Text by Joshua David Stein
Images courtesy of Emily Hagen, Brighton Denevan, and Ilana Freddye
Twenty years ago, Jim Denevan had a simple idea. A burnt-out restaurant chef from northern California, Denevan wondered if there might not be a better way to deliver food to people than through the pressure-filled aperture of a restaurant. “I had just read Tony Bourdain’s ‘Kitchen Confidential,’” he tells me, “and I was fed up with the idea of chefs as swashbuckling, drug-taking a–holes.” What he wanted was more joy, more space, more connection. His solution was a roving dinner party composed of (mostly) strangers in exquisite locations (often fields) called Outstanding in the Field. (One of his first events was for a hundred diners in a sea-side cave in Half Moon Bay, CA.) Each dinner was a virtuosic feat of logistical bravado and culinary bravura. Twenty years on, both are on display, though the field has gotten much larger.
“It’s become a little bit more stable,” Denevan says. Instead of three or four events a year, this season consists of hundreds, and most unfurl not upon topologically suspect perches but in actual farmer’s fields. They stretch literally around the globe from the rolling hills of Blue Moon Community Farm in Stoughton, WI, to the small organic farm Tenuta San Carlo in Grosseto, Tuscany to a field kitchen in Accra, Ghana. “We have a schedule of 25,000 tickets,” Denevan says proudly. Most sell out.
A typical Outstanding in the Field evening finds an extremely long, impressively long, Dr. Seussian-long table, fully set with wine glasses that gleam in the sunlight and plates in precise order atop a hemp and linen tablecloth. Sometimes the table is in a straight line, as it was in a sunflower field in Plato, MN. Sometimes it snakes to mimic the contours of the landscape, as it did at a secret sea cove in San Mateo, CA. (Denevan, apart from running Outstanding in the Field, is a land artist in the vein of Andrew Goldsworthy or Maya Lin.) Guests arrive—events usually max out at 160 people and cost around $385 per person—in the afternoon, glowing with anticipation, exuding good health. Women wear flowing floral dresses and wide hats. Men wear various pastel shades and light slacks. There are shoes but rarely socks. It’s a vibe. “I want the guests to be overwhelmed by the magic and beauty of the circumstance and put their phone down and concentrate on the menu, the surroundings and the story telling,” says Denevan. “They can’t help but soak it up. “
In the early years, it was Denevan himself lugging tables into the field. Now, although he still attends about 60 percent of the events, he says there’s a team of close to 100 people who help. His mission remains undimmed. “The table is both a driver of culture and a portrait of contemporary culture,” he says, “It feels good that finally the cultural moment is recognizing what we’ve been doing since 1999.” And that moment has in turn allowed Outstanding in the Field to increase its breadth and scope in terms of both chefs and locations. This season features chefs like Fatmata Binta from Ghana’s Fulani Test kitchen cooking in a field kitchen in Accra.
But what has given Outstanding in the Field longevity isn’t simply Denevan’s penchant for location selection. The caliber of chefs and farmers on whom he is able to draw include some of the best in the world. In past seasons, for instance, chefs included Francis Ang, of San Francisco’s Filipino restaurant Abacawho, who cooked at the 50,000 acre Richardson Ranch; and Julien Hawkins of Austin’s live-fire hotspot Hestia, who fired up the grill at Willie Nelson’s “Luck, TX” ranch. Both restaurants recently won spots on Esquire’s “Best New Restaurants” list. Denevan’s own background as a chef, as well as his close partnership with the farmers in whose fields his events unfold, helps in recruiting the talent. What attracts the chef willing, as he puts it, “to endure all the hassles” of lugging equipment around into a makeshift kitchen is a feeling of bonhomie. “There are two things chefs want,” Denevan says, “ they want to cook at the James Beard House and Outstanding in the Field. The James Beard House is a temple among chefs. But Outstanding in the Field is a sense that, now, I’m among my people.”
Other Nomadic Dining Clubs
Although Outstanding in the Field is one of the first of its kind, now that fine dining has been liberated from the four walls of restaurants, other companies have popped up curating once-in-a-lifetime experiences around the world. Here are three of our favorites:
A smaller outfit founded in 2015, Secret Supper adds to the surprise by keeping the location of the supper… secret until just 24 hours before the event. (It is within two hours drive from the listed city.) Events are on the smaller side, about 50 to 60 people, and cost $249 per person. A recent supper, in partnership with Peroni, offered at “Taste of Italy” over five courses from chefs Mia Castro, Ashley Rodriguez, and Jodi Moreno in Miami, Los Angeles, and New York, respectively.
The brainchild of culinary ambassador Kristian Brask Thomsen, Dining Impossible started as an exclusive dinner party and has since morphed into DI:JET, a four day global tour aboard a private jet to some of the world’s best restaurants. Price is available upon request.
Last Supper Society
Sacramento-based Last Supper Society was founded by Byron Hughes and Ryan Royster and celebrates the intersection of art and food in various locales in northern California like an intimate artist dinner at Casino Mine Ranch, a vineyard in Plymouth, CA.