Coming Home for Dinner
Imagine nearly 200 food lovers gathering for a multi-course feast at a winery. Or a farm. Or on a beach. And they’re sitting at a table that winds and stretches the length of a field, decorated with the finest candles, linens and flower arrangements local artisans can supply.
This is the table that Jim Denevan and his team sets dozens of times a year, along the California coast, on a goat dairy farm in Vermont, or in ancient European vineyards.
And for the first time, this month Denevan’s traveling outdoor dining experience, the aptly named Outstanding in the Field, set up right outside of where the idea first started cooking two decades ago: Gabriella Cafe in Downtown Santa Cruz.
“People love good food and good company, and people to talk to who are interesting,” Denevan says. “Outstanding in the Field is just recognizing how powerful that can be … It’s dinner, and also, there’s something more going on that can be profound, about being better connected with our food sources.”
“People love good food and good company, and people to talk to who are interesting. Outstanding in the Field is just recognizing how powerful that can be.”
<div class="quote-attribute">Jim Denevan</div>
When we spoke to Deneven in May, he wouldn’t reveal the menu for the homecoming dinner in Santa Cruz, as he only finalizes dishes a few weeks in advance. But he did confirm that he would be cooking personally, alongside head chef Gema Cruz of Gabriella Cafe, who he hired in 1995, back when he was the restaurant’s head chef. And that dinner guests would be savoring the style of seasonal fare Gabriella Cafe and Outstanding in the Field are known for—like Cruz’s richly spiced pork mole, and local halibut, alongside the last asparagus or first raspberries of the season and the restaurant’s longtime favorite focaccia.
Setting up their signature skinny table in the center of the street, with enough room for 180 diners, Outstanding in the Field’s Santa Cruz Community Table dinner also welcomed a few special guests. Denevan says he invited “every farmer I’ve ever worked with,” which feels “extremely emotional,” including chef Damani Thomas of Oswald, winemaker Randall Graham of Bonny Doon Vineyard, farmer Jeff Larkey of Route One Farm, and many more. Plus, Denevan had a couple of surprises in store, with an art exhibit just around a corner at Minnow Arts Gallery, and a screening of his documentary “Man in the Field: The Life and Art of Jim Denevan,” down the street.
“It’s very surreal for me,” Denevan says of his Surf City return. “With the table right outside the restaurant in the middle of the street. But the city gave us permission to take over.”
BACK TO HIS ROOTS
While outdoor dining took off during the pandemic, the 61-year-old Denevan, whose customary straw hat and flip-flops tell the story of a Santa Cruz surfer with hippy roots, first took the dining experience outdoors more than two decades earlier. The roving event has grown from a few farms in California to locations around the world, from van trips up to Alaska to long flights to the southern tip of Africa.
Gabriella Cafe is the last traditional restaurant that Denevan ever worked in, and the place where he first imagined what a dinner could look like beyond four walls. “It’s not all rainbows and whatever,” Denevan says. “It’s not easy to have a traveling culinary circus with high standards … But it still feels super meaningful to sit with people.”
Denevan was born in San Jose and raised in Santa Cruz, where his family owned a beach house that eventually became home. He took to the water as a competitive surfer as a teenager and modeled in Milan in his twenties. Initially, restaurants were a night job that afforded the freedom to surf during the day. But after returning from Italy, he dug into rustic and seasonal fare as the chef at Trattoria Primizia, before serving as the opening chef at Gabriella Cafe in 1992.
He threw his first field dinner on Mariquita Farm near Watsonville, because the farm’s owner, Andy Griffin, was a favorite produce supplier of the restaurant. “It was a little ambitious,” Denevan admits. “We roasted a whole pig in the ground.” They dug a trench and filled it with river rocks, inviting the 60 guests to grab a shovel and help unearth the slightly overcooked but still smoky and delicious pork. They set the table in the prettiest spot between the gladiolus and tomatoes, and let the winemaker and cheesemaker share stories—the rough format that remains much the same today.
Up next was his brother’s apple orchard at Happy Valley Farm in Santa Cruz. Then in 2004, as interest in his events kept growing, he quit his restaurant job, bought an old red bus, and hit the road to throw dinners around the country. He drove and ferried it all the way up to Alaska, before it ultimately broke down. At another memorable dinner on an oyster farm in Massachusetts, storm clouds and high winds ended the evening early. “But that’s part of the unplanned fun,” says Denevan, who secretly loves unpredictable weather, and moves tables in and out of barns or greenhouses to accommodate the mood of the sky.
Despite some mishaps here and there, the dinners proliferated across the country and world. Outstanding in the Field ticked off all 50 states more than a decade ago, and returns to Hawaii nearly every year. They’ve gone international, from a mezcal palenque in Mexico to a winery in Japan to a mango orchard in Ghana. Running every season for 24 years, the team only took off 15 months during the Coronavirus pandemic, when it didn’t feel safe to sit shoulder to shoulder. Still, while typically hosting 80 to 95 dinners per season, they’ve surpassed more than 1,400 dinners in total.
They’ve set the stage for countless star chefs over the years, including big Bay Area names David Kinch of Manresa, Dominique Crenn of Atelier Crenn, and Michael Tusk of Quince. Tusk and Crenn have gone on to host their own dinners at their own farms. “People do their own versions,” Denevan says of the many imitations and homages over the years. “But we were the bleeding edge.”
No one quite matches Denevan’s distinctive table setting style. A renowned land artist, Denevan draws in the sand to create temporary pieces, which wash away naturally with the wind and tides. Many feature circles or spirals, remarkably symmetrical and enormous, dwarfing any human figures. With that eye, he always uses long tables for his field dinners, whether winding through trees or circling a cove.
“Wherever you are, whatever the landscape is, if you’re drawing with a white line, it’s very visible,” says Heidi Barr of Kitchen Garden Textiles in Pennsylvania. Barr provides custom-made natural and sustainable linens in soft white for Outstanding in the Field’s dinners. “His long tables are clearly him drawing with tables. I love the way he fits them into the different landscapes.” Barr is one of many artisans who contribute to the tablescapes (for more, see Get The Look below). Unlike conventional caterers who work with big rental companies, Outstanding in the Field reaches out to small makers for textiles, ceramics, glassware, and more.
It’s all part of Denevan’s meticulous attention to detail. To achieve his visions for the dinners, Denevan’s team often shims tables and chairs onto rocky hillsides or into sinking sand, sometimes without electricity or water.
Greg Hill and Sydney Sharek own Tira Nanza deep in Carmel Valley, a windy back-road winery that sits on 25 rustic acres high above Cachagua Road. When Denevan first visited the ranch to plan for a dinner there this spring, he walked the site quietly, only speaking a few words. “You can tell he’s an artist, from the way he’s taking in his surroundings, " Sharek says, adding that she and Hill were blown away by how quickly the team pulled together a full dining experience—and did so with smiles on their faces. “They genuinely make you feel like they care about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it,” Hill says. “As a farmer and a grower, they want to put you in the spotlight.”
Though Denevan originally hoped Outstanding in the Field would last a decade, he is quite pleased, if a little surprised, by its longevity. The team works incredibly hard to serve consistency, while keeping things fresh by mixing in new chefs, venues, and stories. “There’s always something different to see,” he says. “Each year has a different emphasis, you know where the energy is, and the creativity.” <img src="https://assets-global.website-files.com/6457f19f1c1e1601e2c9c3f6/6487a9355b63a6818c705cea_CC-Icon--20.svg"alt="CC"height="20" width="20">
Get the Look: Santa Cruz Community Table
Celebrating 40 years in business this summer, Watsonville-based Annieglass produces 80,000 pieces of small-batch slumped-glass dinnerware each year, including the Roman Antique Buffet Server and Matini Tray used on Outstanding in the Field’s Santa Cruz Community Table. Founded by artist Annie Morhauser, the globally-recognized brand features unique designs with platinum and 24-karat gold detailing. Two pieces from the Annieglass Shells Collection are on permanent display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Shop Annieglass at prestige retailers such as Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale’s, among others.
Founded by potter Drake Bialecki, this Santa Cruz shop specializes in handmade pottery for the home and table. For Outstanding in the Field’s Community Table dinner, they crafted custom stamped plates (“Ceramic canvases to highlight the farm fresh ingredients,” says Bialecki) and more than 44 of their signature Swellian vases with eye-catching ocean-inspired motifs.
Stemming from its commitment to sustainability, Santa Cruz-based Flower Bar sources the majority of its florals and plants from local farmers, designing stunning arrangements like the ones used for Outstanding in the Field’s Community Table. Visit Flower Bar’s interactive Santa Cruz design studio for your own shop, sip and DIY experience.
A favorite collaborator of Outstanding in the Field, Pennsylvania’s Kitchen Garden Textiles ethically crafts natural linen tablecloths and napkins for the series’ long table dinners. This season alone, Kitchen Garden Textiles will cover 35 events for the partnership. Owner Heidi Barr’s signature textile line also includes aprons, market bags and reusable tea and coffee filters.