Thursday, September 25, 2008

Lowcountry Hospitality

George Washington’s Birthplace

Yes there is a farm at George's old place, a small one, mostly herbs, but more importantly this was to be our first dinner with an aqua farmer as host. Set high above Pope Creek and the Potomac River on the George Washington Birthplace Monument, aqua farmer Bruce Woods generously shared his story as guests viewed shellfish grounds in the distance. Our aqua farmer sported an aqua colored shirt, which made him easy to spot for curious guests asking lots of questions. Jim curved the table in a big S in a sheltered grove of trees. Jim's good friend Marah Stets, co writer of Outstanding in the field: A Farm to Table Cookbook, dined with a writer from U.S.A. Today. (See the resulting article on Farm to Table dining here). Chef Tony Chittum of Vermilion Restaurant in Alexandria, VA rustled up a variety of local fare and guests feasted into the night among brightly illuminated pines. As the night ended we experienced a bit of fall chill. It was time move south to warmer places.

Smooth sailing?

Spirits were so high. After so much time away, the bus was finally back!! We were euphoric. We were in bliss. Speeding along a smooth endless highway making our way south to South Carolina and Pawleys Island. Until the clutch broke. In the middle of the highway. Stopped dead, blocking traffic for miles. Lots of being yelled at. Very unpleasant. While waiting impatiently for a tow truck that was stuck in the traffic jam that we made Jim had a VERY LONG chat with a friendly state trooper. Unnerved by our latest breakdown we left the bus in a mechanics yard and limped on to Pawleys Island with the truck and trailer.

Guest chef Louis Osteen was unable to attend our dinner because of an unexpected emergency. Louis' talented Exec Chef Michael Keough generously jumped in. Michael did his best with the last minute changes. Maybe not all or even most of his ingredients were from Carolina farmers and producers but he did dish out delicious low country favorites. We set our long curving white table in the bright green creek side setting. Docks stretched far out to the Waccamaw shore and guests were able to venture way out, lean over the dock and maybe imagine/see an alligator or two swirling in the choppy waters.

John Henry

The Outstanding crew really fell for generous and gracious Pawleys Island dinner host John Henry Whitmire. John is neither farmer nor fisherman (though he did work as a shrimper years ago), but he definitely is a real southern gentleman: warm and knowledgeable with a boatload of stories. Whenever we all went to town EVERYONE had a genuine hello for John Henry. Over the next several days John Henry took us in, took good care of us for our much needed break from the road. It was great to have a reliable place to rest our heads and use the kitchen for longer than a couple of days. Jim, Caleb and Adam especially enjoyed fishing & eeling off of John Henry's long dock. Who knew that eel could taste that good?

Thank you for your hospitality John Henry!

Carolina mechanics get a crack

After our tow to a nearby truck service yard a Carolina mechanic team quickly diagnosed the ailing clutch and located hard to find parts in Ohio. While the parts were on the way Caleb and Jim took the opportunity to brush up on their mini golf skills (Jim won a close battle). With the bus fixed we were on the road again with five hours drive to Athens, Georgia, on the way to Atlanta, our next dinner site.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Another Bus Reunion

It was time to get outta town. Next up was our upstate dinner at Greig farm. We found our scenic farm and climbed a tall hill to meet affable Norman Greig. The weather always determines where the table might go. With a forecast of windy conditions Norman advised against a hilltop table and we went for a more protected site. We chose to place our table spanning a wooden bridge on a beautiful small stream. On a windless day the stream site would be swarming with mosquitos but with the steady breeze mosquitos were not a problem. Everyone was excited about doing a dinner over a bridge, a first for OITF.

Chef Melissa Kelly brought out a student kitchen crew from the nearby Culinary Institute of America. Chef/Instructor Anita Eisenhauer was a big help in putting it all together. Anita worked with students, producers and Chef Melissa Kelly, an alumnus of The CIA who made the trip from Portland, MN. A valuable experience for budding chefs. Farm to Table dining is getting more and more play around the country, including America’s premier culinary school. The next day at The C.I.A. Jim and Melissa gave a talk and a Q&A to gathered students.

Words and nourishment

When we arrived at Eckerton Hill Farm in Pennsylvania we were still without bus. A clutch job on the bus turned complicated when our Jersey mechanics put in the new clutch but couldn’t figure out how to get it to work. With yet another bus disappointment, Jim morbidly joked about driving the old gal out into a field and shooting her. We made our way out to farm with pick up truck and trailer - and camping equipment.

Eckerton Hill Farm is the home of farmer/writer and our friend Tim Stark. Tim's new book Heirloom: Notes of an Accidental Tomato Farmer just came out and guests were treated to a reading. The chosen passage was about a favorite cantankerous tractor and was performed on that favorite tractor. Tim brought along his chef friend Bill Telepan from NYC to put together a meal. Our guests in the country feasted on Bill's tasty Eastern PA menu. Jim visited the table with Dorian from Briarwood Croft who contributed her feta cheese and Herman from Danenhauer Apiaries whose honey was gathered from bees a short 75 yards from the table. Chef Bill Telepan is soooo cool and fun and brought along a great bottle of tequila for after dinner. Jeremy, Elaine, Annette, Jim, Adam, Leah, Tim Stark and Bill and his crew chuckled and sipped tequila late into the night.


We received word that the bus was ready. Stalwart driver Ben had left the tour for some well deserved R & R and Ben's good friend Caleb Coe was there to take his place at the wheel, returning for his fourth whack at the tour. Only problem was the bus was not yet approved for travel.

Our Jersey boys awaited an out of town specialist to crack the bus clutch mystery. Caleb holed up for a few days at the Best Western awaiting traveling orders.

Finally the bus was "fixed" and Caleb embarked from Jersey as the rest of us left Eckerton Hill Farm, hoping to meet up later that day.

Missing Persons/Road Weary

Late that night after meeting up with the bus outside Baltimore, MD our Swiss intern Annette gathered up her things and slipped away in the night without a word. She had had enough of these crazy Americans (and one Canadian) and their stupid (charming) bus. Maybe we will see her down the road… Annette where are you? With Annette gone missing, Ben taking a break and Aubrey away for a few weeks for her sister's wedding we were temporarily reduced to Adam, Jim, Leah and Caleb. At least we had the bus.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

New York, New York…

With our bus/home still stuck in the shop in New Jersey we relied on Craigslist to find a temporary and cheap (for NYC) two bedroom Greenwich Village apartment that sleeps six. Nice, but sooo… small we could barely squeeze in. Probably less than the square footage of the bus and much like the bus in that there not enough ceiling space for Jim to stand up straight. From our NYC base we ventured out to some fine local eateries such as Blue Hill, Russ and Daughters and of course enjoyed a wide variety of street food.

Next up: Ultra Local at Queens Farm

Getting from Manhattan to Queens with our big trailer was pretty dicey. We all were a bit frayed when we showed up at Queens farm. Energetic farmer Michael Grady Robertson soon greeted us shambling and galomping around the farm pointing out all the ''really cool stuff''. This farm proved to be a favorite for both Outstanding staff and guests. All kinds of farm goodies to see and the city RIGHT THERE.

Pretty much ALL the ingredients came from the farm - including the pig. No need for other producers at the table - there really weren't any other producers to include. The super well put together publication "Diner Journal" was shown around as everyone soaked up the waning light of late summer. We settled in at the table as Chef Caroline Fidanza wowed the crowd with her fresh and tasty menu.


We need it for the plants to grow. Best that it rains on days that we do not have a dinner planned.

Our La Plaza Community Garden dinner adventure quickly went from interesting to much too exciting. Jim has faith in the weather workers at the National Weather Service and this time his faith went unrewarded. Early in the day a 20% chance of showers gave us the confidence to go ahead with an outdoor dinner with no shelter. By noon we were looking at a forty percent chance of rain. By 2pm it was raining steadily. Outstanding emergency shelter crew then sprung into action. Ben hatched a plan, including foraging for shelter materials around Manhattan hardware shops. With no time to spare Ben scaled high into the park tree canopy and with tarps and cables, the gap between two tall trees was spanned.

As all dined beneath our sheltering canopy Jen Small of Flying Pigs Farm regaled guests with stories of pigs and lipstick. Baker Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery explained the mysterious no knead method. "Ice cream boy" Ben from Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream strolled the table. Guest Chef Alejandro of Brown Cafe smiled all the while and put out the BEST food.

This guest wonderfully captured the atmosphere of the evening with her photographs.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Storm Watch

Storm warning on the East Coast

As we all arrive back on the East Coast tropical storms were moving across the Atlantic toward North America. Where will they make land fall? On our table? Nervously we moved toward our next dinner appointment, Allandale Farm in Boston, MA. Leah arrived from Canada, Jim and Annette from California, Ben and Aubrey from New York City and Adam Horbinski our new Wisconsin road recruit arrived from Madison. All eyes on the weather and... Soon the crowded Atlantic was churning wtih four tropical storms. One of these storms "Hanna" decides to make a move toward the Northeast. Our two upcoming dinner events right in the path! Plan B -Tenting, barns… Greenhouses would need to be checked out just in case. Just as alternate plans were investigated it becomes clear that the storm would hit with full force on Saturday, sparing our Friday Boston dinner and our Sunday Hamptons dinner. Oustanding luck once again.

Allandale Farm, Boston, MA

Thick clouds gather as we arrived at Boston’s last farm within the city limits. Farmer John Lee graciously shows us around the sprawling grounds as we debate table sites. Warm winds are blowing as we set the table on a nice green patch. Chef Mary Dumont of Harvest soon shows up with kitchen crew in tow. Jim and Mary go way back. Ten years ago Mary worked as a waitress at Gabriella CafĂ© in Santa Cruz, CA. Chef Jim and waitress Mary - who new Mary would soon quit the front of the house forever and go on to become one of America's most honored chefs. The storm held off as guests toured the varied crops.

Farmer Jim, in dress shirt and tie, showed off his farmer chops to guests and also sported an awesome tattoo of a beet root on his forearm. Mary prepared some of her favorite dishes which included a second course salad titled "Jim's Salad": A favorite Mary remembered from her days at Gabriella Cafe.

A Stormy Crossing

Next day: Storm Day. We drive south to New London, CT to catch the late afternoon ferry to the North Fork of Long Island. After an "All Aboard!" we climb the deck to watch the storm. "Exciting!" says Jim.

Across the North Fork as wind and rain pushed truck and trailer, rolling slowly along under flash flood and tropical storm warning.

In the evening we arrive at Almoncello restaurant in East Hampton to enjoy a great dinner and meet our guest chef Jason. The storm raged on as occasional power outages caused restaurant guests to ooo and ahhh… We skip the late night karaoke, deciding to rest up for our big Hamptons dinner.

A clear day

Many guests had emailed us in the previous days wondering if our Long Island farm dinner would be a washout. With so many tropical storms crossing the Atlantic "The Media" was pushing the panic button. Jim the weather nut reassured everyone that there was no need for alarm… Sure enough Sunday dawned clear and beautiful as we made our way to EECO Farm in East Hampton.

Sand and Museum

After our successful Hamptons dinner we made plans for arrival in New York City late in the day. Before leaving Long Island we made a visit to the Parrish Art Museum to see Jim's art on display. The crew checked out all the sand themed work: Jasper Johns, Jackson Pollock, Pablo Picasso, Ana Mendieta.... Jim Denevan and others.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Chicago to Slow Food Nation

Chicago Time

After our successful City Farm dinner a more lengthy break between events gave the crew time to take in the big city sights and visit some of our new Chicago friends. The bus was parked and we happily moved into temporary luxury digs in a downtown Chicago highrise (which included a rooftop hot tub) very generously donated by new friends Jeremy and Elaine. We met Jeremy and Elaine at the Nichols Farm dinner. They are big fans of the Hot Chocolate crew and came by to help us out with serving and clean up.

The next day we set out to experience the city. Jim and Ben visited the Museum of Contemporary Art to check out the Jeff Koons exhibit. The exhibit was organized by Francisco Bonami, a curator for our curving Florence Art Table of last January. Music and beer fan Leah checked out a local heavy metal show with new friend chef Mark of Hot Chocolate. Sports fan Aubrey went off on her own to check out a Cubs game at Wrigley Field. She enjoyed some game time and made some new drunken sports fan friends.

All of this was mixed with Chicago area culinary studies/visits and extensive bar hopping.

A highlight of our windy city food and wine spree was lunch at Mindy Segal's Hot Chocolate. Chef Mindy blew us away with course after course of the most creative and delicious dishes imaginable. Oh my god!! Most of us needed to take a long nap after such an unforgettable meal.

Turnpike Travel

Illinois, Indiana and then Indiana became Ohio; a looong drive to Pennsylvania....

Ohio rest stop sleep accommodations were memorable and awful. A bus full of boisterous Alabama Crimson Tide football players decided to run a practice scrimmage on our rest stop parking lot till 5 in the morning. Some of us slept right through it, the rest of us were not nearly so lucky.

Our oh so luxe Chicago life seemed very very far behind.

Pennsylvania Farm Country

Our next home away from home Harvest Valley Farms of Valencia, PA. Pulling up Jim remarked "it really looks like Pennsylvania’’ an obvious comment for sure. Jim wouldn’t want a Pennsylvania site to be confused with say our Arizona dinner. Our moveable feast always needs an iconic location.

Farmer Art King greeted us and we had our usual site search. A flat area along a riparian corridor won out. Our guest chef for the Pittsburgh area dinner would be Justin Severino. Justin is a veteran of a total of 5 Outstanding in the Field dinners which makes him our Top Guest Chef. Justin returned to live and work in Penn in the past several months after what had been a several year stint in California. Santa Cruz deeply felt loss became Pittsburgh's gain. Before our dinner event we explored Pittsburghs ‘strip’ including the famous "Primanti Bros" sandwich house. This heaping portion of local culture resulting in a good bit of indigestion.

Good weather followed us once again as we set out our Pennsylvania table. Our informative farm tours were wildly different as the three Kings (brothers Larry and Art and Art's son David) led individual tours that had a markedly different personality and emphasis.

Justin once again proved himself to be the master of meat with a menu that featured pig served "all ways" -or if not all ways, probably most ways. There were vegetables too of course: almost every veggie on Justin's creative menu came from the fields of our host farm. Jim visited the table with the folks of Heritage Farm and Scott of the East End Brewing Company who showed all at the table a sample of fresh local hops that he brought which each guest could twist and drop into the beer-for an extra hoppy extra fresh tasting beer.

Once again our cranky old bus had to be nursed along. We barely made it to the farm and didn’t know when we might be able to leave –there was no juice going to the battery and with that the big beast seemed to be slowly dieing. Ben once again went under the bus to try and figure it out. After much investigation and a few wrong turns Ben emerged grease stained and triumphant. A burnt out wire was not allowing much power to reach the battery. Ben removed and replaced the offending wire and soon we were moving again.

Aubrey took the pit pit stop as an opportunity to shop for gifts for all the staff: a unicorn figurine for Ben, weather underwear for Jim, martini underwear for Leah and other goodies.

A few days after our event we visited Justin's employment, Eleven restaurant in Pittsburgh, to celebrate with french bubbles and multi course dinner a new art commission that Jim had just learned of. Later Justin took the crew to cool Pittsburgh hotspots like The Sharp Edge, where the crew learned of all things Pittsburgh.

As our Western Pennsylvania visit came to a close we made plans to go separate ways till our Sept 5th Boston dinner.

Jim and Annette flew to the West Coast where Jim would design a special curving table for 250 people as part of a collaboration between Outstanding in the Field and Slow Food Nation taking place on Labor Day in Dolores Park in S.F. (see more on this below)

Leah decided to rent a car and drive to Montreal, returning to her homeland, Canada, for a needed break from the ‘mericans.

Ben and Aubrey marshaled on with the bus finally reaching all the way to the Eastern shore of North America where unwanted adventure would await them as they attempted to make the crossing into Manhattan and New York City on the George Washington bridge…

Bridge Work

With the clutch balking badly on the bridge approach, Ben, looking out over a sea of stop and stop Manhattan traffic decided to abandon any plan to cross the span. He spied a tiny strip of road away from the stream of traffic right on the bridge approach and parked the bus.

An old 1953 bus at a dead stop on one the worlds busiest bridges… the resulting traffic would not endear us to populations of New York and New Jersey. Ben wisely brought the beast to the side and discussed strategy with Aubrey as Leah got swept away in traffic with the truck and trailer.

Rush hour at a dead stop having few options Ben’s idea was to wait till the early morning and quieter bridge traffic to make a move using the ailing clutch to get somewhere close with a mechanic.

It seemed Aubrey and Ben's only option was an evening and night on a disabled bus at the foot of the George Washington bridge.


A good plan but fortunately a New Jersey road angel soon emerged from the endless stream of traffic. Old busses sure have their fans and the right one came along. Andy from the oversize vehicle escort service had showed up early for a temporary bridge closure. A closure that happens only once every two weeks or so. Andy spied the old bus stopped and came over to admire and inquire.

After the usual pleasantries during which our bus lover distractedly stared at his object of desire …a new plan was hatched. Since Andy was early for work and the bridge closure to normal traffic was soon to begin begun- his idea was: Just as the Manhattan bound side of the bridge was closed to all traffic the bus would slip in would be escorted across the span... alone. With the plan made, Ben roared off with Andy in the lead. A U-turn was executed on the Manhattan side and bus and passengers returned to Jersey, safely stopping at the very first bus service opportunity.

With the bus safely parked Ben and Aubrey were off to Manhattan to enjoy big city life...

A Table in the Park

Jim and Annette meanwhile flew off to work with Slow Food Nation in San Francisco. Slow Food USA had asked Outstanding in The Field if there was a possibility for a collaboration. Seeing a gap in the tour Jim made a quick decision and soon plans were made. Jim designed another table: set in a gentle curve of hillside in Dolores park, with a commanding view of the S.F. skyline. The event was billed as the Slow Food Nation/Outstanding in the Field Eat-In, A Celebration of the Youth of Slow Food Nation. Two hundred and fifty young food activists, aged 16 to 34, came from around the country. Veteran/young Outstanding chef Nate Appleman of A16 restaurant generously volunteered, roasting a whole pig right there in the park. The big pig was donated by Mark Pasternak of Devils Gulch Ranch. The rest of the meal was provided by several youth teams working with experienced chefs. Jim's 16 year old son Brighton Denevan helped make the yummy tomato soup (containing tomatoes from Brighton’s own home garden). Brighton’s team was led by chef Caroline Wallace of Down to Earth Food. All attending were rapt by rousing speeches made by the inspired young food activists. Alice Waters of Edible Schoolyard and Chez Panisse fame joined us at the table as she received a constant stream of motivated young people eager to exchange ideas.

Here is a link to an article by Eddie C, who attended the event for a blog about the local foods movement La Vida Locavore.