If you attended the 11th annual Ashland Culinary Festival this year you could feel the excitement of what an amazingly, collaborative culinary scene we have here and, as locals, get to experience each day.

Travel Ashland, with the Ashland Chamber, promotes Ashland as a year-round paradise with an award-winning culinary scene, rich culture and epic outdoor adventures. The Ashland Culinary Festival began in 2007 to showcase the bounty of Southern Oregon during the fall, inviting culinary locals and visitors to taste, enjoy and learn about all things culinary.

Over the years, it has grown to encompass four days of a dynamic destination festival. The Top Chef Dinner honors the legacy of talented chefs that have won the competition in past years. Four of these Top Chefs have gone on to take the Iron Chef Oregon title at the Bite of Oregon’s Iron Chef Competition in Portland. This elevates Ashland not only state-wide but nationally in terms of what types of chefs we produce here.

The mixology competition provides a platform for bartenders to show their skills and build camaraderie while showcasing local distilleries and ingredients used to make the specialty cocktail. As a membership organization, the Ashland Chamber, alongside Travel Ashland, supports the growth of the food and beverage industry — not only through this festival but through workshops, conferences and providing a venue such as this event to network and partner.

New this year, the Celebrity Quick-Fire Cooking Challenge turned the table on the Festival Judges where they found themselves faced with a challenge and only 15 minutes to create a dish that was selected by the committee. The audience enjoyed watching local restaurateurs, chefs and news personalities do what the chefs are challenged to do each year on stage.

Also, as an educationally based chamber, the Ashland Chamber’s role includes economic development for Ashland. In this case, we are cultivating potential future chefs through the Junior Chef competition. The Junior Chef competition welcomes talented high school, aspiring chefs. The positive impact of this part of the event is felt by entire classes who engage, fine-tuning their skills prior to the competition. The service industry has a need for more skilled workers. This event inspires young students to pursue their culinary path and gives them insight into the hospitality and tourism industry.

At the heart of the event, the Top Chef competition puts the spotlight on local chefs that work hard year-round welcoming thousands of visitors and locals alike. The festival gives the restaurants an opportunity to share small bites from their menu, as well as gain exposure through the many channels of promotion. We also see restaurateurs discovering new wines to add to their menu or new artisans to collaborate with. The local farms and their contributions make the ingredient table that the chefs use truly abundant and interesting for the audience to see how they incorporate the produce to complement the secret ingredient. Our judges provide insight and knowledge on stage not only to the chefs, but to the audience, another chance for foodies to learn more about Southern Oregon cuisine and culinary tips and tricks.

The workshops provide culinary education with something new each year. From knife skills to "sip and paint" classes, from holiday citrus to fruit tarts, the Culinary Festival offers a variety of ways to engage the “culinarian” and amateur chef or mixologist.

Southern Oregon is best exemplified through the vendors that surround the room. Restaurants share their samples, food artisans provide holiday gift ideas, award-winning wineries explain how the wine was made and you can make a good dent in your holiday gift list for sure finding everything from mustards to pinot.

This event, that attracts more than 1,200 ticket holders each year is not only measured by how many visitors come from around the West Coast but rather how many people it engages. The power of partnership and collaboration that delivers a collective impact to our local economy is felt not only in those four days but all throughout the year and statewide. That is why our staff and festival committee takes great pride in producing this event each year.

Save the date for next year: Nov. 8–11, 2018, www.travelashland.com.

— Katharine Flanagan Cato is director of sales, marketing and the Visitor and Convention Bureau for the Ashland Chamber of Commerce.