A traveling, pop-up feast, Outstanding in the Field joins food purveyors with the communities they sustain. Jen Murphy pulls up a chair and revels in the gorgeous, alfresco experience
Photography by Jennifer Olson
Jim Denevan could be considered a culinary rock star. Each summer Denevan and his small crew — glorified roadies — crisscross the country in a 1950s bus named Outstanding, putting on dinners at a different farm, sometimes nightly. A local chef and farmer headline and tickets sell out in seconds, even at $200 to $250 a pop. His tour has earned a cult following of what Denevan refers to as “Fieldheads,” foodies who follow his Outstanding in the Field roadshow attending 10-plus events a season.
To throw a dinner party in a field and celebrate not the chef, but rather the farmer, was a novel idea in 1999. The farm-to-table movement was still in its infancy and no one had heard of a pop-up restaurant. Yet Denevan, then a chef at a restaurant in northern California, cooked three dinners that summer on farms in his hometown of Santa Cruz, California. He hosted two more in 2000, then cooked seven meals in 2002 and eight in 2003. In 2004 he left the restaurant business to tour North America. “People said, sure you can hold a dinner on a farm in California, but try the rest of the country,” Denevan recalls. To date, he’s hosted more than 700 dinners in all 50 states and nine countries.
In the early days, Denevan cooked all of the meals himself, working with the farmers to create a menu straight from the land. A few years in, he started collaborating with chefs such as Dan Barber of New York’s Blue Hill Stone Barns and David Kinch of Manresa in Los Gatos, California. “I once had a chef tell me he had two dreams: One was to cook at the James Beard House. The other was to cook at an Outstanding in the Field event,” says Denevan. “That still humbles me.”
Preparing for an Outstanding in the Field dinner is an all-day proposition. I arrive at Plowshares Community Farm in Longmont, Colorado, just before noon. The sun is high and hot in the sky. Tory Hancock, the farm manager, introduces herself, points me to the crew, then quickly excuses herself to go work in the fields. The small organic farm, run by four women, is known for its Berkshire pork but also grows heirloom vegetables, including rainbow carrots, torpedo onions and fairy tale eggplant. Chef Steve Redzikowski and his team from Boulder’s popular restaurant Oak at Fourteenth are busy prepping many of these vegetables for tonight’s meal. Cutting boards are piled high with carrots and beets, and Flintstones-sized cuts of pork are roasting slowly on the grill.
A communal table stretches alongside a babbling stream just off to the side of the fields and is set for 110 guests. Denevan, 54, wanders over from an afternoon nap and joins me. He wears dark denim jeans with a gray V-neck T-shirt that shows off his tanned, sun-speckled arms and hides behind the brim of straw cowboy hat. I expect him to talk about the dinners, but instead he takes out his phone and shows me photos of his art. His large-scale, temporary sand drawings have earned him a following in the art world. He’s been hired by brands such as Hyundai and created a work at the 2015 Art Basel Miami fair. Commissions, he confides, largely helped fund Outstanding in the Field early on. “A lot of people ask if I’m sad when the ocean or wind washes away my work,” he says. “It’s like a meal, you create it to be enjoyed in the moment, not to last forever.”
Guests start to arrive, plates in hand. Ever since the first Outstanding in the Field dinner, Denevan has asked guests to bring their own plates. “It’s a nod to the tradition of everyone bringing something to the table,” he explains. Bearded hipsters from Denver don suspenders and flat caps. Women tiptoe along in espadrilles, and some have even dared to wear heels. Guests mingle under the shade of a large cottonwood tree where Bryan Dayton, cocktail wizard and co-owner of Oak at Fourteenth, has set up the bar and is pouring glasses of Denver’s Infinite Monkey Theorem rosé. I sip a refreshing cocktail named Monk’s Garden, made from Thai basil-and-tarragon-infused Bear Creek Distillery vodka, muddled cucumber and green Chartreuse.
The hour-long reception features a tangy, basil-spiked gazpacho made with carrots from the fields just steps away. Two women struggle to balance plates of grilled squash and ricotta crostini as they take a selfie in front of the pigpen. Denevan steps up onto a crate and welcomes the crowd. When Denevan asks how many people have traveled from another state, more than half of the hands go up. “How about another country?” he queries. A group of Aussies give out a cheer. The audience is in rapture as Denevan retells his story. When he references collaborating with San Francisco’s Delfina restaurant and blanks on the chef’s name, a woman in the crowd quickly offers up, “Craig Stoll!” — then admits, “I’m a food nerd.”
Most of the crowd tends to be food nerds. “Sometimes I feel like my yearly schedule revolves around two things: Thanksgiving and the release of Outstanding in the Field tickets,” admits Brie De Felice, who has attended five Outstanding in the Field dinners.
Eva Teague, the owner of Plowshares, and Hancock take to the crates. Teague had been wearing cutoff jean shorts and driving a tractor just hours before but is now dolled up in a sundress and cowgirl boots. You’d never guess this slim young woman is the head farmer, unless you looked closely and noticed the soil under her fingernails. “Let’s see some pigs before feasting,” Hancock yells. A farm tour ensues.
Each section of table is divided into groups of eight. I clink glasses with my seatmates, all foodies from the Denver area. Our waiter introduces himself as Sequoia from Santa Cruz and delivers the first course, a heaping platter of Anson Mills farro tossed with roasted squash from nearby Red Wagon Farm, basil pesto, baby kale and toasted hazelnuts. “I could eat this every night,” sighs Megan Casimir, who is here with her husband, Jeff. This is the young couple’s third Outstanding in the Field dinner. The table debates the best Mexican restaurant in Denver as Sequoia refills our wineglasses and brings over the next course, a salad of roasted carrots, beets, mozzarella and arugula, dressed in an ancho chile vinaigrette. Denevan later announces that Redzikowski is one of his favorite chefs to work with because he deeply understands what the food should be — simple, fresh, flavorful and of the place.
In true Colorado style, guests a few seats down pass around a joint. Through the cloud of pot smoke I catch a delicious porky aroma. Jeff Casimir volunteers to carve the massive pork shoulder and marvels at the perfect crust. I serve the accompanying purple and yellow potatoes, onions and green beans. Strangers moments before, we’re now passing plates and sharing stories like longtime friends.
As if scripted, a glowing blue moon rises into the sky. Denevan and his crew pose for a photo in front of an old orange tractor. As the last guests drive away, I clink wineglasses with Denevan and ask if he ever gets tired of life on the road. “We get to explore the country through food, through small farms,” he says. “How could that ever be tiring?”
Get Your Tickets
To see a full list of Outstanding in the Field’s upcoming events, visit outstandinginthefield.com.