FORBES — While most people might think that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is the big draw to Ashland, Oregon, they would be missing its other stellar asset: the food and wine scene.
For a town of 23,000 inhabitants, Ashland has restaurant offerings that could put many other larger cities to shame.
Michael Donovan is one of the seminal forces behind the town’s food and wine matrix. For close to 30 years he was the front-of-the-house manager behind the stoves of Chateaulin, a destination French restaurant people would drive hours to dine at. He then went on to manage two major local wineries, RoxyAnn and Irvine & Roberts.
While most people might think that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is the big draw to Ashland, Oregon, they would be missing its other stellar asset: the food and wine scene. For a town of 23,000 inhabitants, Ashland has restaurant offerings that could put many other larger cities to shame.
Michael Donovan is one of the seminal forces behind the town’s food and wine matrix. For close to 30 years he was the chef behind the stoves of Chateaulin, a destination French restaurant people would drive hours to dine at. He then went on to manage two major local wineries, RoxyAnn and Irvine & Roberts.
I recently sat down with him to find out more about this new food event which is rolling out shortly. All answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Liza B. Zimmerman (L.B.Z.): What is unique about the Ashland food scene?
Michael Donovan (M.D.): Ashland is very much about small, independent family restaurants. There are only a handful of national chain restaurants serving the locals and visitors who have traditionally come to attend the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and explore our many mountain lakes, rivers and trails. For a small alpine town of 23,000, Ashland boasts more than 100 restaurants within the city limits. It’s a very walkable city and a stroll through downtown reveals culinary delights from every corner of the globe.
L.B.Z.: How did such serious food and wine come together in this little town?
M.D.: As a former restaurateur who came to Ashland in 1973, I have been privileged to witness the remarkable changes in food culture in our little town. As the growth and popularity of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival grew, so did the number of creative young chefs deciding to open their own restaurants. By the 1990s, Ashland had acquired dozens of new restaurants focused on building a strong relationship with a new wave of local farmers, ranchers, cheese makers and artisan food producers. Today, we have almost 100 agricultural partners who grow and produce outstanding foods in the Rogue Valley of Southern Oregon that make their way to our restaurant kitchens.
L.B.Z.: What made you want to move here and buy a restaurant and a hotel?
M.D.: I moved here in 1973 looking for a lifestyle change after graduating from college in Colorado. I accepted a position as a server with the Chateaulin restaurant; which was an iconic French restaurant and eventually agreed to purchase it. My wife Crissy opened the Peerless Hotel in 1994 and started the Peerless Restaurant three years later. Both of us were young, passionate and committed to creating a food scene that focused on local and regional fare sourced right here in the Rogue Valley.
L.B.Z.: What is unique about Ashland?
M.D.: Ashland is an extraordinary little mountain town that has drawn creative young chefs to locate here who are welcomed by a cadre of fellow local chefs who value collaboration over competition and are willing to share their sources and techniques with one another.
L.B.Z.: Why has it been undiscovered for so many decades?
M.D.: Ashland had been undiscovered when it is located right off the I-5, the major traffic artery up and down the West Coast. It has taken decades for our small town to be recognized not only for superb theater, but for the excellence of the culinary and lodging infrastructure that has grown around the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF).
L.B.Z.: Why did you decide to create Ashland on a Plate?
M.D.: Ashland on a Plate was originally the brainchild of a collaboration of local chefs and wineries that were looking to shore up Ashland’s tourism-slim winter season without the OSF theater season. Of course, COVID-19 kicked the timing of our events to the front burner and we have reimagined Ashland on a Plate as a rolling, year-round culinary celebration featuring micro festivals with a seasonal focus.
Our goal has been to create a new type of digital marketing platform that will showcase the collaboration of local culinary, winery and brewery professionals with farmers, ranchers, cheese makers and artisan food producers by presenting dozens of small, micro-events city-wide that are high-quality, high value culinary and wine experiences. We are dedicated to preserving the small, independent restaurants and other hospitality businesses that are crucial to our thriving culinary scene.
L.B.Z.: What do you think the festival will teach guests?
M.D.: We are confident that Ashland on a Plate will successfully re-brand Ashland and the Rogue Valley as a culinary and wine destination with outstanding lodging and recreational opportunities in our nearby scenic mountains, lakes and rivers.
L.B.Z.: How is it different from other food festivals?
At this point, Ashland on a Plate is focused on inviting visitors to come enjoy the ambiance of a small town year-round in an environment where the chefs and winemakers are the celebrities and visitors get to sample delicious meals from restaurants that source their ingredients from the abundance of farms, creameries, wineries and breweries in the Rogue Valley
L.B.Z.: How is Ashland structured differently in Covid?
M.D.: From its inception, Ashland on a Plate has included messaging that all our events are appropriately sized (usually between 10 to 16 people) to conform to both city and state guidelines on Covid-19 compliance. We remain committed to ensuring that all of the venues posting events on our website follow state guidelines with regard to face masks and social distancing.
L.B.Z.: What unique food and wine products and restaurants will it showcase and how will it do so differently?
M.D.: All of the many agricultural products that are grown and produced by our local farmers, ranchers, cheese makers and artisans will be on full display in the kitchens of Ashland chefs who plan to transform the City of Ashland into a foodie's paradise, with chef collaborations, pop ups, culinary events, exclusive festival dishes, unique and original cocktails and burgers served up with a beer or wine to enjoy while taking advantage of world-class hiking, biking, and other outdoor recreational activities that are a hallmark of our small mountain town of Ashland, Oregon.