Chef and artist Jim Denevan has spent the last 15 years travelling across America and the rest of the world, throwing outdoor dinners in some of the most suggestive farms and fields that he would encounter. Putting together farmers and food lovers, he has created an international movement that reconnects fresh produce to its origins and makes diners reconsider their relationship with the land called Outstanding in the Field. We met with him a few days before his latest tour in July, to end in November after having visited 32 states and 3 Canadian provinces.
You are now at the beginning of a long dining tour that will end in November. Which are the highlights of the appointments to come?
I look forward to the unique combination of weather, seasons, and sites as we travel around North America. And also to see what each chef will do with the harvest from each place and how he or she will put the ingredients of the meal together. I like the challenges of the elements. Some of the excitement is being in nature and finding the perfect location for the table on an ever-changing farm. We might put the table along a river, in an orchard, on a hilltop or maybe in a barn or a greenhouse. Finding the perfect place depends on many factors: how warm the day is, how much wind there is, where the most beautiful or dramatic spot is located. Even though we're re-visiting some farms we've been to before, every visit is different; we don't know what the day will bring and how things will unfold.
You spent the last 15 years arranging dinners that bring people closer to nature. Was it different at the beginning?
Our events themselves are much the same in terms of the format and how each event proceeds. At the first dinner in 1999 we had people pick flowers along the farm tour to place on the table. It was nice, but we quickly decided we liked the blank slate of just the table without the flowers. With the abundance of food, the flowers got in the way. In terms of how people's perception of food and dining on the farm, things have changed completely in how OITF is perceived. No longer need to explain the concept of dining at a farm and why we're doing it. The world has changed in its appreciation for farms and farmers. People are ready and willing to come out to experience this kind of an event.
How do you source the locations and farmers for the dinners?
In the early days we did a lot of research and took trips to the field, walking through many farms. As the dinners have become popular, we now receive lots of inquires and suggestions of places we should visit and from chefs who might want to participate. With all this information, it's fun and interesting to consider how a tour might come together. Of course, we still do research beyond crowdsourcing to check places out. We're always excited to discover new places. You are a chef yourself.
Which is your favorite cooking ingredient and why?
My favorite ingredient is salt. May sound like a boring answer, but salt is elemental. Salt is the one ingredient that all chefs agree on as a necessity. What's interesting about salt, too, is that you can make or find it at any coastal location. And salt can also be found in inland areas. In Puget Sound one of the sous chefs made salt for the meal that was created by the waves splashing on the rocks at the shore's edge.
Outstanding in the Field is quite referential and it moves around people. Who are the people that in those last years have influenced your choices the most?
I'm influenced not so much those that are celebrated, i.e. the chefs and food personalities, as much as the unsung heroes - the farmers who may not be known to the general public but are celebrated in our events. People like Fred and Chris Thaxton of Thaxton Organic Garlic in Ohio, or cheese makers Joan and Pierre-Louis of Monteillet Fromagerie in Walla Walla, Washington, or the Sonoma winemaking brothers Adam and Andrew Mariani of Scribe. These are the people who create such a welcoming environment for our events.
Yours is a life on the road, but if you had to live in just one place, let’s say, one field, where would that be and why?
Sorry, there's no one place. I'm going to continue traveling and exploring. There are more fields to see and places to visit. I'd like to go to other parts of the world to set up the table and tell the story of food and people, wherever that story might be. I'm going to keep moving. I'm always looking for a perfect place where I can tell the story of food and farms and also a place to do my art. Ideally near the sea with a large canvas for me to draw on.