; festival judge John Ash and City Councilor Dennis Slattery, also an SOU professor; and top chef Neil Clooney and Trish Glose, KTVL-TV news anchor.

Mixologists compete

The Mixology Competition has doubled in size from last year’s field of four competitors. Bartenders from eight Ashland restaurants will vie for top honors. Last year’s winner, Blake Henry of Brickroom, per festival rules, must take a year off before competing again. While the barkeeps work their magic, spectators can enjoy samples and tastings from the Bear Creek Wine Trail.

Henry will not be absent from this year’s festival. He will conduct a workshop, “Mixology Tips & Tricks,” on Saturday, teaching amateur bartenders everything they need to know about mixing up their favorite libations.

Top Chef Dinner

The kickoff event will be the second annual Ultimate Ashland Culinary Festival Top Chef Dinner at 5:30 p.m. Thursday.

Frntz noted the festival has increase the number of seats for the Top Chef Dinner from 80 to 90 this year. “But people should buy their tickets early because it will sell out,” he said.

Attendees will enjoy appetizers and a five-course dinner prepared by talented past Top Chef winners. Among them are Neil Clooney (Top Chef 2007 and 2008), Smithfields; Franco Console (2009), Larks; James Williams (2014), previously with Omar’s; and Josh Dorcak (2015 and 2016) of MÄS.

“Each course will be paired with a local wine or brew,” Frantz said. Tickets are $85 per person or can be purchased as part of a four-day VIP package.

The dinner will be served in the hotel’s Stardust Lounge.

Junior Chefs

“We have received a lot of support for our Junior Chef Competition,” said Frantz. “It was a huge hit in 2016, our first year for the juniors.”

This year’s competition, 10 to 11:30 a.m. Saturday at the Ashland Hills Hotel & Suites, has been expanded from two to four high schools. Competing will be teams from Ashland, South Medford, North Medford and Grants Pass high schools.

Each high school is sending a team of two chefs from their advanced culinary programs. Competitors are China Larsen and Quinn Vogel, Ashland; Kassidy Kipert and Cecil Dowdy, Grants Pass; Chase Tonini and Kyle Smith, South Medford; and Coy Wimberly and Dezmond Barros, North Medford.

“We have sponsors who made it possible for students to practice cooking in advance — not just the competing teams, but the entire culinary class at each school,” Frantz said.

Last year’s Junior Chef winners were Rose Eschtruth-Harrison and Gabriele Livni from Ashland High School. They are both vegetarians and didn’t taste their dish before delivering it to the judges.

“They just know how to cook and season, per their instincts and training,” said Fabiola Donnelly, “Not Just Baked” food blog writer and festival judge from Portland.

Donnelly said she appreciated the good work done by the junior competitors.

“I was so impressed by their demeanor, respect for one another and how seriously they took what they were doing, while still having a good time. I look forward to seeing where they all go,” she said.

Top Chef Billy Buscher from Seven Feathers Casino Resort will be the celebrity guest judge for the juniors.

Top Chefs Compete

A dozen local chefs will vie for Top Chef honors in the centerpiece festival event, the Chef Showdown on Saturday and Sunday. They’ll use local produce and a secret key ingredient featured in the challenge.

Spectators can enjoy vendor samplings offered around the room while viewing the competition. More than 30 restaurants, farms, food artisans, wineries and breweries will be on site during the weekend.

Chefs competing this year are Shawn Alamo, Black Sheep Pub & Restaurant; Stefano Cipolione, Standing Stone Brewing Co.; Javier Cruz, Simple Café; James Cyrus Gray, SOU (The Hawk Dining); Josh Dorcak, MÄS; Tony Efstratiadis, Plancha; Skye Elder, Brickroom; Brent Herud, Larks Restaurant; Jackson Kelsay, Amuse Restaurant; Melissa McMillan, Sammich; Alfredo Nava, Omar’s; and William Shine, Hearsay Restaurant.

Each competitor will be assisted by a sous-chef. Dorcak, who is hoping to notch a third consecutive win, is bringing his 8-year-old son, Caswell, as his sous-chef. Last year, an Ashland junior chef helped Dorcak win the title.

Donnelly will return as a Top Chef judge, along with lead emcee and head judge Cory Schreiber, Wildwood Restaurant founder and Portland KGW-TV culinary commentator; and Chef John Ash, a two-time James Beard award-winning author, teacher and restaurateur from the San Francisco Bay Area.

To purchase various passes, packages and event tickets online, go to ashlandchamber.com/culinaryfestival and click on “Tickets.” Some packages are not available at the door. Tickets that can be purchased at the door are usually $5 higher.

“We suggest people buy their tickets early, because many events sell out,” Frantz said.

— Jim Flint is a retired newspaper editor and publisher living in Ashland. He can be reached at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.