In the last decade, the farm to table movement has gone from avant-garde to squarely in the mainstream. (Cue the spoof by Portlandia.) And of course, there are excesses that deserve to be pointed out, and pretense that deserves puncturing. But, at its heart, it's about wanting to know who was responsible for the food you eat and the wine you drink. Sometimes, this must be limited to knowledge of provenance, or even just an assurance of ethical production. But push a little farther to find yourself eating with the farmers, ranchers, winemakers and chefs whose products you're enjoying, and you realize it's about reestablishing the connection with your food that has been obliterated by factory farms, agribusiness and chain restaurants.
Last Thursday, Meghan and I made the trek out to Rinconada Dairy for a remarkable dinner set up in the middle of a sheep pasture under a giant oak tree, a few hundred yards from the nearest building and about 10 miles from the nearest thing that might be called a town. We were joined for the dinner by Bill & Barbara Spencer of Windrose Farm (who grew the produce) and Debbie Paver of Charter Oak Meats. Rinconada's husband and wife team of Christine and Jim Maguire produced the cheese as well as the venue and the soundtrack from the nearby sheep and goats. The food was prepared from scratch in a pop-up kitchen in that very same field by Chris Kobayashi, the chef/owner of Artisan Restaurant. Perhaps most remarkably, we were joined by about 100 food and wine lovers from as far away as Minnesota. Artisan's Shandi Kobayashi, who put together the menu and its wine pairings, arrived kid goat in arms, trailed by its family:
The maestro of this evening, and of evenings like it throughout the year and around the country, was Jim Deneven, the founder of Outstanding in the Field. Created "to honor the people whose good work brings nourishment to the table", OITF has since 1999 been creating dinners in such unlikely places as sea caves, mountaintops, orchards and pastures. We hosted one under a spectacular blue moon on a ridge at Tablas Creek in 2004. Each dinner includes a reception (last week, we poured our Rose and Lone Madrone poured their delicious Bristol's Cider). Then, the guests are taken on a farm tour, which ends where the dinner will be hosted. So, the guests will not yet have seen the site, and the theatrics of the arrival are not neglected, with mise en scene set by the plates that diners bring with them to each of the Outstanding in the Field dinners they attend:
We'd wandered over a bit earlier to give the servers the background on the wines that were being paired with the different courses. These included our 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc, our newly bottled 2010 Counoise, our 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel and the 2010 Vin de Paille Sacrerouge, of which we brought two of the just 150 cases that were produced. The menu:
Outstanding in the Field by tradition sets one long table and serves family-style, encouraging mingling and interaction between the guests. The table, empty and full:
Not all farm to table dinners work as culinary exhibitions. But this one did. All the courses were excellent, but the one that stood out most to me was the middle course: a cheese-rich gnudi (think gnocchi, but lighter in texture and slightly tangy from the cheese) with a pork ragu, porcinis and braised chicken, that we paired with the 2010 Counoise that I was so impressed by a few weeks ago. Artisan was in typically outstanding form, made all the more impressive by the rustic setting.
A decade ago, a dinner like this would have felt radical, at least outside Alice Waters' sphere of influence in the Bay Area. And it's probably no surprise that Outstanding in the Field got its start, and is still based in, Santa Cruz. But that experiences like this are now available in much of the country is a sign of just how far the food movement has come in challenging the industrialization of what we eat. And while we can point fingers at it for being elitist, or pretentious, the trickle-down effects of chefs and diners who care about how their food was grown and made has impacted everything from three-star restaurants to Chipotle. And this is ground zero. I challenge anyone who went to this dinner, or who goes to any of the 90 other events that OITF hosts each year, to leave unmoved.