Outstanding In The Field is a tale of overnight success that was 12 years in the making. Having almost quit the business on more than one occasion, founder Jim Deneven is finally earning a living from the “Farm to Table” field dining business he started in Santa Cruz in 1998.
His idea is basic – take a group of foodies to a local farm for instructional tours while top chefs get to work in Jim’s mobile “field kitchen” using local, artisanal ingredients. Apres-tour, the guests enjoy a family-style dinner amidst the host farmer’s field. Jim was an early evangelist of the Farm to Table movement, and now tours North America (and now Europe) with his concept, working with some of the world’s leading thinkers in alternative and sustainable agriculture. After twelve years, they’ve gotten pretty good at this – our experience Sunday night was just one of more than 60 dinners planned for their North American tour.
My wife and I had the pleasure of joining Jim and 148 other guests at this weekend’s dinner at Mark Pasternak’s Devil’s Gulch farm and vineyards in Marin. After parking in “town” next to the Nicasio Valley Cheese Company, shuttle vans took the diners across the rickety wooden bridge and a mile or so up to the vineyard. The mood in the van was quiet and anticipatory, with one woman’s conversation being heard above the occasional quite murmur. We were to be treated to the culinary stylings of Steffan Terje (Perbacco, Barbacco) and his able-bodied crew, who did the heavy lifting in the field kitchen while Jim’s and his team ran the “front room” duties.
Upon arrival at the vineyard, Jim’s cheerful and competent staff served appetizers of crushed fresh pea with mint (from Mariquita Farm in Watsonville) and Ricotta (from Liam Callahan’s Bellweather Farms) along with two spreadable salumi from Devil’s Gulch, both made from the farm’s hogs. Appetizers were served with a Pey Marin Riesling, which I found to be well made for a domestic Riesling but too dry to compliment the spice of the salumi.
The evening was cool but sunny, and the views enough to erase a week’s worth of stress. Though the vineyard’s terraced slopes gave me great sympathy for those who harvest the fruit, and made me glad I’m on the final end of the wine business, where comfy chairs often come into play.
After a walk through the Devil’s Gulch vineyard and down to their hog pen, we returned to the tables set for the 150 guests (their Bay Area stops on their North American Tour sell out so quickly they do one on Saturday and one on Sunday).
The evening sun helped to offset the cold and ceaseless wind, but layers of clothing and blankets emerged from the packs of the experienced customers faster than the dinner courses, which started with an amazing confit of rabbit from Devil’s Gulch (the Pasternak’s travel extensively, lecturing on the use of rabbits as a sustainable protein source for urban farmers) and grilled asparagus. This was served with a Chardonnay that didn’t work too well with the asparagus, but neither did the Martinelli pinot our friends Jim and Lisa had brought. The latter, an opulent pinot in the typical Turley style, was widely shared, and suddenly our neighbors became part of our party as well. Funny how wine makes that happen.
I almost forgot about this next course! What a waste that would have been, as it was truly amazing. I must state that I’m not normally a fan of gnocchi, as it can get too heavy and, at its worst, grey and starchy. But when you substitute the Bellweather Farms ricotta for potato, and blend it with just enough flour to hold its shape, the pasta is beautifully light and airy. Now stir in some ramps, wild mushrooms and (mark of the Spring season!) fava beans, and then pair it all with the Pey Marin 2007 Pinot – pure heaven. We also opened the 2007 Pinot we’d brought from Roederer Estates in Anderson Valley, and found its relative leanness worked beautifully with this dish.
Next to come was the main course – slow-roasted pork from the Pasternak’s farm and more of the Pey Marin pinot, whose oak was more pronounced than in our Roederer, which I surprisingly preferred – I’d looked forward to trying the famed Pey-Marin pinot. The pork was served with artichokes and spring onion with olive-oil crushed potatoes. Then out came the2008 Dutton-Goldfield 2008 Pinot from the very vines we dined between, and it just may have been my favorite of the evening.
Dessert was no mere afterthought. Terje and his staff came up with a divine inspiration and pulled it off flawlessly despite the challenges of a field kitchen and 150 servings – strawberries on top of a baked merangue with sweetened Crème Fraîche from Bellweather Farms. As you know, most of my recipes are savory, wine-centric musings. But I’m determined to find a way to get this one into the line-up! I’d not be surprised to find this one in our regular spring-time repertoire.
After the dinner, the mood on the shuttle vans was notably different. Louder. Cards were exchanged. Perhaps a phone number or two. Designated driving duties negotiated. Monday morning was dreaded by all.
I hope you get a chance to try one of the dinners from Outstanding in the Field. But doing so takes some doing, and some cash. Each seat sells for $180 – $240, and most of the 60+ events on their North American Tour have already sold out. Still, it’s an experience worth saving for.