Come January 6, a group called Outstanding in the Field, in cahoots with chef Alejandro Pinero of Sustain Restaurant + Bar and farmer Hani Khouri, will hold one of its sensational outdoor farm dinners at Hani's Mediterranean Organics in the Redlands. I spoke with founding chef Jim Denevan about how he got started, his sweaty dinner with Michael Schwartz, and why farm meals in Europe last a lot longer than the ones here.
But really, a look at a video shot for this roving culinary food circus, along with photos taken after the flip, gives a real sense of the spectacular staging involved (from sea caves to mountain tops to between tall rows of corn). On the other hand, you have to attend the dinner to see how delicious farm-fresh food can taste in the hands of a talented chef.
Denevan organized the his first farm dinner in his hometown of Santa Cruz, California. That was back in 1999, and he was a chef "in one of those restaurants that was putting the names of farms on the menu. One of my older brothers was a farmer, and I had worked on farms as a kid. What I thought was interesting about being a chef was the creativity that comes with the ingredients, the source of the ingredients, and the story behind the ingredients. People were becoming more interested in where their food comes from, but there wasn't much knowledge about the farmers or farms. So I thought the moment was right for the farm-to-table idea -- or I guess it's table-to-farm -- and was thinking that I wanted to push in that direction."
He did three events the first year around his home county, then expanded to include the San Francisco area. The next year it was New York ("that was with Dan Barber (Blue Hill Farm) as guest chef"). In 2005, "we bought the bus and basically barnstormed across the country."
At this point, Outstanding in the Field has been to 39 states and staged over 400 dinners. "This past year was our biggest ever," says Denevan. "We staged 87 dinners and served over 12,000 people."
Many of those attending are repeat customers, and "at least 30%" come from outside of the hosting area. When Denevan mentions people who follow the bus around the country and eat at multiple events, I ask if they aren't, like, groupies.
"Well, we joke about them being groupies," he admits, "or Fieldheads -- like Deadheads."
The Michael Schwartz-hosted dinner occurred in 2008. "I think Michael's one of the better chefs in the country. He did an amazing job," Jim recalls. But the meal took place on an especially toasty last week of October. "A lot of folks were saying it was a really nice day, but it was too warm, really, to be outdoors. So this time we decided to come back when the weather is a little cooler."
They have sold 59 tickets so far, and expect to have 120 at the table. "That's 100 sold tickets," says Denevan, who explains that while they might charge more than other people charge, it's because "we always hold back twenty or so seats so we can include the farmers at the table -- along with the beekeepers, cheesemakers, fishermen, and people like that. They tell their stories to everybody."
In Jim's eyes, the opportunity for farmers and others who produce food to connect with diners and share their experiences is what Outstanding in the Field is all about (besides, of course, great food and wine).
Denevan recently returned from taking his series overseas to ten countries, where certain aspects of American dining proved, um, foreign. In some regions, for instance, diners were used to having their big meal at a different time of day, while in others the folks weren't real comfortable with the concept of family-style platters. Most noticeably, though, the farm dinners in Europe stretched out over a longer period of time.
"They really don't think dinner is over until everybody has had a cup of coffee," Denevan says with a hint of exasperation. "So we had coffee, and everybody would stand around with their coffee and saucer and be chatting the night away."
There likely will not be coffee at Hani's farm, but if it's like any of the preceding 400 dinners, the meal will yield just the sort of ebullient experience to start your new year off properly.
The Outstanding in the Field dinner takes place at Hani's at 3 p.m. on Friday, January 6, 2012.
Price is $190 per person, which includes wine and hors d'ouerve reception, tour of the farm, four-course wine-paired meal, and all gratuities. You can reserve a seat by going to Outstanding in the Field. Thinking of a creative holiday gift for your foodie friends? Wouldn't you know it: There are OitF gift certificates for sale.
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