If you mentioned the term Cascadian to me several months ago, I would have had no idea that the region covers parts of Southwestern Canada, all of Washington, some of Oregon, a little bit of Montana and all of Idaho. If you wondered how pristine ingredients from this amalgamation of regions could be combined with a heavy Japanese stylistic influence it might be hard to imagine.
Thankfully someone has answered these questions for us. Josh Dorcak, the chef and owner at Mas in Ashland Oregon has opened an extraordinary restaurant that only does 10-course tasting menu for a handful of people every night. The pairings range from wine to—lots of—sake. Each dish is carefully put together before your eyes, if you sit at the sushi bar, and served in the hushed silence of this tiny restaurant: blink and you might even miss the small entrance on the street.
I have been lucky enough to have dined at Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli, before it shuttered its doors on the Spanish Coast a few years ago. I also made the pilgrimage to Next, Grant Achatz’s culinarily evolving Chicago outpost. I didn’t make it to Noma, or Fäviken—two cult restaurants in Scandinavia—but Dorcak is playing in the big leagues in a small town better known for theater than its food. He part of a wave of chefs that are about to change all of that. What’s more the price of admission is currently pretty accessible with the full menu running $145 per person with an extra charge for pairings.
I had a chance to dine at and chat with Dorcak on my recent trip to Ashland. All responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Liza B. Zimmerman (L.B.Z.): Why did you want to open your own restaurant?
Josh Dorcak (J.D.): I have always loved seeing people come together around a dinner table. I liked how there was peace when people enjoying something in front of them. My family did these Monday night dinners where everyone would go over to my grandparents’ home and cook a meal.
I would typically cut the soft sourdough bread and help my uncle start the Kingsford charcoal and cook the chicken. I loved the process of preparing an experience and I love sharing my passion. I have spent many years planning and researching restaurant concepts and when I got to the financial portion of the idea it would never pan out.
When Luke VanCampen, my co-owner and chef, and I went to Tokyo and experienced the restaurants that only had owners and chefs operating them a very bright lightbulb went on in my mind. I knew that there would be no more failed financial plans as the amount of labor that is typically necessary—to sustain a restaurant—was no longer a factor in the plan for MAS, which is my ultimate passion and a true extension of me as a creative.
L.B.Z.: Why did you decide to feature such a complex menu?
J.D.: This is how I see the edible world around me. It’s about giving the inanimate vegetables, flowers and herbs a voice. I want the ingredients to have an opportunity to become something new and surprise people.
When I walk through the farmers’ markets, I feel like my peripheral vision expands and I am seeing so many possibilities. I start thinking about what to preserve and what is best raw and how to best relate a complementary texture from a plant that might not be widely used. Now that we have a single farm—the Bowery Urban Farm—that supplies our produce for the most part it’s about seeing how the plants grow with each other and adopting the saying of “what grows together goes together.”
Tasting menus are the only way we can tell our story. Instead of words we get to use memories, textures and creativity to convey our passion for food. I remember the time I first created a tasting menu and the rush of nerves I experienced as it was starting and all the work it took to put together.
L.B.Z.: How did you manage to pull this off at such a young age?
J.D.:I have been extremely focused on making this vision happen. Opening MAS was a very smooth endeavor, as it was meant to be.
L.B.Z. What are your culinary inspirations at Mas?
J.D.: Southern Oregon inspires us mostly. The farmers that grow the produce that we are lucky enough to source. Of course, there is influence from NOMA—the noted Copenhagen restaurant—and the way that team has been able to re-invent their programs and delve deep into the craft of fermentation and flavor extraction. As a result, I often find myself reading through the Nordic food lab website.
L.B.Z.: Why is foraging important?
J.D.: Foraging gets us out in the woods and puts us in another time zone. We have a vast resource at our fingertips here in Southern Oregon. The season on the valley floor happens first, then that season travels up in elevation. For example, elderberry flowers bloom first at low elevation and if we miss that opportunity, we can find them a little bit higher. Foods that grow wild are the true timestamps of a season and for us it is paramount that we showcase them for our guests.
L.B.Z.: What is important about sourcing local food?
J.D.: We benefit from the fact that all the local farms are much closer to us geographically than they would be if we were living in a city. We have the opportunity to easily go to the farm and see the land and find a connection that is real. We also happen to live in a rich ecosystem that produces high quality foods, both wild and farmed.
L.B.Z.: Who is your demographic?
J.D.: We see foodies at the restaurant: all ages from 10 to 85. Folks who appreciate the creative process and unique flavors. We are seeing and hearing from our guests about their trip to Southern Oregon and that MAS was the reason they came and stayed to enjoy the Rogue Valley. We are completely humbled to learn that some of our guests are that curious.
L.B.Z.: Where do your Japanese culinary influences come from?
J.B.: I grew up in Silicon Valley and had a few Japanese friends there and I got to experience their households and enjoy the snacks and dinners. My family members are also sushi fanatics so we spent a lot of time in those type of restaurants and I just loved it. As a young kid I would watch Iron Chef Japan all the time.
L.B.Z.: How did you learn to pair sake and food?
J.B.: I have found that often times with food sake is simpler and more harmonious than other alcoholic beverages. There doesn’t have to be a lengthy discussion about if it tastes like a granite countertop on a cool day.
L.B.Z.: What are some of the best synergies for these pairings with Western foods?
J.D.: Sake can be drunk at various different temperatures, so for a rich grilled item like red meat it would be kind of odd to drink a cold glass of Cabernet. Slightly warm sake changes its floral elements and texture.
L.B.Z.: Do you consider yourself a destination restaurant like Fäviken ?
J.D. Not exactly like Fäviken, as we are on Yelp. I do consider MAS as a destination restaurant. I have always thought of MAS as a food-traveler restaurant. Part of the reason to travel to a new region is to experience its food and wine.
L.B.Z.: Are these types of restaurants, with complex menu, sustainable these days?
J.D.: Sustainable is a different word now due to Covid-19. The restaurants that are controlling their food systems, such as owning or partnering with a farm and or fishing vessel, have the best shot to succeed in my opinion.
Being able to preserve all the bounty for future sales and to control costs in that manner seems to be the smartest way to operate a complex restaurant now. Dining at a high level will always exist, it is at the top end of food culture and where fantastic techniques come from that trickle down through the bistros and cafes.
L.B.Z.: Are you finding it hard to stay open during Covid?
J.D.: All around us restaurant empires are collapsing due to Covid. For small, independent restaurants it is a nightmare. I find it to be like being inside a pinball machine: it’s rough. We the chefs are serving, cooking, washing dishes, accepting all the FedEx shipments and locking the door at the end of the night. Other places don’t have that luxury as the size of the restaurant demands a larger staff.
L.B.Z.: What is the size of your staff?
J.D.: 0. Both Luke and I are both working owners of the restaurant and able to do all aspects of the business operations.
L.B.Z.: How does your food show off the bounty and culinary resources of Ashland?
J.D.: It shows that we have incredible variety here. It also proves that Ashland can support elevated food culture just as it supports elevated theater and cultural arts.
L.B.Z.: How is the industry going to emerge differently after Covid?
J.D.: I think Covid has exposed how many people in the restaurant industry live pay check to paycheck. I hope to see the industry supported more by its surrounding communities. For our small bubble in Ashland I would like to see restaurants valued more for the kind food they choose to bring in so they could charge the right amount money for quality food and not rely on large food service trucks to meet their margins. I am not sure that anything will be honestly different but tend to look at things in a positive light.