Because everyone's doing farm to table these days, artist/chef Jim Denevan is bringing the table to the farm—and to the park, the beach, the sea cave...or wherever your heart desires to dine.
If you've ever found yourself pulling up a chair at a table for 200 in a glorious outdoor setting, then chances are you already know of Outstanding in the Field, the traveling open-air supper series founded by Denevan in 1999 with the goal to connect folks to the farmers who grow their food and to the land from whence it came. Over nearly two decades, Denevan has staged more than 800 dinners in 13 countries; this fall and winter promise magical meals in the foothills of Japan's Mt. Fuji, Chile, and Argentina.
To call Denevan a globetrotter would be to understate the case: The Santa Cruz native spends spring and summer scouting worldwide locations for his pop-up dinners; the rest of the year, he's everywhere from Black Rock, Nevada to Australia and Siberia drawing artworks in the sand and snow. Just man and stick and many hours come together to create beautiful patterns that will soon be washed away with the tide or swept away in the wind. His jaw-dropping creations have been commissioned by the likes of MoMA PS1 and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
An example of Denevan's sand art in Black Rock Desert.(Courtesy of jimdenevan.com)
His incredible artistic streak aside, Denevan seems to have food in his DNA. Growing up in Santa Cruz, the teenage Jim worked on his older brother's organic apple farm and began working in restaurant kitchens at age 17. He eventually came to run the kitchen at Gabriella Café, where he would host farm dinners for his staff. This was the early beginning of Outstanding in the Field.
Like his artworks, Denevan's dinners are over the top and rooted in nature, designed for 100 to 200 guests who all sit at one long communal table for a five-hour family-style feast. There are often also guided tours of the host properties, as well as talks with the farm and chefs (a recent dinner at Sonoma's Scribe Winery featured the chef from San Francisco's Aaxte). This summer, there are dinners planned in Sacramento at Capay Organic Farms, and also in Temecula, Santa Cruz, St. Helena, and more.
We caught up with Denevan to find out more about Outstanding in the Field.
An Outstanding in the Field dinner.
What inspired you to start Outstanding in the Field?
I was cooking in Santa Cruz through the 90s, and at Gabriella Cafe I'd go to the farmers market twice a week and I'd write the menu. I often would take staff to visit farms and we'd have dinner there. The idea would be to show them where the food comes from, so they could take that into restaurant and talk about the experience. This was the genesis of it.
How do you find your locations?
Back in the early days, the research aspect was huge. At this point, it's crowdsourced—a lot of it is the notable chefs are who interested in what we do, and they suggest where to go.
How has OITF changed over the years?
In the beginning, there was a lot of pushback. People would say that it's too expensive and that it wasn't going to work. Now, 16 years later, we have regulars and people who understand the value and want an experience.
Where would you most like to stage a dinner?
Two places: There's a cave in Vietnam that has an underground river that opens up into a sandbar—I think the ceiling of the cave is 600-feet tall. You would have to bring tables and chairs on peoples backs and people would have to hike in—that's my greatest dream. The other would be on the hills of Sapa in northern Vietnam, with all the incidental land art all around.
Tacos or Burritos?
Dolores Park or Golden Gate Park?
We did an event in Dolores Park in 2008 with Slow Food—we set up 200 chairs, so I'd have to say DP.
Bike or Muni?
Bike for sure
East Bay or North Bay?
I'm gonna have to go for east bay. Just the mix of culture and have some good friends out there.
Happy hour or brunch?
I'm gonna go for brunch.
Divisadero or Valencia?
Valencia – one of the guys I mentored opened a restaurant there. (The restaurant is Blue Plate).
Three words that describe your life?
Moving. Stopping. Savoring.