It doesn’t matter if you’re dining under canopies of cascading vines on a Tuscan hillside or unwrapping sandwiches at a dusty roadside truck stop. Eating alfresco is one of the few privileges that still breathes life into the old adage, “The best things in life are free.”
The British do it in the rain and New Yorkers to the sound of cabs honking. The Mediterraneans shut up shop for half a day to make sure they can savor lunch in the peace of a sun-dappled village square.
There’s something life-affirming about eating with the elements. And it was the same earthy spirit that drove Jim Denevan to take to the road with an 80-foot pop-up table and the Hollywood-high hopes that, wherever he laid it, a whole lot of people he’d never met before would come and join him for dinner.
“My brother was one of the pioneering organic farmers in California,” says Denevan, “and as a chef, when we started Outstanding in the Field in 1999, it was from an appreciation of the culture of agriculture, of good farms and farmers. People buy tickets for music events based on the songs. I thought that creating and growing good food was culturally significant and people would enjoy experiencing that.”
Since then he’s lured an improbable mix of personalities to sit together for starlit suppers on praiseworthy farms. Banquets of the unexpected, these are feasts where highflying CEOs chew the cud with farmers, celebrities share appetizers with locals, and chefs swap notes with wine connoisseurs, all inadvertently breaking down a truckload of social barriers in the process.
His linen-draped table are always perfectly set, the settings are always impressive, and Denevan is a nice guy. But it’s not the moon, stars, or his company that people come flocking for… it’s his ethics. Because Denevan isn’t just inviting you for dinner, he’s inviting you to put some thought into your dinner.
Hosting nomadic dinner parties in a roadshow of different organic farms is an increasingly popular way to advocate sustainable farming — not to mention promote the health benefits and gourmet advantages of freshly foraged ingredients. But Denevan’s dinners, appropriately christened “Outstanding,” live up to their name by making sure that everything, down to the last ingredient, is touched by the hand of an artisan in love with their craft.
Denevan invites local food luminaries from the area’s finest restaurants to prepare each meal. And the best of the best chefs can’t wait to join in and serve up what seems like the most palatable and exciting argument yet for eating environmentally enlightened local fare.
As for Denevan himself, teaching food-to-table principles, turning people into locavores and saving the planet with an instinctive style and easy sophistication isn’t enough. Among his many crusades, the one that matters most to him is celebrating the unsung heroes in his field… farmers first, then chefs, butchers, bakers, cheese, and sausage makers, and all the other food-centric artisans out there.
There was a time when suppliers were ushered through the back door of restaurants in a cloak-and-dagger effort to keep up front-of-house appearances. Not so in the gourmet food-focused eateries of today.
“It’s a real cultural shift,” says Denevan. “Farmers feel like people want to listen to them now.” Having placed the farmer center stage at every one of his events and persistently celebrated their efforts by inviting them to talk, Denevan is proud to take a little credit for the turnaround.
“I think the work that we’ve done has been successful in elevating cultural perceptions of the farmer and the ingredients they produce for creative chefs. When we first started Outstanding no one had asked farmers to talk about their trade before. We did, and then we couldn’t stop them. They’d found their voice and an audience who were enjoying their food.
“We always invite the farmers, vendors, and workers to eat at the dinners as our guests. It’s been great seeing the CEO of Google or the guy who owns Netflix chatting away with the man who grew what was on their plate or the chef that cooked it.”
But the biggest lovefest of all is between the chef and farmer. “Once they meet, it’s hard to get a word in.”
With virtuous farms as their pantry and Denevan’s almost biblical white table as a canvas, celebrated chefs like Melissa Perello, Brian Malarkey, Paul Virant, Mary Dumont, Dan Kluger, and Food Republic co-founder Marcus Samuelsson have been queuing up to take part in the story.
And it’s hardly surprising. When you consider the subtext of just one of Denevan’s dinners, you start to see the poetry in his picnics.
Take away every one of the ethical, sustainable, social, creative, and philosophical undercurrents at play and you still have the kind of night you’ll want to remember for ever. Staring out at the bucolic beauty of the farm, reconnecting with the earth, sharing the very best freshly prepared food with fascinating people all looking to the future… perhaps that’s Denevan’s most potent lesson of all.
And with 87 dinners in eight countries lined up this year, if Denevan has anything to do with it, he’ll be coming to a farm near you very soon.