... in a cornfield on Nantucket Island. In celebration of local food, a chef takes his crew from coast to coast, pulling off dinner parties in the most unlikely places. 

By Susan C. Kim
September 11, 2008

A narrow path through swaying stalks of corn leads to an 80-foot-long table covered in white cloth. A full moon hovers on the horizon as 135 guests take their seats. Tonight's dinner at Bartlett's Ocean View Farm includes heirloom tomatoes picked from a nearby plot and succulent clams gathered just this morning. In fact, all the local farmers, fishers, artisans, and purveyors seated at the open-air table have provided the bounty for this feast.

The host, chef Jim Denevan, is founder of a California-based organization called Outstanding in the Field. He considers these mobile parties to be his “restaurant without walls.” Jim, his co-host, Katy Oursler, and their small crew crisscross the country, throwing down tables and whipping up gourmet meals in unlikely outdoor settings. “We've held these dinners in the fields of small farms, ranches, dairies, and vineyards,” Jim says. “But we've also dined in the belly of a sea cave, on a disappearing isthmus, and at a community garden in the middle of Manhattan.” Wherever the location, the ingredients are all local, often harvested just inches from the table.

Jim and Katy's grand dinners are a way to reconnect people to the land and to honor those who cultivate it. “Celebrating the harvest is something we humans did with regularity until fairly recently,” Jim says. “What seems exciting now—sharing freshly picked food with a community of people—was commonplace before the dawn of industrialized agriculture. Now, the origins of our food are a complete mystery to us.”

Because guests dine in the field where much of what's on their plate was grown, they gain a new appreciation for what's being served. “It's not every day you get to sit next to the people who planted the beans, raised the lamb, and shaped the cheese on your plate,” Jim says.

As the party chatter picks up, Lowell Whiteford assures everyone that the littleneck clams they're eating were caught one at a time using only a snorkel and rake. “Like they say, fishermen don't have any stress, and they love their boss,” he says. “Mussel Man” Neil Cocker confesses that while there are thousands of ways to prepare mussels, “I still prefer it the old-school way, with a touch of lemon and butter.”

Maybe it was the intoxicating scent of the Thyme-Rosemary Pound Cupcakes . Or perhaps the organic wine. But what started as a quiet meeting of strangers turned into a joyous celebration of food, land, and community.