Table To Farm
“If you’re sitting in the seats right near the water, you might get splashed!” an imposingly tall man in a cowboy hat warns as the dinner guests make their way to the table. But it’s not just any table; it’s an outdoor table long enough to seat nearly two hundred, curved in an crescent that parallels the unusual formation behind it – a stunning seaside cliff rising above a beach several miles outside Santa Cruz, California. And, indeed, the warning is an apt one: The far end of the table is just a few yards from the rhythmically crashing waves, and it’s not yet high tide.
But the guests, a mostly 35-plus crowd dressed in the relaxed and unfussy style endemic to coastal California, are unfazed. They’re here to dine on a menu that specifically touts ingredients grown or caught from the ocean – squid, salmon, Mendocino seaweed – so close by that they might even be able to see the source. This is Outstanding in the Field, a traveling road show of what’s now nearly 80 dinners in nearly every state of the contiguous U.S., some of which sell out within hours of the tickets going on sale, and all of which are hosted on farms, vineyards, ranches or beaches designed to not just bring the guests closer to nature, but as close as possible to the precise spot where their food came from (typically with a chef from a celebrated local restaurant involved). And the man in the cowboy hat is artist Jim Denevan, who founded Outstanding in 1999 and still is present at nearly every dinner, traveling from city to city with his team in a refurbished 1950s-era bus.
These days, even the sleepiest and proudly trend-resistant American city is home to at least one restaurant that proudly describes its cuisine as “farm-to-table – but the idea of driving to remote locations for an outdoor dining experience that may or may not involve braving mosquitoes, mud, or high tide has been slower to take off in the mainstream. On the West Coast, in particular, it’s chugged along with a dedicated but sleepy following. But with a sort of a trend merger of the “locavore” movement and the past decade’s reality-TV-fueled obsession with celebrity chefs, savvy eaters are now eager to brave the often inconvenient locations and usually high costs – a prix fixe of $200-plus is not uncommon – of an outdoor farm dinner. They’re now a major draw at high-end country resorts like Blackberry Farm in Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains, and have (unsurprisingly) become a staple in the Portland, Oregon region, where some regional events companies like Field & Vine and Farm to Fork specialize in the experience.
Individual farms, too, see hosting their own alfresco dinners as a means of drawing in visitors who might not see much appeal in picking-your-own strawberries or Halloween corn mazes. A collective of Connecticut farms participate in Dinners at the Farm, which donates a portion of proceeds to support local agriculture; Caleva, farm and outdoors center in Montgomery County, Maryland hosts its own “Dirty Dinners“ series complete with hay rides. Sometimes it’s not even necessary to leave city limits; Manhattan’s urban-farm restaurant Riverpark has an outdoor table open for summer dining surrounded by a unique background of fields and skyscrapers (though you’ll have to reserve the whole thing with a minimum of six diners), and Outstanding in the Field’s dinners at rooftop farm Brooklyn Grange are routinely among the first to sell out.
Some fans of “table-to-farm” dining are invariably seeking more the uniqueness (those views look amazing on Instagram!) or the draw of a private chef rather than the ability to get up close to a farm’s own story. But one thing’s for sure – a whole lot more people are learning where their food is coming from, and that’s a benefit that lasts until long after the last glass of locally-produced wine is poured.
Currently the Vice President at Communications and Content at true[X] media, Caroline McCarthy has been a journalist since the age of 21, covering a smattering of digital media, social networking, marketing, entrepreneurship, and innovation.