WILLAMETTE WEEK — In sunny Southern Oregon, the reigning Iron Chef Oregon is doing things you can't do in Portland. Everyone dreams of "going rogue" and leaving their day job for something unconventional. Joshua Dorcak took the risk. Dorcak is a forager and the chef behind MÄS, Southern Oregon's first and only pop-up restaurant.
Dorcak has a big advantage over Portland chefs: Sunny Southern Oregon is famously friendly to a wide and abundant assortment of natural plants—the region has more wild edibles than almost anywhere. It's also not picked over. As far as he knows, no other Southern Oregon chefs source their entire menu solely from foraged ingredients, meaning Dorcak's rural, foraging terrain around Ashland is his for the plucking.
"There's a huge bounty of medicinal plants, herbs and, of course, mushrooms," Dorcak said. His meals focus on what's available in the present environment, in season, with top priority going to the freshest wild ingredients. From those ingredients, Dorcak fashions meals that are 10 to 12 courses. He takes a dozen reservations for each meal—sometimes a few more.
One of those guests was Marcelo Lima, a Portland food scenester who connected with Dorcak at a Portland food festival where he won the Iron Chef Oregon title and accepted an invitation to come down and eat.
"Josh's food was deliciously exquisite," Lima said. "A chestnut and uni dish; and a foie, quince and grape dessert were my favorite courses," Lima said. "It was a great and memorable experience."
Dorcak's food is nothing if not intentional. His plates tend to be minimalistic, with lots of fermentation and a light Japanese inflection. Dorcak spends his days researching edibles, foraging materials for his private dining events and stockpiling the components of his portable kitchen. Much like Ryan Roadhouse of Nodoguro, he's heavily influenced by Japanese omakase, where the chef composes a meal from top to bottom, and the diners sit down and go for a ride.
"It's a blind experience," he continued. "It's my opportunity to prove my vision. What I think we should be eating and how we should be eating it."
In other words, Dorcak is trying to establish a distinctive idea of Southern Oregon cuisine. He drives backroads and takes long hikes, paying attention to what the weeds are doing.
"It's these petite leaves and time stamps," he says. "To bring it all back to today, this was found today and tomorrow it's going to be gone or different."
Ashland is his inspiration—the city off I-5, just 15 miles north of the California border, is where two mountain ranges collide.
"We're in a very interesting area because we have two ranges: the Cascades and the Siskiyous," Dorcak says. "They're totally different soil types; there's totally different things that grow in them."
Edible plants that grow wild on the land all have a different character than even the most carefully grown agricultural products, he says.
"I think there's this wabi-sabi beauty effect of these weathered ingredients…they're exposed, and I find that's character," Dorcak said.
Dorcak has the chops to get the most out of those ingredients. After randomly choosing to attend culinary school, he spent several years on the job in the Bay Area. Once he learned the mechanics of running a kitchen, he realized he didn't want to climb the usual ladder in the back of the house.
"I could never work for someone else again," he says. "I could show up to work on time, and do a good job, but I'd just be full of resentment."