Cristina Topham, new chef instructor at Allyson’s Kitchen in Ashland, brings a world-traveler’s experience to local cooking classes. - Bob Pennell

Globe-trotting chef settles in Ashland

Drifting around the Caribbean for years as a private chef, Cristina Topham yearned to put her feet back on land and a sense of place back in her food.

The Rogue Valley promised refuge from constant traveling. Yet two weeks into a visit with family, Topham found herself running full steam ahead to keep cooking classes at Allyson's Kitchen afloat.

"It felt really natural for me," Topham says of teaching, although she'd never hosted a class before her first at Allyson's last month.

"You get thrown into some funny situations," she says of her stint cooking on private yachts. "All these little things help when people turn to me with questions."

She's likely to meet plenty of inquiring minds at Allyson's as the Ashland gourmet store gears up next week to offer a wider complement of cooking classes, including a second, simultaneous series to its 10-week course in fundamental kitchen skills. Dubbed "Confident Cooking," the program covers the culinary paces from soups and stocks to breads and pastries. More than 3,000 students have completed the course since it began eight years ago.

"It really lays the foundation for the basic skills that will help with any kind of cooking," Topham says.

Allyson's new chef instructor and cooking school coordinator, Topham, 37, replaces former owner Allyson Holt, who exited the company she founded in 2000 with husband Steve Holt amid recent financial troubles at the Ashland store and a second that opened in Bend a year ago.

"How do you fill Allyson's shoes?" asks Lynne Galligan, chief financial officer and new owner of Allyson's. "Those are big shoes to fill."

Galligan and her son, Jeff Parr, were pondering the question early this year when another employee provided the answer. Working as a nanny for Parr, Jessie Wise recommended Topham, whom she had met while vacationing in Turks and Caicos. The adventurous Topham had no qualms about diving into the untested waters of teaching.

"I've traveled and cooked all over the world," Topham says. "You have to be really flexible and do what people want."

Versed in global cuisines from traditional French to Japanese, to the Lebanese fare of her maternal family, Topham says she became an expert at incorporating completely unfamiliar ingredients found at Caribbean markets into her menus.

"On the boats you're always scrambling to find your ingredients."

Topham's four-year tour in yacht galleys required 15-hour days, seven days a week feeding as many as 20 people. After she fulfilled a contract, Topham typically took a month off before signing onto another yacht's crew. Her last of a dozen such voyages ended on Mexico's Baja Peninsula in January.

"I was on the path to burning out," she says.

It wasn't the first time. Topham's initial career in software engineering proved unfulfilling, and she yearned to work in a more creative field. Drawing on the traditions of a "food-loving family," Topham attended the French Culinary Institute in New York and paid her dues "peeling carrots in a dungeon in Paris." She worked in several New York restaurants, catered events and offered her services as a private chef before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when her industry, like so many in New York, suffered a massive setback.

On the advice of her father, who operated a farmers market in St. Helena, Calif., Topham moved to Napa Valley to help open Julia's Kitchen at Copia. After a year at the food and wine center, she decided she'd had enough of restaurants, went on vacation in Anguilla and succumbed to the lure of the islands.

Topham has chronicled her adventures since 2005 on a food and travel blog titled "Diary of a Wayward Chef." Her most recent entries, however, celebrate the culinary "treasures" of the Rogue Valley, where she spent childhood vacations with extended family. Her father and stepmother, Lee and Ann Topham, moved about five years ago from California to Talent, where they cultivate wine grapes.

"There's such an awesome food scene down here," Cristina Topham says. "I love it."

Try the following recipes featuring one of Topham's favorite ingredients, lemons.

Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail

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