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A Moveable Feast

Chef Jim Denevan's Outstanding in the Field offers alfresco dining down on the farm.

Author Gillian Telling Photography Andrea Wyner

“WHO ORDERED THE WEATHER?” someone says to no one in particular, as clusters of strangers mill about in a disorderly line waiting to get a cucumber, mint and gin cocktail provided by a local distiller called Death’s Door Spirits. Everyone murmurs in agreement: The weather is amazing-sunny, clear, breezy. The roving outdoor dining outfit Outstanding in the Field has, on this early August afternoon, alighted on the property of West Star Farms, seven miles outside of Madison, Wisconsin. From our perch near the makeshift hilltop bar, everyone watches as a table for 140 is set up in a field below, a bright white tablecloth snaking in between deep green rows of lettuce, scarlet carrots and corn. As gourmet meals go, this tips the scales of casual and pleasant.

“Everyone who brought a plate, please leave them over here!” calls out Katy Oursler, the special events director for the company. As an OITF novice, I didn’t come equipped. I ask the woman in line in front of me if it’s okay. “Oh, sure,” she says. “It just makes for a prettier table if everyone brings a different plate.” (Plus, you bring it home with you when dinner is over, saving the organizers from having to rent flatware or haul it around in the old bus with which they tour the nation. Smart.)

Piles of baguette rounds, sour cherries and three different types of goat cheese have been set out. I fill up a napkin and dig into some of the best chèvre I’ve ever eaten, insisting the women ahead of me try some. But they already know; they made it just three days earlier. Anne Topham and Judy Borree from Fantôme Farm, just down the road, have been producing small batches of the stuff since 1984. With just 14 goats, they sell only locally. “We don’t want to get bigger,” Topham says. “We like staying small. We’re like the opposite of the American dream.” They’re here because tonight’s guest chef, Tory Miller from L’Etoile restaurant in Madison, has been religiously serving their cheese from the first time he tried it, and it plays a part in tonight’s menu. “I love it,” he says, stopping by and saying hello to Topham, who is nicknamed the Godmother of Goat Cheese. “I haven’t found anything I didn’t like it on.” At this point, Oursler and OITF founder Jim Denevan gather everyone around a barn silo to meet our host farmer for the evening and learn about this event, which costs $180 per person.

Ten years ago, as the executive chef at Gabriella Café in Santa Cruz, Denevan was using only locally harvested organic produce long before it became de rigueur. He’d regularly shop for the day’s ingredients at the farmers market, where he chatted up the farmers about their jobs and how they cultivated their crops. Denevan was familiar with farm life; his brother, a hippie 15 years his senior, owns an organic apple farm in nearby Santa Cruz, where Denevan worked during the summers as a teenager. (Bill Denevan was one of the country’s first officially certified organic farmers.)

It dawned on Jim that others might also enjoy knowing how their food was made and where it was coming from, especially since this wasn’t the massproduced fare most of us are used to, but painstakingly grown, cured, churned or raised by hardworking farmers who love and cherish their products. And so he began regular farm nights in 1997, inviting the suppliers of his ingredients to come in and talk about how their harvested bounty landed on the customers’ plates. These farm dinners were such a success that Denevan decided to take the show outdoors, literally setting tables up at the farms themselves. Outstanding in the Field has now spawned multiple copycat ventures, but the original remains the most popular.

Over the years, Denevan has held dinners at any number of magnificent locations: hidden seaside coves, on cliffs overlooking abalone farms, on an island in the Puget Sound where the tide lapped at guests’ feet, in vineyards and orchards and at over 100 organic farms and community gardens around the U.S. Next, Denevan and his team will go global, with dinners in places such as Bali, Italy, Spain, France, Australia and New Zealand.

Because the main goal is to bring the food providers and the guests together, much of each evening is spent meeting and learning about the artisans who provide the food and drinks, and of course, the farm on which the meal is served. “Let’s hear it for the farmer!” Denevan calls out, and everyone cheers as he introduces West Star’s George Kohn, a shy, Santa Claus- looking fellow in dungarees. Kohn recalls how he and his wife bought the 40-acre farm in ’93 and have come to grow around 90 varieties of crops, the majority of which are distributed among 76 families through the local community-supported agriculture group, or CSA. Kohn says he’s so serious about organic farming that if he has the slightest suspicion some crops were accidentally sprayed by the neighboring farm’s airplanes, he has them tested or just throws out the whole batch. He takes us on a complete tour of the farm, stopping to show us cucumber plants treated with a granular form of coyote scent “to keep out the raccoons.”

During the tour, it’s hard not to notice chef Tory Miller chopping multicolored tomatoes in his makeshift kitchen, which consists of two propane tanks and portable grills. The walk around the farm builds up our appetites, and everyone scrambles to the table when dinnertime is announced, free to grab chairs wherever they like.

“Hey, New York!” someone calls out in my direction. “Come sit over here!” My tablemate turns out to be an excitable film producer named Cody who lives in Minneapolis and keeps us all entertained with stories about growing up the son of Montana farmhands, not knowing until he was a teenager that vegetables could actually be bought in stores. The wine is poured liberally, and the first part of the five-course dinner comes out familystyle, in a big bowl: West Star Farm beets topped with Anne and Judy’s “La Roche” cheese, dressed with smoked almonds, white balsamic and wildflower honey.

This is followed by those bright tomatoes we eyed during the tour, topped with Willow Creek pork belly and arugula. The proprietors of Willow Creek roam around, talking about their business. One’s a fourth-generation hog farmer; the other has secret recipes for Polish kielbasa that have been passed down for more than 100 years. The belly is followed by their pork loin atop a sweet corn tamale with dark chocolate mole sauce, and after that comes another main dish of Fountain Prairie Farm ribeye. In between collective exclamations of “yum,” “mmm,” and “ohmygod you have to try this,” conversation is easygoing, 137 strangers bonding over the unique experience of eating well in such an unusual setting.

Meanwhile, the sun has set and a bright moon appears. Thousands of flickering fireflies surround us. Denevan, increasingly relaxed now that most of the work is done, chats with the guests about his life touring the country and setting up dinners. He stops at our section of the table and regales us with the tale of a recent dinner in Minneapolis, during which dessert had to be served in the greenhouse when a thunderstorm came out of nowhere and drenched the farm. “It was maybe the most phenomenal dinner ever,” he says. “We all stood in the greenhouse drinking wine and eating dessert as this incredibly intense storm engulfed us. We were all yelling and having a great time. And then it completely cleared up twenty-five minutes later.”

Denevan’s culinary adventure will continue stateside through December, when he’ll take a little winter break to toil over his large-scale public artworks (gigantic earthworks not unlike crop circles) and confer with Oursler on future OITF destinations. “It’s so exciting to see people have such enthusiasm for knowing where their food comes from,” he says. “It really brings meaning to the table. And everyone likes being outdoors. It’s just fun.”

GILLIAN TELLING’s favorite place to eat in New York is in her own Brooklyn backyard.

One Response to “A Moveable Feast”

  1. Damien Says:
    November 30th, 2009 at 6:45 pm

    Reading this article on a flight to Vermont made me smile twice. First, because it reminded me of a terrific evening I had this summer with the Outstanding in the Field folks at Seedling Farm in Michigan, and second, because the incredible storm that blew in was mentioned! Note that while the article says Minnesota, I assure you we were in Michigan along the shores of the lake. I have posted a few pictures I took with my phone of that evening here:

    http://picasaweb.google.com/damien.casten/OutstandingInTheFieldStorm#

    Thanks for the happy memory,

    Damien
    Chicago, IL