From Lisa Barnes
Hard to believe that less than 2 cool weeks ago I was having a wonderful dinner al fresco in Napa Valley. I wasn’t at a fancy restaurant, but literally in the middle of a garden (owned by vegetarian restaurant and yoga studio, Ubuntu). The guests were a community of food, farm and garden lovers and the conversation was friendly and enthusiastic.
The dinner was created by Outstanding in the Field, a company that creates moveable feasts across the country for 5 months of the year. Outstanding founder, Jim Denevan and his colleagues and volunteers have been arranging rustic dinners on farms, dairies, gardens, beaches, ranches and vineyards since 1999, in an effort to close the gap between consumers and diners and their food, and the land it comes from. Denevan says “at conventional restaurants the farms come to the table. Outstanding in the Field works the other way around. There’s a strange phenomenon in our culture that makes celebrities out of chefs while ignoring the people who actually produce our food.” While they do take you out in the field, there are still restaurant luxuries such as white tablecloths, stemware, and good service. No paper plates or picnic ware here. And your food is not only sourced locally, but maybe within feet or even inches of your chair.
I’d been looking forward to attending one of these dinners for a long time. I had read articles and signed up for the Outstanding website newsletter for an announcement of a date in my area. Months ago I saw the date and city and quickly my husband and I signed up with some friends without knowing where exactly it was to be held or who would be preparing the meal. The secrecy certainly added to my excitement.
The date finally arrived and the day was beautiful and warm. We drove out to a rural area of Napa and were led to a dirt parking lot. The guests arriving were from as far away as New York and as close as 2 miles down the road. There were first timers as well as a couple who has followed the feasts through 5 states. The site of the long table was beautiful. The “kitchen” set-up was a rustic barn bustling with chef and servers. The view of the valley was outstanding and vast and changed to dark and starry by the evening’s end. (Note: next time I’ll bring a flashlight for the walk down the dirt road to the car).
My favorite part about the experience was the tour and talk in the garden prior to the dinner, probably because it’s where I have the least amount of knowledge and experience relating to food, and most admiration). At every Outstanding event, dinner is preceded by a farm and garden tour. Our tour was led by Jeff Dawson, curator and biodynamic master gardener of Ubuntu. His love and understanding of all things nature was inspiring (As he spoke about the earth breathing I was imagining the inhale and exhale). He showed us a greenhouse of microgreens and herbs, trellises of perfect looking tomatoes (which he said our dinner would be the last in season), and beautiful rows of greens and edible flowers I’d never tasted before.
I had many questions for the Outstanding folks: How do you choose a venue? Does the weather ever cause a problem? How do you do local logistics? I heard lots of great stories including fines for setting up the table without permits, and logistics of equipment in beach caves and the overall goodwill and understanding of diners and communities.
Chefs Jeremy and Deanie Fox created a wonderful vegetarian meal starting with champagne served with castelvetrano olives and marcona almonds with lavendar sugar and sea salt. My husband had to pull me away from the table. There was a tasty and very “meaty” dish of squashes, vadouvan, amaranth, coriander and nasturtiums. The guests next to us were joking they had a salami in their car if they needed to add it or felt hungry after the meal.
One or two other dishes were not as interesting and may have fallen flat in a restaurant. However, sitting in the garden, being surrounded by nature and eating by candle and flashlight (at the end) made up for any short comings. In addition to the fresh, local ingredients in all 5 courses, there were also biodynamic wine pairings. The evening was long (as it got cooler it seemed too long) at about 5 hours… kind of like attending a wedding reception. We were lucky to sit by “veterans” in the know who brought extra layers and even blankets, and were generous to share with us.
Per Ubuntu owner Sandy Lawrence, “Ubuntu, translated by the Zulu people of South Africa is ‘humanity towards others’ and the Ubuntu ideology requires harmony through observance of community rules, such as connection to each other and to the land we call home and from which we grow our food.”
That pretty much summed up the evening.
See also Lisa’s Slow Food Nation 2008
Lisa Barnes is author of The Petit Appetit Cookbook: Easy, Organic Recipes to Nurture Your Baby and Toddler, Williams-Sonoma: Cooking For Baby, and lives in Sausalito, California.
Images Credit: Lisa Barnes
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