The competition was sizzling during last weekend's top chef challenge at the sixth annual Ashland Culinary Festival, with Billy Buscher of the Winchester Inn narrowly outcooking last year's top team.
Buscher felt confident going into Sunday's final round, he said, where he mentally shuffled through a few minutes' worth of plate possibilities for two tilapia before passing the plan on to his sous chef, Ryan Mullen.
"Everybody in the crowd was pretty riled up for the last round," said 27-year-old Buscher. "I was super nervous, but excited at the same time. "… All of the chefs there are really good at what they do."
The competition featured eight head chefs paired with their personal sous chefs.
Head chef Dustin Farley and sous chef David Georgeson of Larks Home Kitchen Cuisine came in second to Buscher and Mullen. Last year, Georgeson, who is the executive chef at Larks, won the competition with Farley as his sous chef.
"It was very close, only a four-point spread amongst our judges," said Katharine Flanagan, marketing director for the Ashland Chamber of Commerce, which organizes the festival. "The flavor profiles were really what pushed Billy over the edge."
Chefs were judged on originality, use of the secret ingredient provided at the beginning of each round, technical execution, flavor and texture, presentation and work station cleanliness, said Flanagan, and judges gave a maximum of 100 points each, she said.
Sunday's final four chefs included Will Shine of Martino's and Macaroni's Ristorante, and James Williams of Omar's Fresh Seafood and Steaks.
During Saturday's pair of opening rounds, which featured four teams each, chefs were sent running out the door of the Historic Ashland Armory to obtain fresh vegetables from the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market, and, during the second round, from the Ashland Food Co-op.
Buscher sprinted to the co-op, he said, picking up chanterelle mushrooms, parsnips and figs to spruce up a locally raised chicken he'd left Mullen to prepare.
"Some people probably thought I was just stealing stuff," he said. "We all just ran into the store dressed like chefs and left without paying."
Dawn Strickmeyer, of Black Sheep Pub & Restaurant, 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 all competed in the opening round.
The competition featured chefs from outside Ashland for the first time in its six years.
Chefs made two plates per round, one for the judges and another for the audience to bid on in an auction. Each round was 60 minutes long.
About 500 people attended the three-day festival, said Flanagan, with about 200 watching the final round of the top chef competition.
There is no secret to winning, said Buscher, who was competing in the cook-off for a second time.
"When you have an amazing product to work with, you kind of just let the food speak for itself," he said.
Reach reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-499-1470 or email email@example.com.