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An artist and an accomplished chef, the common thread that joins the practices of Jim Denevan is a connection to and a fascination with land and location. Earlier this year, we had the pleasure of joining Denevan in AlUla, where his temporary land installation Angle of Repose saw hundreds of mounds of earth disrupting the dusty reach of the Saudi Arabian desert for the magical occasion of Desert X. Fast forward to last month when Visit Greater Palm Springs coordinated our trip to the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival, we found ourselves in Denevan’s company once again, but for an iteration of his traveling culinary experience, Outstanding in the Field.
Nestled in the far corner of the Coachella fairgrounds just within earshot of the nearby concerts, the blooming shrubs and thorny rows of the picturesque Rose Garden—a desert oasis belonging to the Empire Polo Club—set a perfect scene for Denevan’s al fresco dinner. There, around 150 people were seated family-style down a winding table, the towering mountains just within view. Outstanding in the Field began in 1999 at the home of the artist’s brother, an organic farmer. Denevan first toyed with the concept after returning home from a stint in Europe, when he realized that cultural connections to food, as well as any knowledge of its origins, were sorely lacking in Northern America.
“I became kind of obsessed with realizing the connection between food, people, culture, chefs, and the possibilities of something that had not been examined so deeply in the United States,” said Denevan. And so began Outstanding in the Field: a cultural quest that involved many puzzled looks, a dozen or so visits to the offices of Alice Waters requesting her participation (which, eventually, was obliged), and a dream that stretched far beyond the occasional meal in the open air.
“I thought 15 years ahead. I wanted this to be so substantial and powerful and meaningful, that 15 years from now it would still exist,” Denevan told us. “I thought the way to do that was to pay all the staff really well; any guest chefs paid well, the farmers are paid for the site, they’re paid for the produce… as Neville [Wakefield], the curator, would say, ‘It’s an intervention.’”
In its early years, Denevan noted, the concept received some pushback and negative reactions to its elevated price and unusual circumstances—after all, who wants to eat dinner on a farm? “Farms are associated… not with high culture,” he said. “Sure, these ingredients go to great restaurants, but people associate farms with [the idea that] it must not cost very much. I’ve kind of forced the price to be high.” Working on his brother’s farm as a youth built a firm understanding of the efforts that go into honing quality produce, which in turn makes for delicious cuisine. Ensuring each participant is compensated generously for their time and products might be a steep price to pay, but it’s one that allows an unmatchable fare and experiences.
Taking the stance that all publicity is good publicity, a matter of patience, commitment to quality, and the help of a cherry red vintage tour bus (which is fabled to have belonged to Elvis) have yielded Denevan’s efforts most successful. “It may have been innovative and new and interesting, but now it’s a thing,” he said. “The event started taking off and culturally it started to be like, okay, people want to check it out.”
Now, more than two decades in the making, Outstanding in the Field has toured internationally, taking the model from coast-to-coast and beyond. In 2022 alone, the project is selling out events on a roster spanning domestic locations like Huntington Beach, Newberg, Stowe, Nashville, and Philadelphia, alongside international destinations like London, Tuscany, Vancouver, Fez, and Accra. Situated in unlikely but beautiful patches of nature—an orchard, a bluff, or oceanside—participants in the experience will find themselves seated among strangers, while they enjoy a multi-course meal that is cooked on-site, featuring crops and commodities sourced from local agricultural artisans.
With the pleasure of attending two iterations of the experience, we found that the long, winding family-style table remained the same with each meal—clothed in white and set with glasses for beverage pairings and an eclectic collection of mismatched plates—while the food relies on an ever-evolving selection of local produce and creative license given to the chefs of the evening. On our first night, an entirely plant-based meal by brother-and-sister duo Makini and Ayinde Howell left us stuffed with fare like cucumber, roasted corn, and fennel salad, courtesy of Aziz Farms, jerk tofu sandwiches, and enormous chocolate chip cookies. Accompanied by complementing sips (like a rosé from Bartolomei Vineyard), the meal was interspersed with introductions of the farmers and chefs, along with making the acquaintance of the adjacent diners.
The second evening, our palettes were graced with the work of Minh Phan and Teresa Montaño. Spanish inspirations filled the table with Clark Street baguettes and shareable plates bearing scallop tartare and crispy potato churros, which we ate with glasses of Mommenpop’s Grapefruit Vermouth. After a flora-filled salad and a steaming vat of paella Negra, we topped off the evening with a sumptuous square of spent stem tarragon cake, which was presented with dollops of yuzu cream, tiny meringue drops, and marigolds.
In Denevan’s words, “Outstanding in the Field is an appreciation of place and people that are associated with place.” And, after the pleasure of two unique experiences—rendered so from both the company held and the artisans behind the meal—we left fully convinced that an outdoor dinner with strangers is one of the best ways to combine a celebration of culture, cuisine, and the people behind it.