Ashland Top Chef

Working with the surprise ingredients of rabbit and oysters, chefs from eight of Ashland's top restaurants competed at the popular fourth annual Food and Wine Classic, with Chandra Corwin of Cucina Biazzi winning top honors.

The fast-moving, highly-focused Corwin — the first woman to win the prize — cooked up a duo of raw oysters, one with lemon sabayon and the other a mignonette, complemented with potato gnocci with pancetta, rabbit ragout and rabbit chuck with tomato-carrot sorbet.

"I feel great — a little in shock," said Corwin, who had just competed in the "final four" Sunday morning before going on to the afternoon finals against Franco Console of Omar's Restaurant.

The increasingly well-attended, post-Shakespeare event drew 600 from as far away as Redding and Alaska and tends to lure the "vibrant, younger crowd" as a destination event, said Katharine Glanagam, sales and marketing director of Ashland's Visitor and Convention Bureau.

The final four included David Georgeson of Lark's and Dawn Strickmeyer of Black Sheep. That quartet had to work with the surprise ingredient of salmon. A flight of eight competed on Saturday — and each flight must use a table full of local produce and create both hot and cold dish from the surprise ingredient.

Console of Omar's in the final round went with grilled rabbit loin, sheep's milk feta, melted shallots and bacon with potato salad and fried Brussels sprouts in port butter sauce.

"I feel good, a little let down at the end," said Console. In the final four, he made brown butter sage toast with salmon tartar, laterally cooked duck egg, yellow corn with fall flowers and herb oil. Corwin executed fried soft-boiled egg on salad with smoked salmon and fennel risotto with pan-seared salmon.

Georgeson of Lark's in the semifinals made a cold salmon cake on grilled tomatoes with duck egg-cilantro-lime mayo, red pepper coulis (thick sauce), seared salmon with orange-nasturtium beurre rouge and pear-radiccio slaw.

Strickmeyer of Black Sheep in the semifinals made salmon mousse on biscuit, strawberry coulis, a roasted cauliflower parsnip puree with bouillabaisse-style Brussels sprouts.

The labors of the chefs were cast on a big screen, though in low-def black-and-white, with often hard-to-hear audio. But serious chefs in the audience, such as Laura Joyce, were able to offer comments such as, "Chandra seems more the perfectionist, very focused, very specific in the way things come together, while Franco is more spontaneous, working with his gut feeling; he tastes more and responds to what he tastes."

Observer Teresa Safay said, "Franco seems more confident in his presentation while Chandra seems nervous, though I was more interested in what she's preparing, which seems like a better combination of ingredients."

Judges, after sampling offerings, were equally candid in their appraisals, even commenting on salmon scales found in food.

The three-day event, narrated by Cory Schrieber, Portland author of "Wildwood Cookbook," drew many with workshops, a wine crawl and, at the armory event, many tastings of wine, chocolate, beer, pastries and other tasties.

Past two-time winner and chef of Dragonfly Neil Cloony, who's about to open his own restaurant called Smithfields in the old Harper's space on Second Street, confessed the final choice was "a tough one to call but the winner has been consistently on top when she competes."

The crowd had many supporters of favorite local restaurants and, at the mention of "she," exploded into applause for Corwin, who was immediately flocked with admirers wanting their photo taken with her. The winning meals were promptly auctioned off.

E-mail freelance writer John Darling at

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