by Maria Grusauskas on Jun 12, 2012
Jim Denevan started OITF 13 years ago. Last year it went global. Photo by Maria Grusauskas.
On a farm outside Santa Barbara, Jim Denevan, 50, is making his way down a long table set between rows of lettuce and ripe fennel. With a wine glass cupped behind his back and a battered straw hat clinging to his bald dome, he greets his guests, pausing to hunker down near the occasional chair and chat.
The sun is setting at the far end of the table, and the wine has begun, as it always does, to leech its way into the crowd, turning timid exchanges between strangers into a free-flowing chorus punctuated by the occasional guffaw.
The guests, about 100 of them, have polished off cedar plank–grilled king salmon with apple horseradish slaw, and they’ve eaten braised fennel from the same crop that grows just feet from where they’re sitting. It’s the second farm dinner of this year’s 85-dinner tour and one of hundreds arranged by Denevan’s moveable feast, Outstanding in the Field.
Some weeks ago, I woke up wedged into the back seat of a two-door sedan hurtling south on Highway 101. My plan was to make some extra dough and soak up some new scenery while working four of Denevan’s farm dinners in Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, Temecula and Solvang.
An odyssey of total exposure to the elements, the trip involved camping out on farms and warm Santa Barbara beaches. We poured white wine for women in West Hollywood who didn’t want red because they had just bleached their teeth, and we served high-paying guests gourmet interpretations of sea urchin harvested that morning by the only female urchin diver in California, Stephanie Mutz.
I would return to Santa Cruz with a permanent ring of dirt underneath my fingernails and a glimpse into Denevan’s personal mission to change the world, one dinner at a time.
The Man in Flip Flops
Santa Cruzans may know Denevan as “the skim boarding dude” on 26th Avenue beach, or that weird tall guy (he’s 6’4”) who draws in the sand with a stick. Others may remember him as the young chef at Gabriella Cafe back in the ’90s who was so impassioned with riding his bike everywhere that he started the bicycle advocacy organization People Power.
“I had a table. At the time I’d bike it down there [to the farmers market] with my bike trailer and it would basically say ‘This is the People Power table’ with no members at all, and it would just have information on automobiles’ impact on the environment,” says Denevan. (In a full-circle meeting of past and present, Denevan’s hosting a farm dinner fundraiser for his old friend Micah Posner, an early People Power volunteer who’s running for City Council, on June 29 at Fairytale Farm. For details go to www.micahforcouncil.org)
In Siberia, villagers know him as that crazy American who in 2010 disrupted their peace to etch the world’s largest drawing into the frozen surface of Lake Baikal (1,000 circles ranging from the size of a dinner plate to three miles in circumference), and Australians know him as the guy dancing on the beach with a stick in the TV commercial for the Hyundai i40 Tourer.
The man has many faces, and if it weren’t for Denevan’s easy grin, which GQ Magazine describes as “the knowing half smile of a man who’s kept company by an amusing secret,” he might even be kind of scary.
An autodidact raised by a single mother of nine who taught math, he is the brother of three schizophrenics and one farmer. Denevan’s staff knows him as the guy they should never give the important binder to, and his hot Canadian girlfriend and business partner, Leah Scafe, knows him as the contemplative genius who will run a red light three times out of five without a proper alert (“Red light, Jim. Jimredlight!”).
It’s easy to squint your eyes and judge a man who rakes in six figures for raking in the sand and wears flip flops to his own farm dinners. But in the world of Jim Denevan, only a few things are certain: one, that change is the only constant; two, that beauty sleeps in the backstory of things, and three, that farmers are cool and deserve to be honored, and if it means schlepping 36 tables across the country eight times, by golly, that’s what must be done.
Farmers Like Rock Stars
Since 1999, Denevan has arranged his iconic communal table in the agricultural fields, hidden sea coves and dusty garden paths of 45 states. He’s toured Europe, Australia and Brazil. And like most things Denevan puts his mind to, in the beginning people thought he was crazy.
“It was like an evangelistic or barnstorming kind of thing where we believed that if we put the table out there, or if you build it, they will come,” says Denevan.
It’s a chance that almost cost him everything. In 2006, Denevan was completely broke and planned to give all of this tables to the Eco Farm Conference, a cause he’s supported for over 20 years. Literally days before he planned on delivering the tables, Range Rover called and asked him if he’d like to do a sand drawing for a commercial and if six figures sounded fair. And like that, he was back in the game.
“I believed that at some point culturally things would support what we were doing. That took till about 2007, basically,” says Denevan.
He admits that while people think he’s just spacing out, he’s always really thinking six things at once. One of those six things has always been “what I thought people would be interested in five years from now.” In the beginning, OITF required endless explaining, and maybe even some arm-twisting. Today, most farmers and chefs, and much of the general public, already know about OITF, and most know somebody who has participated in a dinner. But all along, the founding principle of Outstanding in the Field has remained the same.
“The primary goal of what we’re doing is elevating the farmer’s position in culture,” says Denevan.
At an OITF dinner the farmer sits at the head of the table, is paid for the use of his land and his food and is appreciated by a multitude of rich strangers.
“That’s what we’ve been working on, that’s what’s come true. You know farmers are ‘cool’ now. And it wasn’t true, you know, 10 years ago,” says Denevan.
A Culture Starved
We are at Crows Pass farm, just outside Temecula, where road signs crack in the heat of the sun and rattlesnakes are killed on front porches. Dave and Tina Barnes have let us pitch our tents on their front lawn. This is their third OITF dinner.
“The first time I saw it I was just so blown away that this was goin’ on on my farm,” says Dave, affectionately dubbed “Farmer Dave” by the staff. He looks towards the table that Denevan has decided to place between two long rows of apple trees. “When I saw this table, especially this evening when the lighting is right, I was up on the hill talking to my mom and just looked down and I was just amazed.”
The Barneses are regular people with two sons and a well-kept farm they’ve been working for about two decades now. They sell their produce to local restaurants, and though they do pretty well, they’re not the kind of people who would spend $400 on dinner for two.
“It’s not a cheap ticket. My friends can’t do this, and it’s out of my league, so it’s people I don’t know. The paying guests are just people who want to come out and have a great evening,” says Barnes, who sits at the head of the table with Tina and friends Judd and Mary Anne Brown, owners of Pacific Shellfish.
Ten years ago, Denevan says the mentality surrounding farmers was much different. “Anything that had to do with a farm, it was like, ‘We’re desperate to get you to come out here, so we’ll give you free food, get some chef to work for free,’ and it just created this environment of it being culturally insignificant,” Denevan says. He swears those other flash-in-the-pan farm dinner operations that ran on volunteers are no longer around because you can’t run something on good feelings alone. Everyone needs to be paid, and paid well.
“The value of the dinner having a high price correspondingly gives the public the feeling that there is value in those experiences, that the farmer’s not desperate for attention, that they should be paid well, they should be respected, and that they’re not just charity cases,” says Denevan.
Serving around 13,000 people a season, Denevan’s dinners bring together farmers, fishermen, cheesemakers and vintners with swimsuit designers and CEOs. His guest list has included the likes of Steve Wozniak, Reed Hastings of Netflix, Twitter co-founder Evan Williams and Kevin Systrom of Instagram.
For Denevan, it’s been a social experiment of sorts.
“If people want to get all worked up about class issues, that’s their deal, but when it comes down to it, people sitting down at a table breaking bread, they feel that camaraderie,” says Denevan.
After his mother died of Alzheimer’s disease in 2000, Denevan took off across the country with his tables. In a way it was an escape for him, but his trek was also fed by a desire to connect, to break the isolated shells of American culture and do what he does best: stir the pot.
“Culturally it was needed at the time. People needed to sit together at a table, people needed to get closer to the source of their food and get to know people,” he says. “And they find out that they don’t have to be afraid of people, and that it’s really great to eat with strangers, and the table’s not clubby and exclusive.”
The communal table brings together people from radically different backgrounds. “When we’re in Arkansas there are people coming from New York City. They’re coming from Sweden, and they’re going to Indiana because they heard about the Heartlands. The table is never like 100 percent of people from where you are. It’s always 20 to 40 percent of people that are completely outside the state, because they want to understand some place from the ground,” says Denevan.
Throw in some spot prawns, a late harvest viognier, a chance of afternoon showers and bring to a boil. The results can be felt in the conversation alone, which Denevan refers to as substantially different from the conversation that happens when all of the tables are separate.
“There’s a cohesive quality to it, of a communal table. And I think, you know, people in the last several years have decided they want to experience the aspects of a community in an environment that they don’t know who they’re going to sit with,” says Denevan.
In Santa Barbara, housewives spent the evening dispensing classic statements in true Kardashian-inflected style—“I overpay my hairdresser and my babysitter, the two people who cut my hair and watch my kids,” (flip hair here)—but at the same table, neighbors who had never met before began to share their revolutionary co-farming ideas, and the same housewives now understand why eggs of the Araucana hen are the healthiest in the world.
Capturing a Place
In the heart of West Hollywood lies an enclave of calm you’d never know was there. It’s 4.2 acres made up of 173 individual plots that spill into a network of winding garden paths.
For the sixth year in a row, Toby Leaman, a sweet grandmotherly lady, welcomes OITF with open arms and gives 150 well-dressed Angelenos a tour of the garden, which most of them didn’t know existed until they bought tickets. OITF pays Wattles Farm, a community garden with 300 urbanite members, just as it would any farm, and in return, guests get a taste of paradise.
The table threads through a tunnel of magnolia trees and massive roses, the hills of West Hollywood in the background. It’s a scene that would have Sunset Magazine salivating, and the film crew and entourage that accompanies the LA chef du jour, Jason Neroni, is literally wiping spittle from their chins. This is Nirvana.
Although the contrarian in Denevan would prefer a passing rain shower, which he says “actually turns people on,” or the industrial backdrop of a farm in Phoenix that has people questioning if they got the address right, it’s just another time capsule of memories to take away. Like his sand drawings, they’re only temporary moments on a specific period of a specific day that won’t be repeated.
Last year Denevan brought his table and crew to Europe for the first time. The French scoffed at his idea, and the dinner in Wales barely sold tickets, despite a massive writeup in the Financial Times. The Italians were incensed.
“They were like, ‘What are you doing? You’re not Italian. Italians eat at 9 o’clock at night.’ And then Spanish people eat at 10 o’clock,” says Denevan.
But flying in the face of “how other people do things” is what piques peoples’ interest, he tells me, days before Outstanding in the Field is added to “Food,” a $1.3 million exhibit that opens Oct. 3 at that repository of great American ideas, the Smithsonian Institution. It’s like an article he read recently in the New York Times about how American food trucks are becoming popular in Paris, of all places, where people would rather be caught dead than eating with their hands—even hamburgers require a fork and knife.
“Cultural change depends on something being questionable. It needs to be disruptive,” he says. “And really, if someone wants to change the world, they have to find something that intervenes in the accepted ways of doing things.”
Openings remain for Outstanding in the Field dinners at Secret Sea Cove near Half Moon Bay (June 13-14) and Pie Ranch (Dec. 2). Tickets $220-$240. For schedule visit outstandinginthefield.com
Jim Denevan is cooking a farm dinner fundraiser for Micah Posner’s City Council campaign on Friday, June 29, at 5:30pm at Fairytale Farm, 728 Riverside Ave., Santa Cruz. Suggested donation is $100; tickets available at micahforcouncil.org.