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Outstanding in the Field

July 27, 2010

I’ve wanted to interview Jim Denevan, the creative genius behind Outstanding in the Field for ages now. His culinary troupe goes beyond just farm to table by literally bringing the table to the farm. With food events criss-crossing America, stops in Europe slated for 2011, and tickets selling out in hours, this is one dining experience that’s a must when in a town near you.

I’m thrilled to finally be able to post my interview with Jim, in which we chat about charming venues, adventurous eaters, and geographical salts.

dp (danapop) I’m fascinated by the Outstanding in the Field concept, what made you initially come up with it?

oitf (outstanding in the field) I worked at a conventional, popular, interesting restaurant in Santa Cruz and we’d go to the farmers market twice a week and meet the farmers there and also my brother is a farmer, so I was very familiar with farms and farming.

We started farmer dinners at the restaurant and the whole menu was organized around one particular farm with the farmer getting to talk about their work. The dinners were really interesting and people wanted to hear what the farmer had to say.

That was an eye-opener, and that was in the late ‘90s. Then in the summer of ‘99 we took the dinner to a farm. It was very exciting, it went very well, but it became less of a struggle as people became more interested in learning about a farm and having a meal on a farm. Basically in the last 3 years I’ve seen that culturally people throughout the country were ready for this experience.

dp What do you think Outstanding in the Field brings to the culinary and dining scene?

oitf I think it’s fun and it’s also stimulating from a culinary perspective. It would be outstanding as in the best we could find throughout the country. We work with some of the better chefs. It mixes up people’s expectations and I think the concept of a conventional restaurant was a little tired. The whole idea of supperclubs and underground restaurants are examples of doing something out of the ordinary and unusual. People want to be a little more adventurous, really.

dp Do you think farm to table is an overused phrase? A trend?

oinf The farm to table is a little buzzy and mushy, where it used to be a little clearer. Now, you can really use that word to describe anything.

You can’t get anymore direct, or literal and real than taking a table right into the farm. That’s the new phrase, table to farm (laughing).

dp How do you select and scout locations for a tour stop? How do you come up with the menu?

oitf First the location has to be charming and beautiful. Really it comes down to the farmer and their story and cultivation of land for food.

There’s orchards, dairy operations, the sea cove ones. Whatever we find along the way we try to include. There are always more people at the table than just the fisherman or the farmer, there’s the winemaker or local cheese maker, beekeepers.

We brought in guest chefs about 5 years ago. I do the first event of the year every year in California and then the theme from that is to bring in another local chef when we travel across the country. Which is interesting in terms of ingredients and venues.

dp You kind of touched on it a bit, but beyond the remoteness, who comes up with the overall look of an event?

oitf I’m the concept guy. The table shouldn’t be seen when the guests arrive. It should be behind a row of trees. It should be in this spectacular site. I get pretty darn obsessive about that. I really like to have it in the most pleasant place it can be on the farm.

dp I know you live in Santa Cruz as a base, what does California (and its state of mind) bring to your life and business?

oitf People are definitely marching to their own drummer at times. I think here they embrace instead of question things. Across the country there’s more farm to table than in the Bay area. I think people are pretty excited throughout the country, I don’t see it as an east coast west coast thing at this point. Things are changing.

dp I hear (and have also seen) that you are quite the artist. How do you balance Outstanding in the Field with your art?

oitf My season for doing art is about November through the middle of March, through the winter. Outstanding in the Field takes places from the first day in May until late October, so it fits in perfectly really.

dp What gadget, spice, product, or technique is getting you excited these days?

oitf As elemental as it is and somewhat boring, I really like salt. I think it’s kind of a fun like wine from a certain place and such. It’s a fun geographic specific thing.

As for a gadget, a chef thinks about the knives first.