Feasting in a “restaurant without walls”

Enjoy gourmet dinners on the farms that produced the food

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HARBORSIDE, MAINE Sep 12, 2015/ Troy Media/ – It’s a late August afternoon by the Atlantic Ocean, and I’m noshing al fresco on such simple pleasures as grilled flank steak and blueberry cobbler. I might not quite be in heaven, but Harborside – a wee outport of a place in this Down East region of wee outports –is surely the next best thing.

We’ve come to Four Season Farm, a full day’s drive from our Ottawa home, just for this one meal. Under the shade of maple trees abutting a potato patch, 150 patrons – each paying $200 for the privilege – dine family-style at a snaking linen-draped table.

It begins about 3 p.m., with hors-d’ouevres and sparkling rhubarb wine quaffed in lovely flower gardens, and ends as the sun sets about five hours later.

The event is organized by Outstanding in the Field (OITF), a self-described “restaurant without walls” that moves from place to place – in the words of founder Jim Denevan, “to bring to the North American public an appreciation of the people who do all that hard work of farming and preparing food.”

OITF is part of the local-food movement that got rolling at Alice Waters’ famed Berkeley, California restaurant, Chez Panisse, and was subsequently popularized by books such as The 100 Mile Diet by Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon.

But here you can forget 100 miles. Food at this Maine dinner is more like 100 metres. The salad fixings, for instance,were grown within sight of our table. Appetizer oysters were caught 18 minutes away. The winery that produced some of our wine is just 10 minutes down the road. (Admittedly the artisan bread travelled a whole half-hour to get here.)

But that means diners can put a face to the name of each food producer: they all mingle with the guests, happy to explain their work and answer questions. “The farmer should be the star,” Denevan says.

Host farmers Eliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch lead diners, wine glasses in hand, on a tour of their property. They explain how they’ve extended the growing season for their top-flight organic crops, despite Maine’s early winters, by developing plastic greenhouses that move along rails to cover each vegetable garden as it demands protective warmth.

Born educators – they’ve published several organic gardening books and were hosts of a popular TV show, Gardening Naturally – they also explain how they keep pests at bay without chemicals.

That’s the format of these dinners ever since Denevan, a one-time restaurant chef in Santa Cruz, California, decided to go on the road with a small band of assistants eager to educate the public about food. This will be their 16th year.

With an old bus for sleeping and a support vehicle dragging tables, folding chairs, tablecloths, serving dishes and cutlery, the OITF missionaries set up dinners around the United States – this year at 69 locations. (Patrons bring their own dinner plate so they, too, contribute to the table.)

While no Canadian dates have yet been set, several U.S. dinners are a short hop across the border. Destinations include Bainbridge Island, just outside Seattle; Windsor, North Dakota; Delano, Minnesota; Craftsbury, Vermont; and West Bath, Maine.

Most of the settings are farms. But OITF has also stopped at wineries and dairies, a rooftop garden in Brooklyn, a sea cave, an olive grove, even an isthmus north of Seattle where high tide threatened to separate diners from the mainland.

Preparation is always by a top-flight local chef who works with the suppliers and their ingredients regularly and therefore knows how to make them shine. That’s important since cooking is in a makeshift kitchen in the field. But it also showcases the important partnerships between chefs and farmers that are becoming more common everywhere.

Eliot Coleman, host of the Maine event, credits Denevan with popularizing the farm-to-table trend.

“Jim was ahead of the curve,” he says. “When he started, no one had imagined this kind of farm-to-table event. Now, there are a lot of dinners on farms around here. There’s even a farm-to-table section every weekend in the local newspaper. He inspired people to do something they wouldn’t otherwise do.”

Visitors come from far afield. We chat with fellow diners from New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts – and see licence plates from at least three other states. Some OITF faithful are such devotees, Coleman says, they can be likened to Grateful Dead fans. “Some people could be called Fieldheads. I talked to one diner at our farm who told me it was the 16th of these he’d been at.”

Founder Denevan brings an artist’s eye to each site, stomping around to scope out the right place for people to sit. The table may be straight – or not – depending on what he thinks will work best in the setting. The number of seats varies for artistic reasons, too.

Perhaps that’s not surprising. Denevan, a tall straw-hat-toting surfer and one-time model, is an artist in the off-season. He produces ephemeral art works – intricate geometric patterns – by dragging rakes or other implements through sand along the Pacific or in deserts. In 2009, he produced the world’s largest artwork; it was more than a thousand circles that together were wider than Manhattan.

His dinners have the same temporal quality. As the sun sets and patrons scatter, the crew has to pack up and move to the next town.

“The process is art,” Denevan has said, “but it’s a little rude to say, ‘You are coming to my art installation.’ It’s more convivial and human to say, ‘We’re having dinner together.”

For more information: www.outstandinginthefield.com.

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