ASHLAND, Ore. — When she decided to leave Texas, Sarah Cook dreamed of her ideal new home. She shared what she imagined with friends: a small city that offered natural beauty, a slower pace and an audience for the kind of artful, intricate food she made at Kyōten Sushiko, a six-seat omakase restaurant in Austin that closed during the pandemic.
“I was describing Ashland before I’d ever even heard of it,” Ms. Cook said.
Her dream seemed to be coming true in June, after she became chef at Nama, a 20-seat restaurant in this city of 21,000, which she calls “perfect in a lot of ways.”
But, she recalled, “there was a day when it was orange outside, and you could see ash falling.”
“It was apocalyptic,” she said.
This split screen — paradise on one side, disaster on the other — illustrates an uneasy tension here in the Rogue Valley, one that has pushed its food community into a period of transition and innovation.
The vision of turning the region into a laid-back alternative to the West’s more celebrated culinary destinations appears on the cusp of being realized, thanks to the emergence of dynamic restaurant and wine scenes and the return of tourism.
But climate change has become that vision’s most imposing threat — one that turned tragically undeniable two years ago, when the Almeda fire tore through the valley, destroying more than 3,000 businesses and homes, according to the Oregon Department of Forestry. As many as 8,500 residents were left homeless.
Ashland is the cultural capital of the Rogue Valley, where wineries, farms and orchards are abundant. Even in years when flames don’t threaten the area, smoke is a perennial problem, carried by wind from fires elsewhere and trapped in the valley by the mountains and warmer temperatures high in the atmosphere.
The new reality is startling for locals who recall a time, not long ago, when the valley was a smoke-free Eden.
“We can’t expect that the fire seasons won’t affect us anymore,” said Amber Ferguson, an Ashland native and the director of Rogue Food Unites, a relief organization she co-founded to feed fire victims.
She was sitting outside Mix Bakeshop in July of 2021, on a day when smoke made it appear as if dusk had arrived in midafternoon. The conditions were hazy again last month, around the second anniversary of the fires, when Ms. Ferguson observed, “We’re still recovering from what happened two years ago.”
The Almeda fire started in Ashland, three blocks from Ms. Ferguson’s house, but caused the most damage in the neighboring towns of Talent and Phoenix.
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Rogue Food’s initial mission was to use state recovery funds to collaborate with local chefs and restaurants, many shuttered by the pandemic, to provide food to residents living in temporary housing.
“It just sort of came together like this beautiful dream of let’s find money, pay the restaurants, buy from farms, feed the people,” said Ms. Ferguson, who was a manager at the Portland restaurants Beast and Toro Bravo before moving to Ashland in 2016. “It’s a resilience program and feeding program all at once.”
It has also become a permanent entity, Ms. Ferguson said, with contracts to feed current and future fire victims in five southern Oregon counties.
The fires laid bare local social and economic inequities by causing disproportionate harm to low-income residents in Talent and Phoenix, which are less affluent and more diverse than Ashland. Coalición Fortaleza, an advocacy group for local Latino and Indigenous communities, has been working to develop affordable alternatives to homes lost in the fire. Locals say the replacement costs for mobile homes far exceed the means of most farm and hospitality workers.
Like Rogue Food, Fortaleza formed after the fires. They are among a number of charity organizations that have helped forge solidarity between hospitality and farm workers, expanding views on what relief work should provide in the process.
Celinés Garcia, 26, a Fortaleza organizer, was raised in a mobile home in Talent by a mother who came from Mexico to work in the orchards. Her father lost his home to the fire.
Rogue Food, she said, “always just seems to be there, giving people food and meals. And we still need them.”
More than 50 Ashland-area families remain in temporary housing, according to the Oregon Department of Human Services, but relief workers say that number obscures widespread economic pain, particularly for a working class reeling from an affordable-housing crisis the fires aggravated. Rogue Food created a new mobile farmers’ market to meet those customers where they are.
During the market’s debut, at a fair in Medford, Lucas Wedeman, a Rogue Food employee, helped fill customers’ bags with locally grown zucchini, tomatoes and more. The produce, much of it provided by Fry Family Farm, was restaurant quality — and free.
Mr. Wedeman, 27, started doing relief work after watching the fires burn nearly every building around his house in Talent.
“We were so blessed that we didn’t lose our home,” he said. “That reinforced my drive to volunteer.”
Flavio Martinez, 42, was similarly grateful that the fire spared El Comal Taqueria, his restaurant in Phoenix. He was among the local chefs and restaurateurs who started pitching in at Rogue Food soon after the fire. He has since opened a third El Comal location.
“I grew up here,” Mr. Martinez said. “It wouldn’t be fair for me not to help when there is so much need.”
Rogue Food is just one example of the communal spirit and creative thinking coursing through the valley.
Pioneering winemakers, especially in the Applegate Valley, have elevated southern Oregon wines, historically overshadowed by the Willamette Valley, to the north. Their work developing techniques for growing grapes in the arid climate is mirrored at small and midsize farms nearby.
Kelsey Jacques moved from her native Michigan to start Orange Marmalade Farms last year. She’s optimistic about expanding beyond the quarter acre she cultivates in Ashland, even though competition for land and water is fierce, particularly from the fast-growing local cannabis industry, and despite an inaugural season in which she, like many local farmers, suspects smoke prevented crops from flourishing.
“There’s so much here I can learn here” she said. “It’s just a pocket of knowledge.”
Ms. Jacques’s potential customer base is growing in Ashland, not far from her rows of Siskiyou orange tomatoes and sweet Walla Walla onions. Osteria La Briccola, the Korean-inspired Miss Yoon and the natural wine-focused Bar Julliet have all opened in Ashland since last summer, when the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, an important driver of local tourism, was still hobbled by the pandemic.
Carla Guimaraes moved to Ashland from Santa Barbara, Calif., in 2020, in the thick of Covid lockdowns and just before the fires. The next year she opened Vida Baking Company, which specializes in gluten-free pão de queijo, the popular cheese bread from her native Brazil.
She looked forward to the Shakespeare Festival’s returning to its full schedule this year — only to be disappointed when outdoor performances were canceled because of heat and smoke.
“People vanished from the streets,” Ms. Guimaraes said. She figures that Vida’s business was down 25 percent in August and September from a year earlier.
After more than a decade of cooking in Ashland restaurants owned by others, Josh Dorcak opened MÄS, a 16-seat tasting menu restaurant, in 2018. The California native wanted his first business to be small, in part to insulate it from economic turbulence.
“Today it’s blue skies, tomorrow could be a completely different story,” he said. “If I have to shut down, it’s only me and a few other people I have to worry about.”
The forced discipline, coupled with inspiration from an immersive tour of Tokyo’s izakayas and sushi bars, caused Mr. Dorcak to re-evaluate his cooking and his adopted home.
“It went from feeling claustrophobic and small to like, ‘Wait a second, I actually live in a chef’s dreamland,’ ” he said. “We have so much at our fingertips.”
His cooking, which he calls Cascadian cuisine, highlights local and regional ingredients in precise, tiny dishes, like poached Pacific oysters dressed with cantaloupe aguachile or figs in shiso custard with crème anglaise.
Ms. Cook brings kindred skill and passion to Nama, the 20-seat restaurant Mr. Dorcak opened last fall, next door to MÄS. In a recent meal, amberjack slices came in a slick of grapefruit juice, finished with dried flowers and oil infused with herbs from Orange Marmalade Farms. Ms. Jacques, the farm’s owner, waits tables at Nama on weekends.
“If someone thinks the carrot they just had is amazing, I can tell them, ‘Talk to the person who grew it,’ ” Ms. Cook said.
The new era of vitality that these and other chefs are bringing to the Rogue Valley rests on a foundation built by Charlene and Vernon Rollins, according to Mr. Dorcak. The couple opened New Sammy’s Cowboy Bistro in Talent, just outside Ashland, in 1989. It was destroyed by the Almeda fire.
Ms. Rollins was the chef at Sammy’s (named for their son), and Mr. Rollins its host and sommelier; much of the restaurant’s produce came from gardens on the acre and a half of land, where the Rollins family also lived.
“We owe it to Charlene and Vernon for educating travelers who come here about what they can expect from the culture,” said Mr. Dorcak. Bamboo that grew around Sammy’s appears in artwork hanging at Nama.
The charred remains of Sammy’s had yet to be cleared when Ms. Rollins, 74, gave a tour of the property in July 2021. She explained how she spent the months after the fire furiously cooking Sammy’s dishes — paper copies of the recipes burned — before she forgot them.
“I made so many different ice creams,” she said, standing near a fig tree that survived the fire.
This summer Ms. Rollins moved into a modest, fire-resistant house built on land above her old restaurant site. She walked through her gardens last month, stopping to admire the tomatillos, cantaloupe and tromboncino squash. She looked forward to cooking for friends in her new kitchen, but will not rebuild Sammy’s. The property is for sale.
Mr. Rollins, who died in March at age 77, is buried near the new house. Ms. Rollins planted a fig tree at the center of his grave, she said, “because fig trees never die.”