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Top Chef Competition headlines Ashland Culinary Festival

Shortly after the Oregon Shakespeare Festival finishes its season and its theaters go dark, the curtain goes up on four days of good times for foodies — Travel Ashland’s 13th annual Ashland Culinary Festival.

The festival, set for Nov. 7-10, will feature a five-course dinner prepared by past Top Chef winners, small bite tastings, cocktail samplings, hands-on workshops, more than 30 vendors, and competitions for chefs, mixologists and junior chefs.

Ashland Hills Hotel & Suites, 2525 Ashland St., serves as festival headquarters, with some workshops and ancillary events scheduled in the downtown area.

The chamber-sponsored event had its genesis in 2007 with a pie baking contest. It soon became a multiday food festival, designed to shine a spotlight on Ashland’s renowned culinary scene and lure tourists and locals with a destination event.

“There was the usual drop in occupancy rates after the Shakespeare Festival closed, so we were looking for ideas to combat that,” said Katharine Cato, sales and marketing director for the chamber’s Visitor & Convention Bureau.

With more than 150 restaurants in Ashland — from casual eateries to small, ethnic gems and upscale fine-dining establishments — a culinary festival seemed like a perfect match for the community.

“The chefs love it,” said Dana Preston, the chamber’s membership development manager.

“I talked to a chef who said he can’t wait,” she said. “The festival showcases their skills and puts the spotlight on the guy or gal in the kitchen. They also like the competitive aspect and the camaraderie.”

Chef Tselani Richmond of Lake Oswego will be lead emcee, host and head judge. She is a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu Paris and is the first chef to have taught at all three Portland culinary schools — The Art Institute of Portland’s International Culinary Program, Le Cordon Bleu Portland, and the Oregon Culinary Institute, where she now teaches.

Top Chef Dinner

The kickoff event, at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 7, is the Ultimate Ashland Culinary Festival Top Chef Dinner. The title is a mouthful, but so is the dinner, with appetizers and more. It will be held in the Stardust Lounge at the host hotel.

The dinner and appetizers will be prepared by past winners of the Top Chef competition. Specialty cocktail samplings will be offered by Peerless Restaurant’s Caitlin Hillgoss, the top mixologist of 2018. There will be a Rogue Creamery artisan cheese sampling, and each course will be paired with a local wine or brew.

Participating chefs include Neil Clooney, Smithfields; Franco Console, Larks; Chandra Corwin, Cucina Biazzi; and Skye Elder, Brickroom.

The $90 dinner already is sold out, but names are accepted for a waiting list in case of cancellations.

The competitions

Spectators can watch the competitions take place at specially built, fully equipped portable kitchen stands, with overhead mirrors providing views of the competitors’ work. The audience can also watch large, flat-screen monitors for additional views provided by in-house video technicians.

Bartenders take the stage Friday, Nov. 8, to compete in the Top Mixologist Competition. Drink samplings and small bites will be available.

This year’s competitors include 2018 winner Caitlin Hillgoss, Peerless Restaurant; Freddie Herrera, Mezcal; Blake Henry, Brickroom; Sean Kemper, Smithfields; Richard Hillman, Larks; Kalea Mckenna, Jefferson Spirits; Kimberlee Hudson, Omar’s; Dushawn McDaniel, Hearsay; Hannah Loop, Alchemy; Aaron Lorenz, Porters; and John Maticin, Immortal Spirits.

Winners of three preliminary rounds will compete in the final round, with a “wild card” bartender selected from the runners-up. Judge in charge is mixologist and author Jeffrey Morgenthaler, Tales of the Cocktail’s American Bartender of the Year, 2016. He now manages the six-time James Beard nominated bar program at Clyde Common and the celebrated Pepe Le Moko, both in Portland.

Junior chefs compete from 9 to 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 9. Six teams from local high school culinary programs will be given a secret ingredient or challenge as part of the competition. The winning team members win college scholarships and will have a chance to shadow festival judges during the Top Chef Competition.

Participating high schools include Ashland, Grants Pass, Hidden Valley, North Medford, South Medford and Phoenix.

The Top Chef Competition will be held Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 9-10. Three preliminary rounds are scheduled for 12:30 and 3 p.m. Saturday and 12:30 p.m. Sunday. The final round, featuring the winners of the preliminary rounds and one “wild card” chef chosen by the judges, will take place at 3 p.m. Sunday.

The competing chefs are Raider Babcock, Standing Stone; Billy Buscher, Larks/Inn at the Commons; Javier Cruz, Simple Café; Tony Efstratiadis, Plancha; Skye Elder, Brickroom; John Hill, SOU (The Hawk Dining); Mike Hite, Alchemy; Julian Jones, Macaroni’s/Martino’s; David Kay, Caldera Brewery & Restaurant; Keenan McGrew, Carriage House, Jacksonville; Alfredo Nava, Omar’s; and William Snyder, Curbside King (Medford food truck).

Assisting head judge Richmond with the task of choosing 2019’s Top Chef will be Shaun O’Neale, author and winner of “Master Chef Season 7” on Fox-TV; and Rebecca Peizer, a professor of culinary arts at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena, California.

Other activities

Hands-on culinary workshops will be held from 10 to 11:30 a.m. Saturday and Sunday. Those who wish to participate can find more information and sign up at ashlandchamber.com.

At festival headquarters, you can sip, sample, taste and purchase offerings from more than 30 vendors from noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Represented will be local artisans, farms, restaurants, wineries and breweries.

The festival is partnering again with the Ashland Emergency Food Bank. People who bring two nonperishable food items to the door can save $5 per adult ticket. Attendees can also save $5 per adult ticket by purchasing online in advance.

For more information, call the chamber at 541-482-3486 or see ashlandchamber.com.

Jim Flint is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.

Chef Tselani Richmond of Lake Oswego does a ravioli demo for her students when she was an instructor at the Cordon Bleu Portland. She'll serve as lead emcee, host and head judge for the 13th annual Ashland Culinary Festival Nov. 7-10. Courtesy photo