It’s no longer dinner and a show. Now it's dinner AS the show.
The latest food revolution, “Pop Up” gourmet dining, has come to Ashland under the careful planning of one of the area's best-known organic, seasonal farm-to-fork chefs, Josh Dorcak, formerly of Loretta’s restaurant.
It’s a one-night-only, unique experience which is booked with a ticket on line in advance. Creator Dorcak is taking bookings at wineries in the Willamette, but as a local, he’s now offering this in Ashland.
On a recent day he is putting together a 12-course meal from scratch after driving the Rogue Valley seeking unique offerings in season. “All the dishes have stories and they all have ideas,” says Dorcak as he shows off baby cucumbers still in flower. “Aren’t these great? I found them at a small farm and asked if I could buy them. You couldn’t mass produce them, but they’re perfect for what we’re doing.”
What he is doing is creating an experience of dining with his friend, who is working elbow-to-elbow on his vacation from his New York restaurant for the shear joy of cooking this way. “This is how we relax,” says Chef Jesse Hansen as he carefully prepares red onions in a multi-step process. “We’re surrounded by wonderful weather and seasons, those are the things I want to capture.”
He is going through his small batches of fruits and vegetables he found late the day before and created a menu spontaneously from the best of what the valley had to offer him in the hunt for unique food.
“Food is my voice. Food is my way of telling people what I’m seeing. This style of cooking is the natural way.”
Dorcak is creating food as an event and an opportunity to gather people together on the basis of the adventure. “When you’re working in a restaurant you have to make the same series of foods which you hope will sell,” he says as he creates his green tomato dish featuring lemon cucumbers. “Taking a shortcut is not in our mindset.”
This way of cooking and eating features a larger variety of smaller plates designed to take the pallet through an experience of food. He keeps this in minds as he does his treasure hunts for special ingredients. “All the vegetables are hyper-local. We went out to Red Fern in Jacksonville. They had all these ingredients and we picked them by hand,” he says, smiling.
Being around Dorcak in his temporary kitchen in the basement of Mix is intoxicating. His enthusiasm for food is religious as he stands chopping his vegetables one by one while preaching the gospel of creating dishes which honor the food. “This is from a garden in Southern Oregon. This is where the inspiration should be.”
Now he is pulling something new out of the refrigerator. His smile glows over the object of his affection. “We use melon flowers. There’s a hint of the fruit they would become. They embody what we’re trying to invoke.”
His kitchen is equal parts laboratory, garden, and poetry. His love affair with food is spoken in a whisper as he shows me more of his freshly picked offerings. “This beauty … how do we prepare this without destroying it’s nature?” He’s leaning over his wild, baby carrots, which he’ll prepare with a Meade reduction. “It’s a play on honey and carrots.”
Apparently his devotion is showing up on the plate. “This meal is transcendent,” says Paul West as he works his way through the first few courses. He is joined at a long family style table of other diners in the basement room at Mix. There are wine pairings as well. “It’s a beautiful way to try different food," says Russel Hatch. “It’s really interesting. It has a lightness to it.”
Paul Matthews is eager to chime in, saying the style of eating with others in the group of about two dozen, some whom he knows and some he does not, allows him to share a unique experience while getting to meet new people. “The food is delicious and very creative,” he says, stopping for a quick bite and a smile. “I love the local produce and great food too.”
Dorcak says he is taking bookings around the state for his pop-up gourmet meals, an idea which he first experienced in Barcelona, Spain, and sees spreading as a possibility to satisfy a growing food culture. “This is a new way of being. French Laundry switched to this system. Ashland is a very cultured town. People come here because of that.”
He says this style works best — not only for those who want a truly original dining experience, but for him as well. “I believe in respect for each thing. There’s a fine finesse that goes into it. I am quiet. I like being outside, watching things. I like noticing the progress of things. That’s the urgency I get in keeping up with the seasons.”
Josh Dorcek’s business is called Mas. He takes bookings on line for his meals at mas.tocktix.com. And just like you would buy tickets for a show, you purchase tickets to his dining experience. “It’s like going to see Shakespeare. It’s a performance, in a different sense.”
For the 12-course meal and wine pairings on this Sunday night, the cost was $85 per person. The dinner takes roughly three hours to complete and the chef is there to answer questions and share insights as the evening moves along under candlelight with the smells of each food flight spilling from the kitchen.
“Maybe I’m the guy who can make the change," muses Dorcak. "I need to be the change I want to see. I’m 31 and I have time on my side.”
— Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.