In 1999, Santa Cruz chef and artist Jim Denevan, who created large-scale drawings on sand, ice and earth, decided to stage a radical intervention to stale dining conventions. Instead of bringing farm-fresh ingredients to restaurants, he thought, why not bring diners to the fields where they could enjoy a communal meal and hear the farmer’s story.
Denevan set up long tables for a handful of events in the middle of some of the most stunning places in California, such as Secret Sea Cove in Santa Cruz, and called it Outstanding in the Field. Since then, OITF has developed a dedicated following known as “field heads” and now produces more than 100 multicourse feasts each season, from coast to coast across North America, in Mexico and around the world.
The feasts feature top chefs during the season, which runs from May through November. The events take place at vegetable farms, abalone farms, urban gardens, big-sky ranches, in olive groves, date gardens, on docks and beaches. In the past week, the event was at the Coachella Music Festival.
The culinary evenings featured such chefs as Bruce Kalman, Tyler Anderson, Shirley Chung and Brooke Williamson. The final evening, on Sunday, April 22, in the breezy Rose Garden of the Empire Polo Club under the palms, featured Sara Kramer and Sarah Hymanson from Kismet in L.A.
Guests were greeted with mezcal margaritas and appetizers of Clark Street bread, marinated feta with Beylik Farms tomato and Flying Disk Ranch grapefruit as well as a delectable kale tahini spread and harissa olives. The four-course meal was served family-style and started with Coleman Family Farms crunchy spring vegetables with preserved Buddha’s hand and almond aioli, grilled broccolini with pumpkin seeds, mint, citrus and Drake Family Farms goat cheese.
The main course featured chicken with grilled hen of the woods mushrooms, brown rice, Wong Farms green tomato and Kenter Canyon Farms dill. Dessert was a semolina cake with candied fennel and Tamai Family Farms strawberries.
Pinot noir, chardonnay and sparkling rosé of pinot noir from Scribe Vineyards flowed freely.
Cooking for 200 guests all at once in a foreign kitchen is a daunting task, and it may have been a bit overwhelming for Kramer and Hymanson. The two chefs declined any photos, weren’t doing press and didn’t come to the table to greet the diners as is customary, which puzzled some of the field heads. Nevertheless, it was such a friendly evening beside the neon palms with pounding tunes in the background that nobody even noticed the 3.9 earthquake centered inside Joshua Tree National Park.
Denevan’s first dinner, at a Santa Cruz farm, included about 60 guests, mostly friends. The longest table was at a November event last year just before Thanksgiving, which was the Grateful Table event. OITF paired with Visit California and San Francisco chef Tyler Florence to raise funds and awareness for victims of the wine country wildfires. The table was set for 500 people in a vineyard straddling the Sonoma/Napa county line.
So how did this grow from a local pastime to international experience? “I just thought the moment was right to create a beautiful, delicious example of the OITF concept. I always believed from that first table that the idea might catch on and thrive anywhere and everywhere, and I was determined that the vision would come true,” Denevan tells L.A. Weekly. “I could see an experience like OITF could become popular if I put everything I had into making it happen. My connections with farmers (my brother Bill Denevan is a notable organic farmer) and the farmer/chef community are a big part of what helped make it happen. And pictures of the table in beautiful places were another big element to show folks what we were doing.”
Next up: Four events in connection with the L.A. Times Food Bowl:
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Wednesday, May 16, 6 p.m., Grand Park, Los Angeles. Guest chefs: Charles Olalia, Ricebar; Chad & Chase Valencia, Lasa
Thursday, May 24, 4 p.m., Manhattan Beach (sold out). Guest chefs: Michael Cimarusti, Providence; Suzanne Goin, the Lucques Group; Walter Manzke, République; Josiah Citrin, Mélisse; David LeFevre, Fishing With Dynamite & M.B. Post; Michael Fiorelli, Love & Salt; Austin Cobb, The Strand House
Sunday, May 27, 4 p.m., Autonomy Farms, Bakersfield. Host farmer: Meredith Bell. Guest chefs: Bricia Lopez, Guelaguetza, L.A.; Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins, El Jardín, San Diego; Allison Osorio, Otium, L.A.
Monday, May 28, 4 p.m., Weiser Family Farms, Tehachapi. Host farmers: Alex Weiser, Weiser Family Farm; Jon Hammond, Linda Vista Ranch. Guest chef: Virgilio Martínez Véliz, Central and Mil, Lima, Peru http://www.outstandinginthefield.com