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Ashland chef takes national stage

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Chef Josh Dorcak shaves black truffle over sea scallops at Ashland’s MÄS. [Photo by Lindsey Bolling]
Josh Dorcak’s MÄS singled out by New York Times for its 10-course dinner at fixed price
Ingredients are prepared in portions of just a few bites at Ashland’s MÄS. [Photo by Lindsey Bolling]
Pacific Northwest ingredients, including chanterelles, are highlighted at Ashland’s MÄS. [Photo by Lindsey Bolling]
Seafood is a focus at Ashland’s MÄS, where cooking techniques include almost no heat. [Photo by Lindsey Bolling]
Josh Dorack is the chef-owner of Ashland’s MÄS, recently singled out in the New York Times. [Photo by Lindsey Bolling]
Sea scallops are garnished with black truffle at Ashland’s MÄS. [Photo by Lindsey Bolling]

Ashland already was on the culinary map, said chef Josh Dorcak, before his restaurant was singled out last week by the New York Times.

But since the Times lauded MÄS among the top 50 most exciting restaurants in the country, the formerly “exclusive map,” he said, is an “everyone map.”

“I hope it helps this town,” said Dorcak, who heard the news Monday that MÄS made the Times’ 2022 Restaurant List. The only other Oregon establishment is Portland’s Kann, a Haitian-inspired establishment conceived in 2018 by James Beard Award-winning chef Gregory Gourdet.

“It’s a big deal for the state,” said Dorcak.

Foodies have known for about five years that Dorcak, 36, punches way above his weight, serving a 10-course, seafood-centric menu that rivals some of the most exclusive establishments in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Portland. Since relocating to Ashland about 15 years ago, Dorcak has won accolades in local and statewide chef competitions. But the Cordon Bleu-trained chef has never sought recognition, preferring to quietly uphold his hands-on, small-scale ethic in an all-but-hidden spot downtown.

“It’s so much more work now,” he said, acknowledging that his bookings have ballooned since the Times published its piece. “It’s happening to every person on that list.”

Dining at MÄS less than a month ago, Times food writer Brett Anderson described Dorcak’s dishes as “picturesque miniatures of memorable poise.” Dorcak, himself, has called MÄS “Cascadian,” a term that celebrates Pacific Northwest ingredients — including items the chef forages himself. The approach ensures a constantly changing, hyper-seasonal menu.

“I think it flows better to just keep up with the seasons,” said Dorcak.

Customers who want to keep up with the current MÄS menu won’t find detailed descriptions — or much description at all. Prospective diners can anticipate dashi, foie gras, corn, trout roe, oyster, geoduck, tuna, salmon, crab, duck, melon, ice cream, berry, pear and fig. Prepared in portions of just a few bites, the lineup costs $185 per person. While Dorcak can accommodate some dietary restrictions, diners’ unwillingness or inability to eat seafood is a deal-breaker.

While the Times characterized Dorcak’s Japanese-influenced cooking as “eye-opening,” it was Dorcak’s eyes that were opened on a trip to Tokyo, where he and former sous chef Luke VanCampen realized they could operate a restaurant with only their four hands and create a cuisine the region’s diners had never seen.

MÄS operated as a pop-up for about a year until 2018, when Dorcak installed it in a former Yogurt Hut accessed from Will Dodge Way, the alley between Ashland’s East Main Street and Lithia Way. Employing “almost no heat,” in Anderson’s words, Dorcak’s techniques are, in fact, partly dictated by the lack of a commercial hood system required for restaurants that cook over gas ranges and grills.

“The space dictates what you can do,” said Dorcak. “Every day, there’s a new opportunity to make it better.”

A better winter looks to be in store for MÄS, said Dorcak, adding the Times piece couldn’t have come at a more opportune moment. Ashland’s summer, he said, was “dismally slow,” practically no different in 2022 than winter’s off-season. And he said he didn’t anticipate much improvement since Oregon Shakespeare Festival announced a 2023 season with fewer plays than previous years.

August tourism in Ashland, said Travel Ashland Director Katharine Cato, was not as strong as June and July. The region’s hospitality and recreation industries, she said, may have suffered more from the “perception” of wildfire smoke than the largely mild impacts locals saw for the majority of the summer.

“Summer isn’t what it used to be 20 years ago,” said Cato, adding that September and October tourism look promising.

“The identity and the reasons people are coming are changing,” said Cato. “We’ve really been building that culinary impact and that momentum.”

Cato was at the forefront more than 15 years ago of building enthusiasm around the region’s chefs and restaurants. Ashland Culinary Festival was a signature fall event for Travel Ashland until the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 curtailed its workshops, tastings and “Iron Chef”-style competition.

Post-pandemic, Travel Ashland has no plans to bring back the festival, instead choosing to “honor the legacy” with smaller, “curated” experiences that increasingly appeal to more visitors and locals, said Cato.

“We want to bring more people into the restaurants instead of pulling their chefs out of their kitchens,” said Cato.

That approach fosters closer relationships with local wineries, she added, acknowledging the viticulture region’s recent recognition by major industry publications for some international awards.

Awarded the title of Oregon’s “Iron Chef” at the 2017 Bite of Oregon in Portland, as well as top honors at the 2015 and 2016 Ashland Culinary Festival, Dorcak has never rested on his laurels. And he isn’t about to start since being singled out at the national level. The chef said he feels a “great responsibility” to uphold the standards at MÄS and pursue “whatever could be next.”

“I think we’ll just make it work,” he said of accommodating a new audience alongside his loyal local following. “There’s so many dates open.”

Seatings at 5:30 and 8:15 p.m. Thursday through Sunday are available through March. Friday lunch of four courses for $85 offers a MÄS preview at a lower price point. Reserve at masashland.com

Reach features editor Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4494 or slemon@rosebudmedia.com