Mr Jim Denevan Hosts The Ultimate Outdoors Dining Experience
Outstanding in the Field dinner, Kualoa Ranch, Oahu, Hawaii, 2 February 2014. Photograph by Ms Ilana Freddye, courtesy of Outstanding in the Field
It was the first day of summer 2021. Mr Jim Denevan – the 60-year-old chef and founder of the “roving restaurant without walls” known as Outstanding in the Field – was finally back on the road after a 16-month hiatus. “I’m really happy to be doing this again,” he says, almost teary-eyed, when we spoke a few weeks later.
First stop: Happy Valley Farm. This is where it all started, at his brother Bill’s organic farm in Santa Cruz, California, the site of the original Outstanding in the Field (OITF) event back in 1999. This is where Denevan spent his childhood picking apples and pears and the place he had in mind when he came up with the idea for OITF, outdoor dining experiences that took place at the location where the food was sourced. He hoped to reconnect diners to the origins of their food and celebrate the farmers, vintners, fishermen, cheesemakers and brewers who worked hard to produce it. It was farm-to-table dining with the table on the actual farm.
Since it launched, OITF has staged dinners on vineyards, meadows, fishing docks, beaches and gardens across the US and around the world – from Mount Fuji to Byron Bay. In 2019 alone, it welcomed 19,000 guests (“just like a regular restaurant” noted Denevan) at 110 stunning locations. Then, the pandemic hit and everything ground to a halt. “Wow, it was difficult,” Denevan says of the financial and emotional toll.
But already, things are looking up. An upcoming documentary by filmmaker Mr Patrick Trefz on Denevan’s life and work called Man In The Field will be a timely reminder of the impact OITF has had on foodie culture, particularly in the US (“I was the first one to put a farmer’s name on a menu,” Denevan notes onscreen), while also showcasing some of its most spectacular settings and food. And the OIFT 2021 tour, which runs through November with events planned on ranches and farmsteads across the US (including Brooklyn Grange rooftop overlooking Manhattan and Fireplace Farm in the Hamptons), is selling out.
It’s easy to see why. “People want to get back together,” Denevan says. At the first dozen events this year, he noticed how the volume of conversation was noticeably louder, as guests were just so excited to be communicating with people outside their pods.
“That is profoundly fulfilling for people,” Denevan says. “And even more important than the content, there’s a tonic to common conversation, like asking where you’re from or how’s your family, that people have missed. People want that everydayness. You can see that undercurrent of emotion [in their faces].” The opportunity to be surrounded by other people and the great outdoors, he adds, “is like coming to some sort of mental health spa. Though no one would call it that.”
Mr Jim Denevan at an Outstanding in the Field dinner, Ayers Creek Farm, Oregon, 10 July 2016. Photograph by Ms Neringa Greiciute, courtesy of Outstanding in the Field
Although the tally of guest chefs who have cooked at OITF events over the years includes pretty much every big name in the US, from Ms Anne Quatrano to Messrs David Kinch and Marcus Samuelsson, the presiding figure at each dinner is, inevitably, Denevan, a 6ft 4in tall, former model and surfer, known as “King of Pleasure Point” for his one-time prowess on the waves, who typically dresses in cowboy hats, flip-flops and jeans. Country Living magazine once described him as a “postmodern Marlboro Man”.
Denevan, who cooks a number of dinners himself each year (he used to be head chef at Gabriella Café in Santa Cruz), takes charge of certain key aspects including scouting locations and deciding where to place the tables, which can be up to 350ft long. The latter is often a lengthy process akin to divination. “I am pretty obsessive,” Denevan admits of the millimetre by millimetre shifts he makes to find the exact spot, intended to afford the best views and flow for the evening.
He is equally vigilant about the weather (he grew up wanting to be a weatherman and calls himself a meteorological nerd).
One of his favourite dinners this year took place at McArthur Gulch in the Rockies in Colorado. “There was a severe weather warning that afternoon,” Denevan recalls. “But I was determined to give these people the best possible experience. I timed the event so we could start outdoors. It was an insanely beautiful field of wildflowers with the table coursing through. We got to the main course. The radar showed a thunderstorm heading our way. People looked west and could see the blackest cloud they’d ever seen and lightening, too. Five minutes after we’d moved the table under the tent and everyone was re-seated, it bucketed down. Nothing can beat the spectacle of the elements.”
“I was determined to give these people the best possible experience. I timed the event so we could start outdoors. It was an insanely beautiful field of wildflowers with the table coursing through”
Nature’s wonders are a recurring theme. Like another favourite event in Big Sur, where the clifftop table was so shrouded in fog that the sun, if visible at all, looked more like the moon. Then, suddenly, the mist cleared to reveal the Redwood forests, the Pacific Ocean and 360-degree coastal views, a vista so breathtaking the whole table burst into applause.
Denevan has lived several lives. He grew up in San Jose, one of nine siblings (three of whom were diagnosed with schizophrenia). His father, a machinist, died of a brain tumour when he was five. His mother was a gifted mathematician. By his late teens, he was winning contests as a competitive surfer. At 24, he got scouted to be a model and moved to Milan for several months.
Looking back on those days now, he can recall the privilege that came with being one of the beautiful people (“We’d walk into clubs and the crowd would part”), but also the ambivalence he felt (“You’re a living god but you’re also nothing. I remember thinking, ‘I don’t want to be known for my shell, I want to be known for my inner self””).
He also shuddered at the sexual harassment that was rife at the time, as models were encouraged to sleep with agents to get ahead. On the upside, he was inspired by the many creative people who worked in fashion, especially the photographers and the artists he encountered in Milan, including Mr Keith Haring.
A continuous spiral on a California beach, March 2014. Photograph courtesy of Mr Jim Denevan
Now, alongside his culinary exploits, Denevan is known as an accomplished land artist. Working with a stick or rake, he etches vast configurations – interlocking circles, Fibonacci spirals, three-dimensional triangles – on sand, earth and ice, which are then erased by waves and weather. He has produced the largest artwork in the world: a series of circles on the frozen surface of Lake Baikal in Russia, measuring 31km sq. He has also created work for Art Basel Miami and exhibited at MoMA PS1.
It’s a practice he first embarked on when his mother fell ill with Alzheimer’s in the 1990s. Drawing in the sand was his way of dealing with the stress. “My mum was losing her mind, and I was pretty much losing mine, too,” is how he has put it. However, as he points out in the documentary, his art also had its roots in his early years. When his schizophrenic brothers were acting up, he would escape the turmoil of home and head down to the Guadalupe River, where he spent all day rearranging rocks into patterns, channelling the water in new directions, “a task that [had] no completion.” Now his artistic process is similarly “soothing” and “meditative”, though it also requires physical and mental rigour. “Drawing a mile-long straight line on the beach is intense,” he tells me.
After more than 20 years of practising art and running OITF, Denevan is beginning to see the sizeable impact he’s had on others. Recently, a young chef from Green Bay, Wisconsin, called Mr Chris Mangless told Denevan how reading a profile of him aged 15 changed his life.
“It’s heavy when someone says they changed their life because [you] inspired them,” Denevan says. “The same has happened with people doing large drawings on the beach,” which Denevan was the first to do as a regular artistic practice. “Someone showed up in San Francisco in 2002. Now there are hundreds all around the world.”
Perhaps the greatest tribute has come from the restaurant trade. A guest at one of his Chicago dinners noted how chefs, forced to pivot during the pandemic, had drawn inspiration from OITF’s example to cook outdoors in new and unusual spaces.
“People are psychically injured,” Denevan says of the current situation. He recalls the circumstances in which he started OITF, when his mother’s health was failing and he was burnt out from working in a kitchen. “I felt psychically injured, too. I wanted to present an environment that was more forgiving, more human; that made me feel more human,” he says. “And if other people could feel that too, then great.”
Man In The Field is in cinemas and digital from 24 September