Outstanding in the Field
Food & Drink — Eat

Outstanding in the Field

United States

Mood of Living  /  Jan 6, 2016

From the first table on a California farm to last year’s dinner on Brooklyn Navy Yard’s rooftop, more than 100,000 people have come to Outstanding in the Field events.

Fifteen years ago, a world-renowned sand artist Jim Denevan pulled out a long communal table at Mariquita Farm in Watsonville, California, a short drive from his home in surfer’s paradise, Santa Cruz. As a handful of first-time guests finished their endemic farm-to-table meal, something entirely new was born: “A traveling feast with a central vision of farmers, chefs, cheese makers, ranchers, foragers, and winemakers in delicious communion with the people they sustain,” Denevan says. From that first table in a California farm field to last year’s Outstanding dinner on Brooklyn Navy Yard’s rooftop, more than 100,000 people have come to Outstanding in the Field events in all 50 U.S. States and ten countries, “to understand, learn from and celebrate the farmer.”

Denevan is a man of many talents. He came up with the idea of the “restaurant without walls” that he named Outstanding in the Field long before similar projects populated abandoned warehouses and fields across the country. Jim Denevan is not only a talented chef, but an original sand artist, an award-winning surfer, a world traveler and a philosopher. He is, also, an entrepreneur who dedicated his life to stimulating a dialog between the front and back ends of today’s food chain. However, the recurring theme behind all Denevan’s endeavors, and his most striking skill, is his talent for cultivating communities. And communities, as we know, are best formed around the table.

Outstanding in the Field tables at Kualoa Ranch in Kaneohe, Hawaii and North Arm Farm in Pemberton, British Columbia (Photos by Clara Lyle)

Q&A with Jim Denevan

Jim Denevan

Jim Denevan Founder of Outstanding in the Field

Mood of Living: Where were you born? Where did you go to school?

Jim Denevan: I was born in San Jose, CA, Silicon Valley. That’s where I went to school, and then I did a little bit of college, but not that much.

MoL: How do you describe what you are at this point in life?

JD: I have two careers, Outstanding in the Field which takes up the majority of my time from summer to fall and my art that involves the same amount of time which I do generally in the winter and spring. I’ll do art commissions in the summers, and Outstanding in the Field also does private events in lots of different different locations pretty much all year round. So it’s kind of jumping around.

MoL: So, do you consider yourself an artist?

JD: Yes, my sand drawings are environmental art; I’ve had museum shows and recently did a commissioned piece at the Faena Hotel in Miami Beach during Art Basel. As for Outstanding in the Field, the farm dinners have strong analogies to art, it’s not just a feast, there is more to it. I’m very conscious of farm-to-table, gathering together, the environment and all the aspects of it, the aesthetics of the table and its placement in the setting.

  • Entree at Gaining Ground Farm in Leicester, NC

    Entree at Gaining Ground Farm in Leicester, NC

  • End of season cherry tomatoes at Lusca Restaurant, Love is Love Farm at Gaia Gardens in Atlanta, GA

    End of season cherry tomatoes at Lusca Restaurant, Love is Love Farm at Gaia Gardens in Atlanta, GA

  • Eggplants from Mariquita Farm near Watsonville, CA

    Eggplants from Mariquita Farm near Watsonville, CA

Photos by Clara Lyle.
MoL: How did you come to the idea of a table on a farm?

JD: My brother is an organic farmer in California. His farm has 100-year-old apple trees, there is a forest and also a view of the ocean. So, when I was a chef at a busy restaurant in Santa Cruz, cooking was fun and interesting, but I wanted to make it more interesting, I wanted to show where the ingredients were coming from, to tell stories directly from the farmers about their works and enjoy meals with them. I was also hoping for a cultural change, for the general public getting closer together. I was on a mission of sorts, it wasn’t just an event in my neighborhood, I wanted to spread ideology all over the world. We’ve been to several countries now and to all 50 states. In 2015 alone we served over 11 thousand people. So we’re pretty busy.

MoL: So, you wanted to change the world. Do you see it change over time? Do you see something shifting in the food culture?

JD: Yeah. I think the world has changed. Back when we started, communal dining where people sit at the same table was not a thing, people were kind of afraid of it. And I don’t think the food was as good back then. And 16 years ago, people certainly weren’t used to having a four-course dinner in the middle of a farm field. It seems that following that creative path involved with food is very culturally prominent now. It wasn’t sixteen years ago. I think that we’ve had some influence on that. We are telling a real story of places that exist rather than making stuff up. A lot of chefs since have gone out to farms and seen for themselves what they like and talked to the farmers. It builds closer relationships and better food, and we helped with that.

MoL: How do you select farms that you work with?

JD: There is now so much enthusiasm, people send us all kind of information about places that we can go, a chef who might want to participate. A lot of it is geographical: where is somewhere new we’ve never been before? And we also consider the interest factor, like when there is a farmer who is particularly adventurous, who we think people will want to travel ways to see. It’s just what looks interesting and makes it into our schedule. Generally, 30% or 40% of people at every event are from out of state, and may have crossed the country to be there. We’re not the only ones who travel to get to an Outstanding in the Field dinner!

Outstanding in the Field’s vintage 1953 tour bus.
Outstanding in the Field’s vintage 1953 tour bus.
MoL: What do you think makes people so excited that they want to travel for food?

JD: Well, there is a couple of things. First, I think that sitting at a communal table with people they don’t know puts them in the mood for discovery and a deeper understanding of a place they’ve never been to before. It’s like an anchor for other kinds of experiences; it sets a tone for exploration. They come to the table with all these stories about people and adventures they had on their way to us. Second, it’s also a gratification; they travel, and they get all this great food and wine at the end of the road. That’s always good.

MoL: And what about you? You lead a pretty nomadic lifestyle. How does it affect you?

JD: I need a home. I’m joking but I’m not joking. I’m on the road from July to November. Sometimes, I leave the tour and go back to California for a little bit. But I’ve been doing this for a long time, it’s been more than 10 years of that, of living on the road.

MoL: So, is it inspiring or is it more tiring to you at this point?

JD: Inspiring or tiring? Well, it’s super fun. It’s really interesting meeting new people. I love it; I never feel like it’s a chore. We see a lot of old friends from past events. Maybe 60% of all the events are at the places we’ve already been to, and then there are 40% that’are all new, so it’s a nice mix of both. The tiring part is that sure, there are many challenges on the road, but our crew works very hard, everybody has their jobs. People are super enthusiastic, they come back for local tours, we see this great enthusiasm from everyone, it helps people get along.

People gathered at the table in Free Union, VA. (Photo by Clara Lyle)
People gathered at the table in Free Union, VA. (Photo by Clara Lyle)
MoL: Tell us about the first Outstanding in the Field event. Was it at your brother’s farm?

JD: That was the second event. The first one was at a place called Mariquita Farm in Watsonville, CA.  The farmer Andy Griffin is involved with providing ingredients for a lot of good restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area, and he is a friend. So we just went out to the property and put out a table. We didn’t charge any money, back then there was no such thing as a dinner on a farm that you could pay for. Now you can see all kinds of knockoffs of what we do and it seems like such an obvious thing, but there was nothing like it then.   “Our first twenty customers, many of whom were the farmer’s friends, were the first twenty customers for a concept that had no precedent.”   Now we have many regulars; we have events with 70% regulars, and they bring new people with them. It’s very consistent. Some dinners sell out in the first few hours. The first event was in 1999, I did three events that year, the next year I did two. I cooked the first couple years, but after that, I involved chefs from all around the San Francisco Bay Area and convinced them to participate. Then after that we started across the country; 2004 was our first trip across North America, and we only had five or six events across the whole country, six or seven in the Bay Area. Now we have about 90 events each year in our regular season. In 2015, we went to 32 states, British Columbia and Japan and served about 11,000 people.

MoL: What is food to you? Why is it important? Why did you decide to dedicate your life to it?

JD: For a few reasons. The dinner table is a social place where people can interact. It’s where they celebrate, a place of humanity. Cultures are expressed through food. It’s a creative medium. It’s seasonal, it recognizes its place and time. It has geography. I love origin stories, where something comes from, the back story of things. Knowing these stories allows any chef to be more creative. There are so many creative chefs right now, all the pop-up restaurants and pop-up dining experiences are happening around the world. People send me pictures of events that are modeled after Outstanding in the Field from all over the world, like from the Emirates. Food has become culturally important in terms of its locality and the story of where it comes from. People are intrigued by the places food comes from, and the indigenous food of different places. The idea of going to the supermarket and getting a bag of produce from who knows where is not what people want.

  • Smoked octopus, corn, sesame & pickled myoga (Photo by John McCarthy)

    Smoked octopus, corn, sesame & pickled myoga (Photo by John McCarthy)

  • The Table at Fujisan Winery in Japan (Photo by Aimee Singer)

    The Table at Fujisan Winery in Japan (Photo by Aimee Singer)

  • Japanese octopus (Photo by John McCarthy)

    Japanese octopus (Photo by John McCarthy)

  • Plate display sign in English and Japanese (Photo by Anna Gelb)

    Plate display sign in English and Japanese (Photo by Anna Gelb)

An Outstanding dinner in Japan.
MoL: Is there a certain ethnic food or certain ingredient that currently fascinates you?

JD: I think that we’re evolving towards more diversity. We recently had an event in Chicago, and the chef made a seafood rice, the traditional dish of Macau, which was a Portuguese territory in China. It’s this mix of East and West cuisine and ingredients that he’s sourcing outside of Chicago. It’s cross-cultural stuff that we see more of. People are developing a passion for certain unusual cuisines they are not familiar with.

MoL: Do you ever host people at your home? Do you like to entertain and cook for people?

JD: I love it. It’s fantastic, having friends and family over. I have a really nice kitchen in Santa Cruz in a little house near the beach, which I haven’t seen for a while. I have people over and prepare a meal, it’s a pretty regular thing for me when I’m there. I’ll be back in November.

MoL: What constitutes a home for you?

JD: To me, home is friends and family that you can have meaningful time with and community that you want to participate in and care about. And of course, a special loved one to share everything with, who I don’t have at the moment, I travel too much.

Sun setting over the Outstanding in the Field table at Johnson Farms in Madison, SD. (Photo by Ilana Freddye)
Sun setting over the Outstanding in the Field table at Johnson Farms in Madison, SD. (Photo by Ilana Freddye)
MoL: How did you start in sand art?

JD: Well, I started just using my finger. I lived very close the beach, and I would cover the whole beach with just my finger and my hand. The sun has a certain position in the sky, the clouds are passing, the wind changes during the day, there are all kinds of natural phenomena that happen with the sand and the light. And then 20 years ago I decided I’ll put my life to this art form. It was about seven years before I saw anyone do a similar kind of thing. I thought people would immediately start doing their versions of it. It’s just so amazing to have such a big canvas and then it washes away, and you try something new the next day.  I graduated from my finger to using a short stick, which kind of hurts your back. So now I use a stick that is about 5’11’’, it’s comfortable to hold, and sometimes I use rakes. Recently I got into doing different kinds of drawings with solar lanterns and drawing stuff on dry lakes and frozen lakes, on the earth and in crops. In 2010, I did a project with Anthropologie during which we created the world’s largest artwork on the frozen surface of Lake Baikal in Siberia in Russia. Anthropologie made a book and a movie about it. I did another huge drawing on the Lucerne Dry Lake in the Mojave Desert just using water, where there is a contrast of wet and dry, for a Hollywood movie “Earth to Echo” — it was 525 feet long. And it was water, all just water, and then it evaporated and disappeared. I’ve made drawings on lawns where I cover part of the grass to shield it from the sun. It turns yellow, and then it turns green again — we’ve been doing some very big drawings this way. Another thing I made this year was a giant footprint in the Mojave Desert commissioned by Clarks footwear. I’ve had a lot of big commissions this year, have gone all over the place. It is a bit tiring, it involves a lot of walking and there are some really big spaces.

Jim Denevan creating sand artwork on the beach.
Jim Denevan creating sand artwork on the beach.
MoL: Have you ever met aliens who make crop circles while working?

JD: Did you say aliens? Well, the famous crop circles are actually done with a different method. My drawings are done in the full scale, while a lot of these drawings people do out in the world, they first build a little model, and then they blow it up and make it bigger. People who make crop circles—and they are people, not aliens, I know some of them—they use a method of “one foot equals ten feet.” My drawings, what you see is a miniature, a photograph is a small version of something that was made really big. I’d make a really big circle, and there is no plan to make the circle, it’s all free hand. I’ve been doing this for 20 years, so I’ve gotten really good at it, and it’s relatively easy for me to make a big circle. But it’s a lot of practice, years of working on it.

MoL: So how do you make a perfect circle without any instruments?

JD: Well, it’s an application of the concept of parallax, like when you move your head from side to side, and you see this tree is closer, and behind there is a building and behind there is a cloud. The relationship between all those objects and the environment sends the message. I pick a spot or several spots and those become my bearings, my points of reference as I draw. If I start out with a certain curve and continue with the combination of everything going on in the background, I can make a pretty accurate circle. They’re not perfectly accurate, they’re just perfect-ish, but they appear to be. Part of it is that you’re looking at it sideways. I couldn’t make a circle that accurate with a pencil on a piece of paper; I think they are more accurate on the beach.

MoL: Your art is very fluid, one moment it exists, and it’s gone almost momentarily. What are your thoughts on this?

JD: Yeah, I can describe it as mandala-like. For me making the art is meditative, calming, but also it’s physical and stimulating at the same time. And people that experience it, they walk into it, and they have their own thoughts and feelings, so it’s like creating a temporary environment. It feels really good to make something like that because it takes a lot of concentration both physical and mental.

MoL: Where do you see yourself in ten years?

JD: I’m always thinking of new methods of making large drawings that are impermanent. So I’ve been working with sunlight and water, and a few other things I shouldn’t talk about, some totally new things. So that’s going to be interesting. And with Outstanding in the Field, bringing it to different countries. We’ve been to 10 countries so far; we went to Japan in 2015 for the first time. It’s really interesting because the culture of each country is different and they are also all parts of the human narrative, they are the same and different. The model of Outstanding in the Field works very well around the world and incorporates some wrinkles from that particular culture.

Gulf oysters for the taking at Love Is Love Farm at Gaia Gardens, Atlanta, GA. (Photo by Clara Lyle)
Gulf oysters for the taking at Love Is Love Farm at Gaia Gardens, Atlanta, GA. (Photo by Clara Lyle)
MoL: Do you have any other hobbies?

JD: I’m a surfer, somewhat of a well-known one. I also skimboard, it’s when you throw something on the sand and slide on it. I won a bunch of contests in that. I’m also a two-time world champion of body surfing. I do a lot of things that are connected with the ocean, and I live very close to the beach. And then also bicycling and that kind of thing.

MoL: Who was the most influential figure in your life?

JD: Well, it’s different people. For instance, Catherine Faris who started a restaurant in Santa Cruz. I was a model and lived in Paris and Italy and I came back when I was 25 and started working in her really authentic Italian restaurant. That’s where I learned to cook really well.  But I guess anyone working in the realm of creativity is a positive influence and inspiration for me.

MoL: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

JD: It’s advice people have heard before: follow your passion and see where that might lead you and what interesting places and people it leads you to. Being passionate and interested in the world. People often say that I have a very good life, so I think it’s true, because I’ve been following this advice. When you go off and realize what you are excited and interested about, you just need to start working in that direction.

  • Cook From Craigie on Main, Allandale Farm in Boston, MA

    Cook From Craigie on Main, Allandale Farm in Boston, MA

  • Chef Ryan Prewitt of Peche in New Orleans grills whole red snapper at Woodson Ridge Farms in Oxford, MS

    Chef Ryan Prewitt of Peche in New Orleans grills whole red snapper at Woodson Ridge Farms in Oxford, MS

  • Chef Kyle Bailey of Birch and Barley at Spring House Farm in Leesburg, VA

    Chef Kyle Bailey of Birch and Barley at Spring House Farm in Leesburg, VA

Photos by Clara Lyle
MoL: How do you find that passion?

JD: I think traveling is important and also looking for mentors, people who are doing something that you believe in, that you are passionate about, and working with someone who has succeeded in this area. When it comes to cooking, find a chef that you admire, speak to him directly and say, “I’d like to learn.” And just general travel, new experiences, meeting creative people and interacting with them I think can sometimes be more valuable than going to school.

MoL: Who would you like to learn from?

JD: I think a lot of times people think about teachers and celebrities, but what they often don’t recognize is that everyone has a contribution to make. It’s how Outstanding in the Field dinners function. Everyone gathers and at first they are strangers, and then they learn from each other, and they might not even know who the person sitting next to them is.  They find that they have a common humanity. To me, it’s a really beautiful thing. That being said, I think in another life, or maybe in this life, I’d like to make music and meet people who are powerfully creative musicians. Yes, I want to write songs.

MoL: What is your favorite place?

JD: I don’t know if I have a favorite place, I think discovering new places is my favorite place. People are always asking what are the best places to go, and I’ve seen some amazing places for sure, but to me, it’s all about the moment, that day, and that weather, the food. Like, this is the day, this is it, everything is right now. Maybe with some surfing involved.

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Photography courtesy of Outstanding in the Field

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