For the second year in a row, Chef Neil Clooney of Dragonfly Restaurant was named Top Chef of the annual Ashland Food and Wine Classic.
Competing against him Sunday in the final of four rounds was Franco Console of Ashland Springs Hotel. The two were given 90 minutes to create an entrée, appetizer and dessert using surprise mandatory ingredients of whole duck and three local products: pears, Oregon truffles and Dagoba chocolate.
Clooney triumphed with a wild mushroom and truffle risotto topped with baby artichoke lollipop, duck breasts with creamed cauliflower with pear chutney and lemon and chocolate tart with lime sour cream and crystallized ginger.
"It's never easy to produce a three-course dinner with only two burners and not knowing what you're doing till they produce the mystery ingredients," said Clooney. "We had a great time. It was a privilege and I guess it cemented my place in Ashland."
The honor gives considerable prestige in tourist publications and word-of-mouth advertising — and provides a boost in the commercial pause between the end of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival season and the Festival of Lights, said Ashland Chamber of Commerce spokeswoman Katharine Flanagan.
Competing chefs were scored 30 percent each on originality-creativity, technical execution and flavor-texture, and 10 percent on workstation cleanliness. Clooney edged Console 282 points to 281.
"For my age, 24, and my background, I'm very proud of myself and look forward to learning more for future competitions," said Console, who created pan-seared duck breast with duck fat roasted new potatoes, Brussels sprouts and chantrelle mushrooms, wild mushroom and Oregon black truffle risotto cake with cranberries and Dagoba chocolate pudding cake with Comice pear thyme compote.
The cheery event stretched from a Friday evening wine tasting hosted by Weisingers of Ashland Winery at the Ashland Springs Hotel, to competitions Saturday and Sunday at the Historic Ashland Armory, along with tastings of Noble Coffee, Standing Stone beers, Lillie Belle Chocolates, Cascade Peak Spirits, EdenVale Winery and other regional products.
Competing in the semifinals were James Williams of Omar's and Mario Chavez of Nunan Estate and Beardsley Food. Those in the opening round included Susan Powell of Global Pantry, Jason Trujillo of Liquid Assets, Shane Hardin of Winchester Inn and Will Shine of Tabu.
The festival was created to strengthen "culinary tourism" and draws local dining aficianados as well as tourists from as far away as Portland and Redding, said Don Anway, chairman of the Ashland Visitor and Convention Bureau and general manager of Ashland Springs Hotel.
"November has always been a time of gap and this helps drive tourism," said Anway, noting that the "Iron Chef" show on Food Network has sharpened appetites for such entertainment.
The chefs' sometimes frenzied work was shown closeup on big TV screens, while supporters of each chef would chant occasional cheers and hold up big signs as emcee Cory Scrieber, author of the Wildwood cookbook, would comment on the moves of the participants. The audience was free to sit, roam the tasting tables or stand close and watch the chefs at work.
Of the Friday night wine and music event, Lithia Springs Hotel General Manager Robert Trottmann said, "It's a chance to show people what we do in Ashland in the culture of food and wine. Our wines are world class and it all supports the community and the people in agriculture and the business in the region."
Said Jared Rennie of Noble Coffee, "It's an opportunity to be involved with folks who are as passionate about food as we are. What we're doing in coffee is exactly what's being done in wine, where there's that higher level of appreciation for quality and people are willing to pay for it."
Angela Padilla, who brought Wild Rose Vineyard wines from Douglas County, said, "Its very exciting, a mini-vacation among people interested in fine wine and food."
Omar's Chef Williams noted the increasing number of talented chefs in Ashland — and the Food and Wine Classic helps dislodge people who might otherwise get stuck with the habit of eating ordinary food.
Each chef had to make three servings of each dish, one to be auctioned to the highest bidder (with $50 being an average tab), one for the judges and one for the photographer — with the last one being quickly devoured by a fork-wielding audience as soon as the pictures were snapped.