The farmer is the last man standing. He puts his palms on the end of the 150-foot-long, white-linen-covered table—a saddle between the corn and lettuce—and assesses the beautiful, colorful mess left behind.The field is quiet and the sun has set. The guests, and the plates they brought from home, have left. The serving platters are bare. The feast is over.
Earlier that day, the land was a field. But during the past four hours, it was much more: a platform connecting the consumer to the earth, to the crop and, most important, to the farmer.
Satisfaction flicks across the grower’s face. This is the moment Outstanding in the Field founder Jim Denevan waits for at the end of every pop-up meal—approximately 430 hosted since 1999 at more than 200 farms, ranches, dairies, urban gardens and vineyards in 45 states and across nine countries.
On Tuesday, September 10, Mr. Denevan and his crew will return to the East End for the seventh year of Outstanding in the Field meals. They will set up shop between the soil and sky at EECO Farm in East Hampton to serve a five-course meal sourced from local farm stands and fisheries, prepared by guest chef Jason Weiner of Almond in Bridgehampton, and paired with wines from the nearby Channing Daughters Winery.
For Mr. Weiner, the meal is always a highlight.
“Every year, around the winter, I start biting my nails, wondering if I’m going to get an invitation again,” Mr. Weiner said last week during a telephone interview. “It’s always a thrill for me. It’s a great change of pace. The menu is meticulously thought out. The thing is, I don’t really start meticulously thinking it out until about two days before. I’m gonna have to see what I have in front of me.”
The chef believes in simplicity, he said. He believes in the ingredients. But that won’t stop him from creating whimsical, family-style dishes with the local ingredients he has available—tomatoes from Sagaponack, potatoes from Amagansett, micro-greens from Wainscott, chicken from upstate in New Paltz and squid, mussels and bluefish from Shinnecock, to list a few.
All food has an origin, Mr. Weiner said, and a story to tell.
“I feel like my role, as a chef, is to highlight the ingredients and let them sing,” he said, laughing, “And to step out of the way and not mess it up. This time of year, especially Labor Day week, I’m running around all crazy stressed out. But just talking about this, honestly, just having this conversation now, I feel the endorphins flowing.”
Outstanding in the Field is a model that Mr. Denevan wanted to be culturally significant. He wanted the concept—going out into the farm and having an interesting, and delicious, experience—to become a social norm. He wanted people around the world to copy his idea and not question where it came from.
And to some degree, they have. “Some folks in Holland are doing it, but they couldn’t figure out the last part with the plates,” Mr. Denevan explained over the telephone while sitting in a coffee shop outside of Boston after hosting a dinner in Concord the night before. “They have you bring a plate and take someone else’s plate home. We thought that was kind of fun, but that would lead to people probably not bringing their nicest plates. Our way, it’s pretty cool to have the table look different everywhere we go.”
It’s been more than 14 years since, during a late summer afternoon in Santa Cruz, California, Mr. Denevan and his chef friend Tom King prepared their first outdoor, five-course meal with ingredients right from the field where they were eating, surrounded by mountains. It was in 2003 that Outstanding in the Field finally hit the road. Mr. Denevan packed up his equipment, eight-man crew and spent $9,000 on a 32-foot-long red bus—the operation’s official mascot, one that the founder never thought he would call home five months of the year for the next decade, when the bus is operable.
The circa-1953 Flxible has made it to only 35 percent of the dinners, Mr. Denevan said. The bus has broken down more times than he can count.
“It’s like a giant toy come to life,” the 52-year-old Californian said. “It’s pretty cool looking. It’s in much better shape than it was when I bought it. I put a lot of money into it. Part of my art career has funded that thing. Otherwise, it’s not very sensible to drive around a 1953 bus. But it turns out that a nomad existence set around local foods is a good way to live.”
After a stint in the restaurant business upon retiring from modeling in Europe, Mr. Denevan chased a new pursuit in the mid-1990s: sand art. He took to the beach to escape his home life, where his mother was deteriorating from Alzheimer’s disease. Watching her once-brilliant mind fall apart pushed him over the edge, he said, and he ran from the kitchen, losing himself in shapes and sand.
Like his dinners, the sand art appears in a specific place for a short period of time, and then vanishes, washed away by the waves—or, in the case of his most recent project, erased by a plow.
In mid-August, Mr. Denevan found himself in Senneville, Quebec, for a dinner at La Ferme du Zéphyr at the Cleveland Morgan Estate. To the artist’s surprise, the farmer left 40 acres of wheat fields and all of his equipment at his disposal.
It was an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“I’m still tired,” Mr. Denevan sighed. “The composition is bigger than any crop circle that’s ever been made. It took six days and then it was plowed over. It actually only existed for a day. On the beach, I only have four or five hours I can actually work. The dinner takes place in a similar amount of time.”
The crew starts early in the day. Typically, Mr. Denevan tours the location, searching for the ideal vista while imagining the layout. A curved table is best for a big, open field lacking geometry, he said, while a straight table works well with crops and trees.
“They’re both pretty fun,” he said, “especially when you sit at the end of a very straight table and you wave to your friends 150 feet down. Building the table takes quite a long time, making it perfectly level. At least an hour and a half to get the table just so. And I do a lot of obsessing.”
Traditionally, Mr. Denevan prepares the first meal of every season. Thereafter, the guest chefs are in charge. It’s busy and basic, Mr. Weiner said, which is part of the event’s beauty.
“The kitchen equipment is very bare bones,” he said. “They have a 5-foot grill that’s just charcoal and they have a couple of propane burners, a few tables, and that’s pretty much it. It starts at 3 o’clock and we’re usually chasing daylight by the time it’s over. They bring out candles. It’s pretty magical.”
The diners eat and drink. The colors that emerge on the table are a snapshot of the ripe harvest. And by the end of the night, no one wants to leave, Mr. Denevan said.
But eventually, they do, as does the farmer. The table is broken down. Every trace of Outstanding in the Field’s presence is gone.
And the only proof it ever happened are the footprints left behind.
Outstanding in the Field will host a dinner on Tuesday, September 10, at 3 p.m. at EECO Farm in East Hampton. Tickets are $220. For more information, visit outstandinginthefield.com.