Written in May 2010, this piece was researched and not just based off interviews and my personal take on an artisan. I also wanted to combine two aspects of the founder, Jim Denevan, and show both the food happenings as well as his own artworks in sand. Here is the first page of the Artizen article and you can click the image to see it in publication. The copy is below.
This month, Artizen stumbled up a phenomenon that summarizes so much of what the magazine is about. Outstanding in the Field, a “happening” of food, farm and community, is the expanding brainchild of artist, chef and surfer, Jim Denevan. In 10 years, Outstanding has grown into a world-wide celebration of local artisan food, run by a core team from 6 US cities and occasional folks from the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany and Italy. Short and sweet version – if you love food and a little adventure – click to get a ticket to one of these events near you right now.
But my enthusiasm gets ahead of the story …
Outstanding in the Field started in 1998 at Gabriella Cafe in Santa Cruz, California, where Jim was cooking at the time. Having grown up visiting his older brother, Bill Denevan’s, organic farm, Jim felt that the cafe’s guests might enjoy knowing more about where their food was coming from. So he invited the farmers, Bill being one of them, to come to a series of dinners where the guests could meet them face to face, engage in conversation and the farmers could talk more in depth about the ingredients they were supplying for the meals. The whole idea went over beautifully. After a few of these, understanding farmers pretty well, Jim thought perhaps they might be even more at ease talking about things while on their own farms. So he started to undertake bringing the dinners to them. Soon long, family-style dining tables were being set up right in the fields with often incredible surroundings. A tradition started up, which made things easier, of having each guest bring their own plate to the party. The dinners became social community adventures and local artisan chefs began helping Jim to prepare the cuisine on site, sometimes while guests toured the farm.
In 2003, Katy Oursler became Jim’s co-conspirator and right hand gal. (Today, she is in charge of Outstanding’s private events.) They began taking the show on the road and traveling the US, finding top quality local chefs to cater sumptuous meals on the farms of local producers. A gorgeous, if funky, red bus became part of the entourage in 2004.
I talked with Leah Scafe, who is today Director of Outstanding in the Field, to find out exactly what it’s like to attend one of their events. She may likely be the person to greet you upon arrival and direct you through activities, including what to do with the plate you’ve brought along. “We usually collect the plates at the beginning, setting them all on a side table, while guests say hello and get to know each other. They often go with the farmer on a tour to see his produce, fields, animals and products. When they return, they find their plate and head to the long tables where they choose wherever they’d like to sit.” She commented that the dining tables take on a really artistic, eclectic feel once the diners have contributed their own unique touch from home. The more we talked, the more I realized what a genius idea is symbolized by that hodge-podge of platters. Not only is there now a visual representation of community and what each person has “brought to the table” but they are often great conversation pieces and help to break the ice.
The courses of dinner stretch on into the evening and finally, guests satiated on many levels with new knowledge, comradery and great food, head home with an experience they’ll likely never forget.
That idea of “experience” is a staple of Jim’s overall philosophy, not just with Outstanding, but also in his artwork. During the seasonal downtime between his food events, Jim grounds himself, quite literally, by joining his creativity with the earth and the sea. Begun as a way to cope with his mother’s ailing health in 1999, these huge sand drawings (and occasional earth drawings in Nevada near the Burning Man site) are sometimes photographed and attended, but otherwise, just as ephemeral as his hosted dinners. He’s created several hundred of these drawings, mostly on California coasts, but if the setting is available, he’s been known to take a break from preparations for a dinner and hit a local beach. The soothing contemplation involved in this performance art help Jim to maintain balance and, with a mother who was a mathematician, perhaps even give some genetic part of his brain a good workout. The scale and juxtaposition of elements in these works call for mental calculations along with the tactile act of creation. Maybe not unlike pulling off a dinner party in the great outdoors with a couple of hundred attendees (though Jim has a great crew to also help with that.)
In true Renaissance artisan fashion, Jim Denevan has combined many things he loves into his ongoing lifestyle and work. He’s balanced his outgoing farmer’s-market caravan with solitary introspective art, not to mention the physical art of surfing, creating in the outdoors, and waltzing around in the fields. Here’s to many ripe and productive years ahead for him. Bon Appetit!