Luke VanCampen is one of the youngest chefs ever to win the Top Chef Competition at the Ashland Culinary Festival. The 23-year-old MAS chef took top honors among 12 of Ashland’s best, winning the exciting final round Sunday.
The festival drew big crowds for four days culminating Sunday as it celebrated good food, fine wine, and creative libations.
After a sold-out top chefs’ dinner Thursday night, the festival shifted towards the popular competitions: for best mixologist, best junior chef and top chef.
Ashland Chamber of Commerce events coordinator Kelsey Frantz did a star turn as emcee, pumping up an already enthusiastic crowd. Lead emcee, host and head top chef judge Cory Schreiber contributed expert commentary. He is a James Beard Best Chef award winner.
In the Top Chef Competition, VanCampen had a seasoned sous-chef in business partner and MAS founder Josh Dorcak, who won festival Top Chef honors in 2015 and 2016 and was named Oregon Iron Chef in 2017.
MAS had its start as a pop-up restaurant in the basement of Mix Bakeshop. After a year there, serving multi-course dinners to rave reviews, MAS opened in a permanent location at 141 Will Dodge Way in May.
Chefs competed in groups of four in three preliminary rounds on Saturday and Sunday. The winner of each round and a wild card chef chosen by the judges competed for the ultimate prize in a fourth round on Sunday.
The Top Chef finalists were VanCampen, Raider Babcock of Standing Stone, Brandon Ruyle of Belle Fiore Winery, and Skye Elder of Brickroom. Elder, who won the competition in 2017, came in second this year.
Chefs were challenged to prepare a plate featuring venison and goat cheese in a warm salad. Everything had to be gluten free. Judges awarded points based on several criteria, and only 41 points separated the top chef (at 272 points) and fourth place (at 231).
The youngsters had their chance at stardom as well, with the Junior Chef Competition on Saturday. Teams of two from four area high schools vied for honors, with South Medford High’s Kara Fisher and Bailey Goble taking the top prize. Besides bragging rights, they also earned scholarships funded by the Ashland Chamber and participating sponsors. Coming in second was the team from Ashland High School, Quinn Vogel and Rafael Rodriguez.
The 17-year-old competitors created their winning dishes from the required components of pork tenderloin, a cold sauce, a starch, and a vegetable.
On Friday, the spotlight was on the bartenders as local artisans vied for honors in the Top Mixologist Competition. The field of 12 competed in three preliminary rounds, with the winner in each round and a wild card chosen by the judges competing in the finals Friday night.
The finalists were Blake Henry of Brickroom and Uncle B’s Liquor Cabinet, Caitlin Hilligoss of Peerless Restaurant, Kalea Mckenna of Jefferson Spirits, and wild card Freddie Herrera of Hearsay Restaurant.
Mixologists were instructed to include the secret ingredient cucumber in their drinks. This year the women bested the men, with Hilligoss finishing first and Mckenna taking second-place honors.
The festival was held at Ashland Hills Hotel & Suites. Vendors and wineries set up their tables and booths adjacent to the main stage and did a brisk business with spectators. Culinary workshops rounded out the program.
Jim Flint is a retired newspaper editor and publisher living in Ashland.