Moveable feasts: From restaurant to field

Group travels the continent serving dinners on the farm


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Each summer, Jim Denevan and several companions board their 1953 Flxible bus, "Outstanding," and drive across North America, serving outdoor dinner parties of local foods, usually right in the fields or vineyards or urban community garden, sometimes inches away from where the food was grown or sourced. The local, seasonal spread is served to 100-plus people, with the farmers and food artisans and guests all sitting together at a long table, after everybody tours the fields.

The point is to celebrate and connect us to the land and the people who provide the food we eat. This summer, Mr. Denevan's group, Outstanding in the Field, is stopping in Pittsburgh for a dinner on Aug. 23 -- its first one in Pennsylvania and one of two in the state.

The local host farm is yet to be announced, but the road show's Web site, outstandinginthefield. com, is taking reservations for the Aug. 23 dinner here. The guest chef is Justin Severino, sous chef at Eleven restaurant in the Strip District. He and his wife, Hilary Prescott, moved back here in December after working in California, where he was guest chef for four Outstanding in the Field dinners. Chef Severino worked managing the meats at the acclaimed Manresa restaurant, and then he and his wife ran Severino's Community Butcher in Santa Cruz, Calif., where Outstanding in the Field is based.

Then the Ashtabula-born chef decided to move back to Pittsburgh, where he'd attended culinary school and worked for Casbah restaurant.

Because of his intense interest in charcuterie, he knows that his Outstanding here will be "full of different parts of animals we are not used to eating, and lots of these parts are cured," and much of the meat will come from Heritage Farm in Ridgway. But he aims to hold the dinner on a vegetable farm closer to the city that he'll choose for its selection of vegetables as well as its aesthetic charms, and he plans to bring in other local producers, of everything from cheese to wine and beer. He is making his field trips this week and says details should be posted by next week.

The dinner here costs $180 per person, the low end of the all-included price range of up to $220 for one of these five-course meals with wine pairings.

But most of this season's 37 dinners, which wind up to British Columbia, across the American West and Northeast and back across the South to California, are sellouts. (There are still seats open for the other Pennsylvania one, at Eckerton Hill Farm in Hamburg, Berks County, on Sept. 16.)

Mr. Denevan had the idea for his "restaurant without walls" after starting "farmer dinners" that invited local farmers into the restaurant in Santa Cruz, where he worked as a chef. He turned those into "farm dinners," taking the restaurant to the farms, in September 1999, and then started taking the dinners on the road, throughout California and beyond. He's held them on mountains and on beaches -- even in a sea cave.

"It seems like critical mass has happened with interest in this kind of thing," says Mr. Denevan, who marvels at how fast dinners in places like Chicago and Washington, D.C., now fill up. His team may yet add a few to the schedule. "It just seems that this year is the year."

In fact, he and his team in January organized an artfully staged dinner for a fashion designer in Florence, Italy, and he just got back from scouting exotic locales for Absolut vodka's "Absolut Visionaries" campaign. Also an artist who does monumental drawings in sand, he's one of the visionaries, along with musician Kanye West, comic Eddie Izzard and others.

Just published is "Outstanding in the Field: A Farm to Table Cookbook" (Clarkson Potter, $32.50) that Mr. Denevan wrote with Marah Stets, a food writer in Washington, D.C. In words and photographs, it shares the group's story and more than 100 recipes celebrating local, seasonal ingredients (though substitutions are suggested, too). The lushly photographed book also lists resources for eating local.

Outstanding in the Field isn't the only company taking diners out to the fields. Dinners at the Farm (dinnersatthefarm.com) runs a series of benefit dinners "celebrating Connecticut's local farms, food and community." Plate & Pitchfork in Portland, Ore. (plateandpitchfork.com) has sold out all 14 of its 100-seat farm dinners this season.

Next month, Slow Food Pittsburgh and Grow Pittsburgh are holding a "Braddock Organick Pig Roast" in Braddock, home of Grow Pittsburgh's Braddock Farms, which is the surprising neighbor to the Edgar Thomson steel mill. Mayor John Fetterman, who wants Braddock to be a regional center for urban agriculture, has invited the two groups to his home for a feed from 4 to 8 p.m. Aug. 10 that Slow Food describes as: "Tables under the trees. Spits turning in the brick alley." Diners can tour the urban farm, which will be the source of organic produce served at the dinner, and there'll be other local foods, including beer at a cash bar. Cost is $45 for Slow Food members, $50 for nonmembers. To reserve, e-mail Jack Neemes at neemes@aol.com or call 412-343-7354.

Chef Severino, who's also dined at several Outstanding in the Field dinners, says he's looking forward to seeing Mr. Denevan and his other good friends, but he's also looking forward to the dinner experience. He says that dining out on a beautiful organic farm at sunset surprises and moves people.

"It's pretty much the perfect setting to give thanks and really understand where our food comes from."

Baby Turnip Soup

PG tested

Jim Denevan suggests making this in the fall with Tokyo turnips, "which are sweeter and more delicate than other turnips," but any will do. I used local turnips from the East End Food Co-op, which I did not peel, and I used about half the 4 quarts of broth called for in the cookbook. But Mr. Denevan says 4 quarts is right if you allow the broth to reduce while it cooks.

-- Bob Batz Jr.

  • 1 1/2 pounds baby turnips with greens
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for serving
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • Kosher salt
  • 3 ribs celery, chopped
  • 1 carrot, chopped
  • 2 fresh or dried bay leaves
  • 3 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 4 quarts chicken stock (there's a recipe in the book) or low-sodium broth, plus more if needed (I used about half that)
  • Freshly ground black pepper

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil and prepare a bowl of ice water. While water is heating, remove greens from turnips and set aside. Peel turnips, chop them and set aside. Remove any tough stems from turnip greens. Cook greens in boiling water just until tender, about 2 minutes. Drain and plunge them immediately into ice water to stop the cooking and keep their bright color. When greens are cool, remove from water and squeeze out any liquid. Chop greens into 1/2-inch pieces. Set aside.

In a heavy-bottomed stockpot, heat 3 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Add onions and a pinch of salt and cook until translucent, about 8 minutes. Add the turnips, celery, carrot, bay leaves and thyme sprigs and season with salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables begin to soften, about 10 minutes.

Add the chicken stock, bring to a boil and then reduce the heat. Simmer until the vegetables are very soft, about 1 hour.

Remove pot from heat and remove and discard thyme sprigs and bay leaves. Puree soup in batches in a food processor or blender until smooth. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Put soup back in pot and bring to a boil. Stir in chopped greens. Ladle into warmed bowls, drizzle with olive oil and serve.

Serves 4.

-- "Outstanding in the Field: A Farm to Table Cookbook" by Jim Denevan with Marah Stets (Clarkson Potter, $32.50)


Bob Batz Jr. can be reached at bbatz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1930.


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