MÄS than Meets the Eye

Ashland chef nominated for James Beard Award

MÄS chef Dorcak creating a restaurant dish. ##Photo by Lindsey Bolling Photography
One of MÄS’ intricate, and beautiful, offerings. ##Photo by Lindsey Bolling Photography
Joseph Shaughnessy, sommelier at MÄS. ##Photo by Maggie Hawk
Expect innovative and creative food when dining at Ashland’s MÄS restaurant. ##Photo by Lindsey Bolling Photography

By Andrea Jacoby OShell

How easy it is to overlook the sleepy little alleyway tucked behind the bustling shops of Ashland’s Main Street. Here you may encounter the occasional electric bicycle or employee taking a break. If you look closely, notice a warm light and welcoming door with three simple letters: MÄS. Allow yourself to be transported the way chef and owner Josh Dorcak was inspired while walking the secluded alleyways in Tokyo. You can almost see the wheels turning as Dorcak reflects on that time in his life and how he was excited to introduce a modern, yet simplistic, symphony of Cascadian cuisine to Southern Oregon.

Entering the restaurant, diners are greeted by savory aromas and vibrant energy balanced with a sense of calm. Time slows as the experience begins. The friendly faces behind the six-seat James Beard-nominated chef’s counter invite you as they would into their own homes. Bright, clean metals join small, wooden pedestals, delicately whittled chopsticks and hand-thrown pottery, a multi-sensory experience. Your eyes and hands feast before the first bite of food or sip of wine. To fully comprehend the food and experience, you first must meet Josh Dorcak and Joseph Shaughnessy.

A Tale of Two Transients

MÄS chef Dorcak has been perfecting his skills since “randomly” applying to the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco in 2003. As he puts it, “I believed my only option was art school; I was not an academic… I wanted to go to film school and be a cameraman…” but one of his close friends mentioned being accepted into a culinary school. Dorcak says, “I didn’t know you could go to culinary school...” Since then, he’s been on a journey to establish his vision in the culinary world. Dorcak says, “My whole world started making sense… it [culinary school] earned my respect.”

With a strong sense of “be better,” a can-do attitude, and a dash of competitiveness, everything began coming together. Dorcak notes, “At that point San Francisco was a different town ruled by the old guard... Chefs with restaurants…the me-too movement hadn’t yet happened, and still, I loved it… I was a total grum.” Dorcak toured the West Coast, all while staging under chefs. His first paid chef position was at Pearl in Oakland, where he would show up four hours early for his shift. He recalls, “The chef said I can’t pay you for all these hours…” But Dorcak replied, “I don’t care, I want to learn.” After an unsuccessful externship at a corporate restaurant in Napa, Dorcak finished culinary school as a sous chef at Pearl. Eventually, he discovered the comforts of Southern Oregon.

He relished how Ashland reminded him of Los Gatos, California. In a pre-2008 economy, the world was Dorcak’s oyster, so he slipped a note under the back door of Amuse and awaited fate. He began his Ashland culinary journey when he joined Amuse. Eventually, after a few years of nomadic chefing, where Dorcak learned a lot, Ashland beckoned him. He returned to Amuse, where he worked for seven years, considering it his “incubator.” Dorcak next moved on to work for his friend, Andrew Will, owner of Tot & Public House, where he “built the food program from scratch with a small budget.” Before MÄS moved into a brick-and-mortar space in the quiet alleyway, Jamie North offered him the opportunity to develop his dream pop-up in the basement of her bakery, Mix Bakeshop.

“From my experiences in Tokyo to serving a dozen people in the basement pop-up, I realized this is all too possible… I made a vow ‘never to cook a traditional plate of food ever again’ and I haven’t.”

In the early 2000s, Shaughnessy, too, found himself in a similar twist of fate, searching for a sense of place. He was drawn to Ashland. Its sense of calm and belonging also captivated Dorcak. When Shaughnessy first moved from Tennessee, he discovered his passion for wine working under Jeff Parr at Allyson’s of Ashland. As his love of wine grew, he embarked on an eight-year pause to attend helicopter flight school through the military. Shaughnessy strapped in, head down, never looked back, and literally, took off. However, his passion for wine remained his North Star.

During Shaughnessy’s deployment in Korea, studying wine in his spare time. As he notes, he needed “a feather in his cap” and found a knack for it, earning his sommelier certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers in Seoul, Korea. In 2018, he left the military and returned to Ashland. He renewed his wine career and opened the Lithia Springs Resort Wine Garden. Fast forward three years, Shaughnessy was “finally working front of house as a sommelier.” Not one to shy away from the books; he is a French Wine Scholar and has his Wine and Spirits Education Trust Diploma. Shaughnessy is working toward a Champagne Master Scholar Certification and Advanced Sommelier Certification.

A Decade in the Making

Ten years later, Dorcak and Shaughnessy realize they need each other. Dorcak’s symphony of food is exquisite, no one can doubt it, every bite mesmerizing, searing into memory. But what is a symphony without a conductor? And what is a conductor without the baton?
As a two-time James Beard nominee, Dorcak needed to elevate MÄS, which meant turning up the volume with an in-house sommelier. His shortlist: Joseph or Molly Shaughnessy. (Molly is currently the manager and sommelier at Larks in Ashland.)

The Now and the Future

As Dorcak explains, “MÄS has always been this maturation story, starting in the basement of Mix, cooking from the hip and creating it.” He adds, “Over the years, my food has become more defined… why and how we do it has evolved into a more concise focus and bringing on Shaughnessy, who pushes beyond a wavering notion of my mood,” is important. Dorcak says, “Shaughnessy’s sommelier skills can track what’s going on… and contribute to our continued development. It is a unique experience. Together, we are creating another dimension to dining.”

Shaughnessy stresses the importance of compartmentalizing their abilities. “I try to match Dorcak’s skillset food-wise in the beverage sphere. That’s my goal, my intention.” Shaughnessy is always one step ahead, constantly working to enhance pairings. He says, “Most of the beverage program is pairing with the tasting menu. I work with chef to build the pairings structurally, based on sugar, tannins, alcohol, acid and body.”
His goals for the wine list are equally important in the day-to-day operations. Shaughnessy says, “I want the list to be a reflection of the restaurant and cuisine. If you’ve dined here before, you know Dorcak’s food profile has big umami flavors, lighter dishes and seafood courses. From a wine perspective, the obvious choice is something coastal…” But Shaughnessy knows better. He understands the flavors, big and unique, deserve an equally distinctive wine.

Shaughnessy’s signature is on the wine list in much the same way Dorcak’s style is on his food. Shaughnessy notes a couple of wine-pairing favorites: “I have vertical tastings of Cameron Wines from the Willamette Valley and Napa Valley’s Corison Winery. They are some of the best in their respective regions, and are lighter, fresher, cleaner… an iron fist in a velvet glove. I aim for inspired pairings.” MÄS saves space for small, local wineries, too. Circadian Cellar 2020 Chenin Blanc and 2021 Primitivo, along with Maison Jussiaume 2019 Blanc de Blancs, are currently available. Both Dorcak and Shaughnessy are there to act as guides, curating the finest experience possible, with minimal decision-making on the guest’s part.

A Harmonious Crescendo

Dorcak’s hot pick: Vie di Romans Piere Sauvignon Blanc from Friuli-Venezia, Italy. He pours it with extreme confidence, “It’s delicious on a flavor spectrum; just taste it and it does its own thing.” He’s also partial to saké. He recommends his Unagi, Black Truffle, and Koli Emulsion dish paired with Akishika Shuzo Ginjo. Dorcak says, “Saké often accentuates a distinctly different area of your palate.”

And Shaughnessy’s dream wines? He treasures Château Mouton Rothschild. Two recent favorite bottles are Domaine Dujac Clos de la Roche Grand Cru 2018 and Léon Beyer Comtes d’Eguisheim 2015. Shaughnessy firmly believes, “Alsatian wines make a lot of sense. They have acidity, poise, precision, but also breadth and power.”

Dorcak’s sous chef, Andy Peterson, somehow moves around the restaurant simultaneously quickly and slowly. He extends his food passion by creating non-alcoholic beverages so underage diners and those abstaining can enjoy the pairing experience as well.

Shaughnessy’s final thoughts: “It’s an arms race…I am always trying to keep up with the rich and powerful flavors…”

Dorcak’s closing remarks: “In the modern era, savor these classically-built sauces and food with insane wines… they create perfect pairings. Honestly, there’s nothing better. Fall back into a soft pillow. Done.”

At MÄS, no note is missed or wrong. But practice makes, well, more practice. If you have dined there before, you may get the same thing twice. If you do, the volume is dialed differently– the bass line of the brioche can shift to become the treble, and the unagi sings the high note, but can also be a brooding alto. Dorcak may create 18 iterations of one, single dish, and Shaughnessy is beside him contributing the ideal, complementary wine or saké pairing. Because no piece of music is complete without a special addition.

141 Will Dodge Way, Ashland (reservations required)

Andrea Jacoby OShell has been in the wine industry for over a decade first discovering her love of wine at a small neighborhood wine shop in Miamisburg, Ohio. She also discovered her love of writing during that time by writing and publishing background guides for the International Model United Nations Organization. She moved to Oregon in 2015 where her wine journey continued. She resides in Southern Oregon and currently works for a small wine distributor. She also achieved her WSET level III with merit in 2021. In her spare time, you can usually find her meandering through old East Medford with her two dogs, Teddy and Luna.

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