Monday, August 31, 2009
September 3, 2009
It must be nice: Spend your summers traveling around the country, sampling the finest regional wines, eating the best locally-grown meats, cheeses, and vegetables prepared by the best local chefs, chatting it up with vintners, small farmers, and swooning gourmands. And make a living from it too.
Such is the life of Jim Denevan and the crew of Outstanding in the Field, a moveable feast that has delighted the palates of thousands of people from California to Maine for a decade. If you've got 200 bucks and the foresight to book your reservation months in advance, you'll have a dining experience you'll never forget. Jim has sixty of those every season.
It must be nice.
Last Sunday afternoon, a couple hundred folks came to La Plaza Cultural, a block-long community garden in the East Village, for something to eat and drink. After a glass or two of brut-brut Chardonnay champagne from Wolffer Estate Vineyards on Long Island and hors d'oeuvres of heirloom cherry tomatoes skewered with fresh mozzarella and basil, the group gathers around Jim, six-foot-four with straw hat on head and wine glass in hand, who tells of his adventures on the culinary road and of what to expect today. He's followed by Beatriz Arremony, a lithe and lovely cheesemonger whose husband Dennis is president of the garden's association, who relates the story of La Plaza, which twenty years ago was a drug-infested vacant lot and now is a paradise of flowers and fruit trees.
And then it's time to really eat. The guests seat themselves at tables stretching half the length of the garden, and then it comes, on big platters, the work of chef Josh Eden, owner of Shorty's 32 in the Village: tangy greens and grilled vegetables with a lemon-thyme dressing, and a semisweet Tokai wine; then some spicy grilled shrimp and Swiss chard, and a bone-dry Riesling; then honey-glazed grilled rack of pork with garlicky green beans and fluffy mashed potatoes, and a big Cabernet Franc; then (can there be more?) dessert of strawberries in half-whipped cream and a sweet late-harvest Chardonnay — all from local producers. With every course, the volume of talk increases, and by the end of the evening strangers are now friends, business cards are exchanged, and the guests crowd around Jim to render most hearty thanks for four hours of pure perfection.
Jim Denevan grew up surfing in Santa Cruz, taught himself to cook at age 17, and worked as a chef in several area restaurants until he got the idea of taking his show on the road. Catching the wave of interest in local and regional foods, his concept was simple: outdoor dinners at small farms and urban gardens, cooked up by local chefs and interspersed with brief talks from the farmers, the bread- and cheese-makers, and the other food artisans that produced it all.
That's how I got into it.
Four years ago, when Outstanding was about to hit the big- time in New York City, Jim made the rounds of our community gardens, snipping bunches of herbs and twisting off tomatoes and eggplants for his organic extravaganza. When he got to Genesis Park Community Garden here in the South Bronx, he discovered my beehives and invited me to supply honey and attend the dinner to talk about urban beekeeping. In years past, the honey was drizzled on the desserts; this year it ended up as a crusty glaze on the pork — hardly a better use for it.
The best thing about the food is that by necessity it must be simple as well as extraordinary; it's prepared on the spot, on huge charcoal grills and atop propane stoves. You take one look at these dishes and say to yourself, "I can do that." No Julia or Julie here.
It's a hell of a job to serve 200 people, and one outstanding part of the Outstanding dinners is how effortlessly they are done, thanks to the preternatural organizational ability of Katy Oursler, who has been coordinating these events since 2003. Unfailingly cheerful and continuously calm, she's the quintessential maître d', moving among the tables and chatting with the guests as if she'd known them all her life. Her staff of waiters, osmosing her own disposition, work the tables enthusiastically, keeping the platters filled and the wine flowing.
Jim Denevan sees these dinners as his mission in life. They are, he told Howie Kahn in an interview for GQ magazine, "the story of thousands of years of people bringing in the harvest, gathering it at a table, and breaking bread.... I think giving people the chance to share the table with all the characters involved in the process is something that might change culture."
Outstanding in the Field dinners, scheduled from May through October, come frequently to California — mostly in the north, with several in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. This year Jim is venturing further south, holding two events at the Wattles Farm in Hollywood in October, both sold out. For background and the list of venues (2010's will be posted early next year), visit the website, www.outstandinginthefield.com.