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Outstanding in His Fields

Jeanne Cooper | August 23, 2018 | Food & Drink Story Eat and Drink

The business world calls it disruption; in the art world, an “intervention changes the way things are done, meaning people are bound to have reactions that are more culturally powerful,” according to Jim Denevan, experienced in both worlds. The San Jose native, 57, is founder of the groundbreaking Outstanding in the Field dinner series, which challenges restaurant-industry concepts (from $225). He’s also a renowned creator of large-scale, ephemeral earth-based artworks, including a design in sand for the current Vancouver Biennale.

With the elaborate pop-up dinners, launched in 1999 on a farm near Santa Cruz, “just having a communal table was really a change ... from the official ways the restaurant experience happens,” Denevan recalls. “Arriving on a foreign site with the potential for meeting new people, people become excited about the adventure.” Then a chef in Santa Cruz, Denevan says he wanted to do more than just disrupt diners’ expectations, though: He wanted them to appreciate a disappearing agricultural heritage and the efforts of organic farmers and other sustainable food producers.

“I could see when I was 8 years old walking to school that there were still a lot of cherry orchards, but they were turning into suburban developments,” he says. “Now, living in Santa Cruz, I think it’s superinteresting to see how cities change with the balance of nature and culture. If culture gets too far, there’s an impulse to reconnect with nature, and Outstanding in the Field has been part of that movement to reconnect. There’s a connection to food as both culture and nature, and farms are a place where culture and nature connect.”

Denevan estimates nearly 100,000 guests have now connected at some 1,000 dinners staged across the United States and 15 other countries with the help of guest chefs, a seven-member staff and others. The adults-only events include a reception, guided tour of the host site and a four-course dinner—prepared outdoors, of course—with wine or beer pairings, served at a dramatically sited table seating up to 200. Tickets sell quickly; several fall California events are already full. “People come once with the idea it’s on their bucket list, and then you see them next year and the one after that,” Denevan says. “Celebrating the harvest is one of the oldest stories in the world. Here, you get to meet new people, and also celebrate with your friends and family.”

Originally published in the July/August issue of Silicon Valley

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