Driving down the dirt, clamshell-studded driveway under an allée of shady trees, it appeared just like any other midweek day at Westport Rivers Vineyard in Westport, Mass. A few cars were parked beside the farmhouse tasting room, where inside, a small group of couples sipped their way through a flight of wines. Just behind the tasting room, all was quiet inside the giant barn. The only evidence that a grand dinner party for 160 guests was to take place in just mere hours was the mass of large water dispenser jugs beside a makeshift counter made of wine barrels.
I’ve been following Jim Denevan’s Outstanding in the Field (OITF) project — and the team’s brilliant red bus — on their annual cross-country treks since day one, back in 1999. Starting out from the Santa Cruz, Calif. area every summer, the small team would begin a cross-country trek with tens and tens of chairs, boxes of lanterns, and all the essentials needed to set their iconic table. Every couple of days, the hosts (and adventurers) would stop at a pre-determined farmer’s field, a coastal vineyard, or a challenging location like a beach accessible only at low tide, to host a dinner that has become a true example of what farm-to-table dining should be. They’re literally bringing the table to the farm.
In the early ‘90s, the influence of Alice Waters and her shop locally, dine organically philosophy was on the rise, particularly in California. Then a chef (and artist/surfer) himself, Denevan observed how chefs were starting to put farm names on menus. But instead of just following suit, he decided to go directly to the source of where his food was coming from, exploring this farm-to-table connection at an all-new level.
“I wanted to bring the farmer and chef closer together,” Denevan explains, “in a place where the public could experience firsthand just where the ingredients in front of them were coming from.” For a farmer or producer, the dinners are more than a mention on the menu, says Denevan, “It’s an opportunity to tell each ingredient’s story.” As a former chef himself, he knows what it’s like to be inspired by farm-fresh ingredients. “To then serve a meal on a farm where the food came from is inspiring,” he adds, “and guests can feel that enthusiasm, too.”
As I wandered down the grassy lawn, where cocktails were to be served in just hours, towards the grapevines, I had a vague sense of where the OITF team might be hiding. The curl of smoke drifting through the wind in the hot summer air wasn't my only indicator. I had done my homework and knew roughly where the sun would be setting. And that sunset isn’t something you’d want to miss when dining in a field on a cloudless day.