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Competing Ashland chefs face off with blue marlin

ASHLAND — Two local chefs faced off in the final round of a competition to find the best chef in Oregon.

In the end Neil Clooney, of Dragonfly Café and Gardens, bested Franco Console of Omar's Restaurant and walked away with the title of Oregon Iron Chef.

"It was really cool to make it an all-Ashland final," Clooney said earlier this week in the Dragonfly dining room. "It does speak wonders about our restaurants."

He also took the title in 2008.

Console beat out two other chefs during preliminary and semifinal rounds, before facing last year's winner.

The chefs were given 30 minutes to create and plate a dish using a "secret ingredient" — blue marlin — which was announced as the clock started.

Clooney, along with his sous chef, Shaun Gibb, a former Dragonfly cook, poached half of the marlin in olive oil and garnished it with a peach and corn chutney.

They pan-seared the rest of the marlin with a bacon crisp, and served it with potatoes.

Console and his sous chef, David Crabtree-Logan, who also works at Omar's, drizzled a white-peach gastrique over their seared marlin and served it with a beet and basil salad, mushroom polenta, and beet, garlic and basil chips.

Three judges tasted the dishes and scored them — but when the points were totaled, Clooney and Console were tied.

"It was down to the wire there," Console said. "It was nerve-wracking." After deliberating for several minutes, the judges decided to have the celebrity guest at the event decide. Rahman "Rock" Harper, who won season three of the "Hell's Kitchen" TV show competition, favored Clooney's effort.

Console said the moment was especially bittersweet because he lost by one point to Clooney in last year's Food and Wine Classic in Ashland. Clooney also won the event in 2007.

Now, Console said he is even more determined to beat Clooney.

"I'm hoping to get up there and get him again," he said.

Console said he may feature his winning dish at Omar's, since it is similar to the food already served there.

Clooney said he doesn't plan to make his blue marlin at Dragonfly, but will whip it up for his side business, First Place Food, a catering company that features his award-winning dishes, he said.

Meanwhile, both chefs will be honing their cooking skills: Console, hoping to beat Clooney; and Clooney, hoping to compete on Food Network's "Iron Chef" TV show.

"I haven't applied yet," Clooney said. "I'm going to give it a couple more years."

Hannah Guzik is a staff writer at the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach her at 482-3456 ext. 226 or hguzik@dailytidings.com.