Before farm dinners were commonplace, there was Outstanding in the Field. Founded in 1999 by artist Jim Denevan, the farm dinner series is touring over 80 farms across the US and Canada this summer and fall. At each stop, a new chef with a farm-specific menu are the stars in an experience akin to performing a one-night only pop-up restaurant, with a mission to open the eyes of locals to their farming neighbors.
The original influences for the first Outstanding in the Field dinners, which took place in Northern California, came to Denevan when he was the head chef of Santa Cruz's Gabriella Café and sourcing his menu from local purveyors. "I know that visually, a table in the field where food comes from would be powerful," he says—a way to not only highlight local producers, but to urge diners to think about where their food comes from, too. To Denevan, these are more than fancy farm dinners; sharing a communal meal with a chance to talk to the farmer who grew or raised the contents of your plate is a new way to present and change local food culture. When the dinners became popular enough to tour, it offered an opportunity to influence our national food culture as a whole.
The average day in the life of an Outstanding in the Field crewmember is hard to pin down. With dinners nearly every day, the crew of "culinary carnies" often wakes up on an entirely new farm, after camping out in their vintage 1953 tour bus. Every day is a puzzle to solve, sometimes without all the pieces. The first order of business, besides checking which rentals have arrived and which need to be tracked down, is picking the spot for that night's meal. The perfect place will be able to successfully communicate the farm's nature to each diner and, when possible, offer a spectacular view.
At a recent dinner at Branched Oak Farm in Raymond, Nebraska (whose cheeses were recently featured in Saveur), guests arrived for an early-evening cocktail hour and began snacking on tête de cochon with roasted apricots and honeyed cornbread with salumi while exploring the farm. From there, everyone was ushered to the long table to enjoy a multi-course meal complete with wine pairings (the wine is typically the only part of the meal not sourced locally).
At the Branched Oak dinner, fluffy balls of housemade burrata were placed atop slow roasted heirloom Nantes carrots and paired with Triennes 2008 Viognier Sainte Fleur. The night's main courses were stuffed rabbit saddle and grilled rabbit legs over a sweet corn, field bean, and beef bacon succotash, accompanied with a 2010 Valpolicella, followed by wood-grilled veal and boudin blanc over confit potatoes and oyster mushrooms with a 2008 Loire Valley Cabernet Franc. Dessert was a beautiful dish of purple raspberry tartlettes, roasted apricots, lavender cookies, and macerated red raspberries with the tiniest bit of juice seeping under dollops of the farm's virgin white quark whipped with honey. Instead of wine, dessert was paired with a local beer brewer's gingery saison.
What guests shouldn't expect are elaborately designed tables or fancily dressed servers. Every table is outfitted in a white scheme with clear glasses, allowing the chef a blank slate where their food's vibrant colors can be the centerpiece. The use of locals to assist in serving maintains the relaxed atmosphere, a translation of the idea that buying from your local producers should be an unintimidating and valuable process. Having knowledge regarding the source of your food, and being able to ask questions about it and receive clear answers is the not only one of the missions behind Outstanding in the Field, but also a good swath of the 'good food' movement.
Over the past two years, Outstanding in the Field has barely taken a season off, even traveling to Hawaii and Florida during the late winter to keep the message and food going. Dinners this past winter had tables nestled amongst the papaya trees and permaculture of Olana Organic Farm in Kilauea, Kauai, with a feast that included ahi poke nachos and lilikoi caviar, and an infinity table parallel to rows of peaking winter lettuce crops at Worden Farm in Punta Gorda, Florida, where the main entrée was alligator ribs. For the moment, Denevan is satisfied with spreading the gospel of local producers around the United States and Canada, allowing locals to come together over a meal to make connections with each other and their food, just as long as he has his home: the beloved tour bus.