The tables are set for a showdown today among a selection of the Southern Oregon's top chefs.

The tables are set for a showdown today among a selection of the Southern Oregon's top chefs.

The cuisine competition is the heart of the Ashland Culinary Festival, said Katharine Flanagan, marketing director for the Ashland Chamber of Commerce, which organizes the three-day event.

The challenge to be top chef begins in the Ashland Historic Armory, 208 Oak St., at 12:30 p.m. and runs until 4:30 p.m. The opening round will feature eight head chefs.

For the first time in the events six years, the competition is featuring chefs from outside Ashland.

The festival kicked off Friday evening at the Historic Ashland Armory, where more than 20 vendors representing regional wineries, breweries, restaurants and other food shops offered samples to visitors during an opening hour-and-a-half preview.

Last year's top chef, David Georgeson, executive chef at Larks Home Kitchen Cuisine, isn't taking the lead for his restaurant in the competition this year.

Defending the title will be up to the Lark's sous chef Dustin Farley, 30, who happily accepted the bid to be head chef for the competition, and Georgeson's offer to assist as sous chef.

"It can be a little nerve-wracking," Farley said, "You just have to be able to put your head down and make things happen."

Farley has plenty of experience, having served as Georgeson's sous chef during the competition each of the past four years.

"We'll need our A-game," Georgeson said. "There are so many things that can happen when you're in a competition like that "… you really have to execute well."

The ingredients and meal arrangements aren't revealed to the chefs until the beginning of the 45-minute rounds, Flanagan said.

"I write down numerous scenarios of what might be there," said James Williams, executive chef at Omar's Fresh Seafood and Steaks. "I just try to have a game plan going into it."

Williams is competing as head chef in the competition for the third time.

The final round of the chef competition is the most popular part of the event, attracting about 200 people each year, Flanagan said.

Chefs make two plates per round, one for the judges, and another for the audience to bid on in an auction.

"I look forward to it every year," said Will Shine of Martino's and Macaroni's Ristorante. "It requires a lot of thinking on your feet. It keeps you on your toes and lets you see how creative you can really be."

After two rounds today, four chefs will enter the semi-final round Sunday, which kicks off at 12:30 p.m. The final round begins at 4:30 p.m.

"I really like doing these competitions; it's a chance for us to get out there in the community," said Dawn Strickmeyer, executive chef at Black Sheep Pub & Restaurant. "I normally just get to work behind the scenes."

Billy Buscher of Winchester Inn, Restaurant & Wine Bar; Stefano Cipollone of Cicily's Pastaria & Grill in Medford; Dale Fowler of Medford's Rogue Regency Inn; and Maggie Trujillo of Frau Kemmling Schoolhaus Brewhaus in Jacksonville, also will compete in the competition.

The armory opens at noon today and Sunday. All vendors will be on-hand during the cooking competition.

There also will be a best dessert competition today from 2 to 3 p.m.

Today and Sunday, culinary, wine education and other workshops will be hosted at multiple venues around Ashland, running from 10 to 11:30 a.m., as a part of the festival.

More information about the event is available at Tickets can be purchased at the door or online.

The Chamber of Commerce is expecting about 600 visitors over the three-day event, Flanagan said.

Tickets start at $20, and include entrance to the chef competition, a souvenir wine glass, tasting card and samples of locally made cheese, chocolates and beverages from more than 30 vendors. The festival also features hands-on culinary workshops and tours for additional fees.

Reach reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-499-1470 or email