Chef Jim Denevan was still at his Outstanding in the Field dinner on the Lake Meadow Naturals chicken farm, held on a lake under the full moon, when I got him on the phone. You would think that after 10 years of doing these dinners around the world, with around 400 now under his belt, it would be business as usual, but Denevan seemed just as exhilarated as though this was his first.
“This dinner was so beautiful,” he said. “This is maybe the second time we have been on a chicken farm. Raising awareness about ethical treatment of raising animals is part of what we do. It was spectacular under the full moon. People were so happy to be here.”
His message is simple, yet powerful. “I am on an evangelistic mission to popularize dining on the farm,” he said. “It is a different way to appreciate local foods, ethical practices for raising animals, and farmers, by paying them for the site and their food, and showcasing it right at the table.”
On the mainland, Denevan uses a vintage bus to travel the country. When he finds a host farm (usually in some picturesque place), he walks the land and chooses a site for the dinner. Then he, his staff and a local guest chef set up a four-course farm soiree that’s served on white clothed tables. Now, for the first time, he’s taking his Outstanding in the Field team to the islands where they will sup on tropical Hawaiian farmlands on Maui, Big Island, Kauai and Oahu, all with menus planned by our talented Hawaii chefs.
Denevan started the project in 1999 when people didn’t really give a damn about where their food was coming from. “It was a struggle to popularize the dinners,” Denevan said. “It didn’t really catch on until about 2007, when people were beginning to take an interest in local food and chefs were starting to put the name of the farms on their menus.”
The popularity of Michael Pollan’s books (most notably The Omnivore’s Dilemma) also helped. Denevan said that there were moments when he wanted to quit and the project was broke, but then his artwork – large scale drawings using the earth as a canvas – bailed him out and he was back at his table-to-farm message again.
Denevan did his first farm dinner in his hometown of Santa Cruz, California in 1999. Ticket sales back then were a struggle, but now he has a strong following. In 2011, Denevan’s team staged 87 dinners across North America from Vancouver to Virginia and, for the first time, in Europe.
His outdoor dinner season starts in May, but the dates and places are released at the beginning of March via his website http://outstandinginthefield.com/ where some of his better known locations and dinners can sell out in a mere five minutes. With the popularity of dinners increasing, he’s branched out and added off-season dinners at warmer winter locations, like this month’s Florida and Hawaii engagements.
From Orlando, Florida, the Outstanding in the Field team heads to the Kilohana Plantation in Lihue on Kauai. Their next stop is Maui, where farmers Gerry Ross and Jane Simpson will host the dinner at the Kupa’a coffee plantation. Denevan said that this is the first time Outstanding in the Field will be on a coffee farm, and the first time coffee will be served at one of his dinners. Denevan seems a Maui boy at heart, deciding on working as a chef so he could surf and make art during the day, but this will mark his first visit to Maui. Naturally, he’s hoping for big winter swells.
Kupa’a farm has won Best Maui Coffee at state cupping competitions, which Ross and Simpson – who are second generation farmers – attribute in part to their diverse coffee. They grow several different varieties on their 14 acre farm, with four acres in cultivation. Ross and Simpson are eager to share the farm with dinner guests. In fact, they have a blooming shade tree that features a pink canopy of blossoms; guests will sit beneath it and next to a lilikoi trellis.
“We are spring cleaning here, but there are still going to be some rough spots,” Ross said. “After all, this is a farm.” Ross joked that Simpson likes to say “Kupa’a is a vegetable farm that just happens to grow coffee,” but there is some truth to it. Besides their award-winning coffee, they grow mango, citrus, papaya, avocado and lilikoi. They also plant row crops that rotate between taro, garlic, beets, onions, lettuce, cabbage and other veggies.
Ross has a remarkable and succinct outlook to farming. His farm is sustainable, organic and biodiverse. Ross and Simpson fight disease by growing cover crops that are non-hosts to plant pestilence. Their farm design reduced the erosion rate by 95 percent from when they obtained the land, and they’re also no longer contributing to run-off problems at the shoreline.
Of course, the agriculture industry comes with a lot of risk – what Mother Nature gives, she can also take away. Last year’s coffee production was down by half due to the horrible drought in Kula, while this year looks like a boon by comparison. Rampant mice populations in 2011 also took out a lot of product. “We could have used rodenticides, but I decided this was like any other cycle and we were going to just ride it out,” Ross said. He added that when he looks at his hard work and sees the beauty he has been able to create without damaging the environment, the benefits clearly outweigh the risks in farming. “My risk decreases when I create the farm’s ecosystem such that food is the byproduct,” he said.
In addition to the creation of a sustainable ecosystem, it’s their intimate relationship with the eater that keeps Kupa’a Farm going. “My job satisfaction is unbelievable,” Ross said. “At the Kula farmers’ market on Saturdays in front of Long’s, we sell out in a few hours. The feedback is not political or fickle. People come to us and say, ‘Where are those green beans you had last week? They were the best we ever had.’ We have successfully developed a market with variations. We don’t have the same thing every week, because of our rotations, or the weather, but people keep coming back to us.” Kupa’a Farms also supports a community supported agriculture subscription (CSA) service, and supplies Market Fresh Bistro and private chefs with their seasonal produce. (For more info on the farm, go to kupaafarms.org)
While the farm host will provide the evening’s terroir, ambiance and ingredients, it’s the guest chef who will be the ambassador of taste and presentation to the pop-up farm eating experience. For Maui diners, this will be Chef Justin Pardo of Market Fresh Bistro, a restaurant that has been ahead of the curve of the farm-to-table movement since they opened nearly three years ago. Pardo will have control over the courses but attendees will be in good hands – his seasonal menu at the Bistro is one of the best on the island, and he hosts twice-a-month farm dinners at his restaurant. Typically the menu is a surprise for guests, but if you have special dietary restrictions, they can be accommodating.
Attendees to Denevan’s dinners are asked to bring their own plate, since it gives guests the feeling that they have brought something to the table. Ross will give a tour of the farm at the dinner and talk about his coffee production. Pardo and Denevan will also talk about food culture and showcase the farmers’ bounty obtained in a sustainable organic fashion on the island, but the community table under the pink canopy of flowers will essentially be about tasting and eating what was grown just a few steps away.
The Hawaii dinners kick off Outstanding in the Field’s 13th season. The Hawaii events in January start at 3pm with a glass of wine and welcome hors d’oeuvres, followed by a tour of the host farm and a family-style, four-course meal paired with wines. Ticket price of $190 per person includes the farm tour, multi-course meal with wine and all gratuities. To learn more and reserve a seat at the Outstanding table, visit www.outstandinginthefield.com
For the complete Hawaii line-up of farm dinners:
January 14 ~ Kilohana Plantation, Lihue, Kauai ~ Guest chef: Aaron Leikam, 22 North, Lihue
Host farmer Byrna Storch and guest chef Aaron Leikam share both a deep appreciation for fresh tropical ingredients. Leikam will work with some of the best in the farm-to-table movement, including Rick Bayless, Jan Birnbaum and Melissa Kelly.
January 17 ~ Kupa’a Coffee Farm, Kula, Maui ~ Guest chef: Justin Pardo, Market Fresh Bistro, Makawao
Farmers Gerry Ross & Jane Simpson will host Outstanding in the Field’s first dinner on a coffee plantation. Kupa’a coffee is outstanding, and was named best coffee on Maui two years in a row. Guest chef Justin Pardo does popular twice-a-month farm dinners in his restaurant.
January 21 ~ Ma’o Organic Farms, Wai’anae, Oahu ~ Guest chef: Ed Kenney, Town and Downtown, Honolulu
Farmer Gary & Kukui Maunakea-Forth are dedicated to organic farming and inspiring the next generation of young people to celebrate their connections to the land. Gary and guest chef Ed Kenney are great friends, and Ed’s son Duke does kids cooking demonstrations at Ma’o.
January 25 ~ Kekala Farms, Waimea, Hawaii ~ Guest chef: Edwin Goto, Village Burger, Kamuela
Farmer Paul Johnston is a leader in the Hawaii local farms movement and grows more than 100 different kinds of vegetables at Kekala. Guest chef Edwin Goto recently opened his burger shack with all local meats and produce. Pairing up with a burger shack is a first for Outstanding in the Field.