In a well-attended, hotly-contested third annual Chef Showdown, Franco Console of Omar's Restaurant walked away with the top honor Sunday at the Ashland Food & Wine Classic.
Given the same set of ingredients from local growers, with no advance notice of what they had to cook, finalists Console and Miles McCollum of Tease Restaurant worked their magic with whole, live lobster, rib eye steak and an array of produce from local growers.
"Finally!" said Console, a 2002 North Medford High School graduate and previous competitor in the showdown, when he was announced the winner and praised by chief judge Neil Clooney, the chef of Dragonfly Café and Gardens, who had won the contest the previous two years.
"Franco had a better understanding of the ingredients," said Clooney, noting both chefs were outstanding and "this is not the best that Miles has cooked "» He's young and will continue to get stronger." The two were close in judges' points — 269 to 245.
Console, a 2004 graduate of Western Culinary Institute, has held top positions at Ashland Springs Hotel and 38 on Central in Medford. McCollum, an Ashland native, graduated from Lane Community College Culinary Program and worked at Ashland Springs Hotel and 4 Daughters Irish Pub in Medford.
A crowd of several hundred thronged the armory all weekend, sampling area wines, chocolates, beer, coffee, dressings and other foods, while following the deft work of chefs' hands on a large-screen digital TV projection. The dinners were sent to eager fans through silent auction.
Eight chefs, including those from Martino's, Black Sheep, Lark's and Tabu on Saturday were given a pork rack to cook with. In the Sunday semi-finals, which included chefs from Cucina Biazzi and Oregon Artisan Foods, four of Ashland's best cooked a brunch based on black cod.
In the finals, judges lavishly praised the "fun, enjoyable" salad from Omar's which included fennel, radish, apple and a citrus base, along with lobster and Italian cauliflower. The steak sat atop a bed of pureed parsnips, celery root and blue cheese and, although the fat on the steak could have been rendered more, the judges said, the salad was a "highlight" and "to die for."
Clooney, in an interview, said Console's cooking was "really solid "» with the right flavor and right balance. He really understands what judges want" and was able to work well with parsnips, "which are one of my favorite vegetables."
Calling his creation a "classic surf and turf" dish, McCollum cooked a tasty chanterelle-garlic risotto, topped by the rib eye and lobster.
A dessert competition, judged by the public, named Winchester Inn's goat cheese huckleberry panna cotta with apple spice cake as the top entry from among eight restaurants.
The Food & Wine Classic has become a fun, town-wide event to lure tourists and townfolk alike — and to lift spirits and pocketbooks — after the closing of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, said Kathleen Flanagan, marketing director for the Ashland Chamber of Commerce, which sponsors it.
The event helps fill the gap between theater season and the Festival of Light that kicks off holiday shopping the day after Thanksgiving, she said. It was launched with a Friday evening wine and food tasting event at Lithia Springs Hotel.
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at email@example.com.