In the brightest sunlight of the day, a crowd of strangers approaches a piece of unfamiliar farmland. There will be a tour of a barn most likely, maybe a look into a greenhouse, certainly a walk around a property that has seen hard work, and the definitely the opportunity to hear from the voice of a farmer.
This is an event outside the norm. As instinctive unease wears off and the hunger for a good meal grumbles, the table is revealed.
“From the artistic perspective, I’m always thinking of the composition of the table in the setting, like an artist looks at a canvas or a piece of music,” says Jim Denevan, founder of the travelling open-air pop-up dinner series Outstanding in the Field. “I go way overboard with placing the table in the environment.”
Jim Denevan is a chef and an artist in his own right, and those creative pursuits feed directly into his work with Outstanding in the Field .
“My artwork is about place, and especially time, where the compositions would be erased by tide or waves or the rain and the wind,” he says. His art is large format, temporary and tied inextricably to place.
In the 1990s, Jim worked as a chef in his hometown Santa Cruz, California, just five miles from his brother’s organic farm. Riding his bike to work everyday along the ocean, he simultaneously became excited about sharing the stories of ingredients’ origins and about drawing in the sand.
“I quickly became obsessed with making artwork on the way to work as a chef,” he says. “I was late to work a lot.”
But once Jim made it to work, he was fiercely dedicated to telling the stories of local agriculture. At his tiny restaurant Gabriella Café, the menu was handwritten daily with the names of the farmers written beside their produce. He invited the farmers to the restaurant.
“I just sort of sprung them on [the customers]. I wanted to make farming as interesting as it could be. I wanted to tell a story through the menu,” he says.
Thus, Outstanding in the Field was born in 1999.
Jim’s menus as a pioneering chef at Gabriella Café and the collaborative menus between guest chefs and host farmers at Outstanding in the Field dinners have always spoken to the season and the growers. The food on the table lingers on the meaningful relationship between the natural world and the social world that is easily lost.
“When we started there was no phrase farm to table, it didn’t really exist,” Jim says. “We had a lot of convincing to do.”
In 2015, Jim and his team will serve almost 12,000 people. In the history of the project, they have now traveled to over 10 countries and all 50 states, setting the table almost 100 times each year on the beach, under the apple orchards, on the hillside—where ever the food beckons.
Outstanding in the Field personally hosts the farmers, winemakers, foragers and artisans who are purely connected to the ingredients on the table. These are the stewards of the land that the general public must reconnect with; this is the point of it all. Being able to invite farmers to sit at the table alongside the general public is a built-in component of the price.
“It’s incredible to hear the stories of farmers across the country,” Jim says. “It’s very personal when someone is talking about the land they’ve worked on.”
Jim recognized from the beginning that there are more and more people, especially young people, who are getting into farming, and he needed to be part of supporting that growth. Outstanding in the Field set out to pay farmers just as much as share their stories.
“We were going to pay everybody for everything,” Jim says.
He is firm in his stance that this is not a charity. When farmers can’t feed themselves even though their work is about growing food, he sees a wrongdoing.
It’s all about getting more people, more consumers, to devote their dollars to small organic farmers. “You don’t have to convince anyone to participate anymore. That’s a cool change in culture,” he says with some pride. “There was a whole period of time where people were taken away from direct experience and simultaneously technology gained power.”
People are finally pushing back; there is an upsurge in yearning to be present. In the groups that dine with Outstanding in the Field, there is a tangible desire to use their senses in the physical world and to really know about the places where they live, from the best route to walk downtown to the farmers that supply their food locally.
Jim has seen this deeper sense of connection ignite in his guests. It’s the building of communities of diverse yet like-minded individuals that makes his events powerful for people across the globe.
“The interesting thing is that [Outstanding in the Field] does translate to other countries and that is related to greater questions of why people want this right now in our culture,” Jim says. “[The Japanese] love sitting communal style with strangers, finding that they have common humanity. Real connection really touches people.”