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Culinary Combat

November 4, 2007

By Meg Landers
Mail Tribune

ASHLAND, OREGON — Armed with empty silver trays and heavy concentration, chefs and their assistants were poised to load up at the ingredients table as Dennis Slattery, master of ceremonies, prepared to launch an “Iron Chef” style cook-off.

“Let’s get ready to crumble,” the MC said.

The 70-minute countdown began. Chefs from Omar’s, Chateaulin, Cucina Biazzi and Pilaf restaurants raced from their cooking stations to the table to stock up on celery, mushrooms and carrots as well as parsley, dried fruit and wine.

The culinary frenzy Saturday morning was part of the inaugural Food & Wine Classic of Southern Oregon, sponsored by the Ashland Chamber of Commerce. Featuring eight local chefs as well as locally grown food, the event is an effort to boost the area’s tourism among restaurants and wineries. The cook-off is modeled after the popular cable television show, “Iron Chef,” originally a hit in Japan.

Just prior to the competition, the chefs learned they were to prepare an entrée with bison and squash.

Chandra Corwin of Cucina Biazzi had the largest fan club Saturday, with nearly a dozen restaurant staff sporting t-shirts reading “I �1/3 Chandra’s Cooking.”

Susan Powell, chef at Pilaf, seemed to be having the most fun of the bunch as she sliced, tossed and baked the various ingredients. She said she planned to win “by superior creativity and ingenuity, years and years of experience, and the accumulated wisdom of many cookbooks.”

James Williams of Omar’s Restaurant kept a thoughtful, steady pace.

“This is not my first rodeo,” he said.

Steve Cameron of Chateaulin Restaurant at the start seemed especially frustrated with trying to remove a feisty freshness seal on a container of white pepper, but soon found his pace.

Ten minutes into the culinary competition, the chefs were quiet and “in the zone,” noted Cory Schrieber, one of the judges. Schrieber, founder of the Wildwood restaurant in Portland and 1998 winner of the James Beard Award for Best Chef Pacific Northwest, also was the commentator throughout the event. Soon, mouthwatering aromas began wafting through the room.

The chefs are each to prepare three plates in an hour and 10 minutes, said Schrieber. Plates are judged on achievement/originality, presentation, degree of difficulty, taste and texture, and kitchen skills.

“The criteria (are) just based on the jaded palates of the judges,” admitted Schrieber.

Whether from standing over hot burners or from tension and anxiety, the chefs’ brows grew sweaty 35 minutes into the event.

Like Times Square on New Year’s Eve, the crowd began yelling out the remaining 10 seconds before the chefs had to have three plates prepared.

All movement stopped.

Each chef described their dish for the judges, then waited.

Steve Cameron of Chateaulin Restaurant fidgeted and looked nervous as the three judges tasted the plates.

“There’s a little prestige in it,” Cameron said, adding that he hoped to do well for the restaurant, too.

He said he wasn’t troubled by working in cramped quarters, because he has even less space in the Chateaulin kitchen. One difficulty, however, was the lack of burner space.

“We’re used to working with eight or ten burners and we got two slow ones,” he said.

Cameron made pan-roasted tenderloin bison with barley and butternut squash risotto, a root vegetable medley and cranberry demi-glace. If he had it to do over again he might do it differently, he said. “I may not have gone for risotto because I don’t think it came out as finished as we would like.”

Corwin and Williams were selected from the morning’s contest to go on to today’s semi-finals. Saturday’s afternoon contest included Neil Clooney of Dragonfly, Kate Cyr of Ashland Springs Hotel/Lark’s, Shane Hardin of the Winchester Inn and Anthony Starelli of T’s restaurants. Judges selected Clooney and Cyr.

Williams, Corwin, Clooney and Cyr will have their cook-off at 10 a.m. today. The competition will involve preparing a salad and an appetizer. The top two will vie for the championship this afternoon for a salad, entree and dessert competition.

“The degree of complexity goes up as the competition goes on,” said Schrieber.

The winner will receive an engraved bronze skillet.

Smithfields Restaurant and Bar is located at 36 S. 2nd Street, Ashland, Oregon. Call 541-488-9948.

Copyright © 2007 Southern Oregon Media Group, a subsidiary of Ottaway Newspapers, Inc. All Rights Reserved.