Outstanding in the Field: A Table-to-Farm Tour
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Outstanding in the Field — or, out sitting in the field. At one very long table.
“We had farmers to the restaurant, but it was time to take the table to the farm,” says founder Jim Denevan, who founded the pop-up dining tour in 1999.
The traveling restaurant without walls stages open-air, table-to-farm feasts set in the very places where ingredients on the plate were harvested. Denevan was a chef who was passionate about food, but even more passionate about the stories behind it. His first field event featured a farm belonging to his brother, who’s been a “pioneer” organic farmer in California since 1974.
“He was doing it at a time it was thought he was being kind of ‘out there,’ kind of eccentric, and over time he became really successful,” Denevan remembers.
At that very first farm dinner of about 60 people, Denevan tells me he mostly had to recruit family and friends to pretend to be customers, since no one had really heard of his concept yet.
Fast-forward 17 years, and Outstanding in the Field has visited all 50 states and 11 countries, most recently Japan with a table along Mt. Fuji. On the mainland, the team has travelled state to state in a 1953 bus Denevan says he got for a great deal online. But, he warns, “You should never buy a bus that cheap, because it won’t make across the country.” Or at least not before breaking down multiple times!
Still, it’s clearly about the journey, and the stories they find along the way. Here in Hawai’i, those stories are a profound reminder about reconnecting with island food sources.
“Hawaiʻi had gone so far away from local food, and so much food coming from other places, and now there’s a real powerful movement to tell the story of local food,” he says. “The enthusiasm, bringing local food back; it’s exciting to see all the energy around local food.”
This local food centered on the creativity of chef Jeff Scheer at Mill House, the restaurant at Maui Tropical Plantation. There, Kumu Farms tends 35 different crops on around 55 acres, which mainly grew sugar cane in the past.
”We thought to expand and be diversified,” says Manu Vinciguerra of Kumu Farms. “The vision most of all was to fulfill the demand for wholesome, organic, nice food; fortunately now the movement is growing, thanks also to movements like this.”
Kumu Farms’ organic produce is a favorite among top-notch chefs on Maui. Along with supplying restaurants and mobile food operations, it runs a public farm stand near the entry of Maui Tropical Plantation. The farm keeps the bounty here in Hawaiʻi, with the exception of its famous papaya.
“Nowadays, we are recognized still for the Sunrise Strawberry Papaya, non-GMO for the state of Hawaii, and we are the only organic exporter of papaya in the mainland,” explains Vinciguerra.
Event pupus included Akule with Ali’i mushrooms and microgreens (grown on-site), and roasted Poblano sausage made with Mālama Farms pork, pickled corn from Kumu Farms, mustard seed and jalapeño on a homebaked sweetbread cracker. Denevan says he wants farm-fresh food to feel more natural, and less like a novelty.
“For many people, it’s so exotic,” he explains. “They have no idea; they go to the supermarket and things are wrapped in plastic and they don’t know about seasons, so I think when the connection happens that they feel closer to the meaning of place, it can be really emotional for people.”
Before sitting down together, diners went on a walking tour to learn about some of Kumu Farms’ produce, like the pineapples, papayas and bananas. Tour guide Tenisha Ruidas sprinkled in little fun facts and tips, like how the papain enzyme can ease jellyfish stings, and banana peels can treat poison ivy or even whiten teeth.
“There’s over 1,000 types of bananas,” she tells the group. “The local bananas here in Hawaiʻi are called the Apple Bananas, smaller but sweeter than normal bananas. Bananas are known to be the largest herb in the world.”
Learning about the land and appreciating producers, whether they be farmers, fishermen, cheesemakers, winemakers or beer makers, are key parts of Denevan’s purpose. He wants diners to understand the “meaning of place” on a deeper level.
“It’s the closest place to nature. It’s where culture and nature meet,” he says. “If the land doesn’t speak to us, if it doesn’t have stories, then we don’t know how to take care of it, we don’t know how to think about it. But if the people who work the land can tell us about what they do, then it brings things closer, makes us feel closer to where we live.”
After grabbing plates or bringing their own (a tradition), diners enjoyed a family-style, four-course feast. The menu featured Maui Tropical Planatation ʻulu chips, cured Maui fish, Kumu Farms cucumber broth, roasted local vegetables, Mālama Farms pork confit, farm eggs, Kumu Farms rosemary pâté à bombe and roasted bananas. Each course was paired with wine.
Denevan says his team made a choice early on to have one big, long table, in a symbol of solidarity. But each individual brings something unique to the table; a plate, and an appetite. Diners learn not only about the land and food, but also each other. They sit next to family, friends, and strangers who often become friends.
“I thought it was really powerful that we could all sit together,” Denevan says. “The love of the land, the story of the land, can be shared; we can break bread together.”
The Outstanding in the Field tour stopped at the Big Island Abalone Farm in Kailua-Kona for a meal last weekend. After Maui, the long table heads to Kualoa Ranch on Oʻahu Saturday, Jan. 23, then travels to four venues in Florida and one more in Louisiana before completing the season in Sayulita, Mexico, all by February 21. See the tour schedule here. Denevan is proud of this longstanding adventure, seeing so many embrace a movement that just keeps growing.
“It shows the common humanity, that these kinds of values are important for people,” he says. “It makes them feel more connected not just locally, but to other people and other cultures. The traditions of the table are so powerful for all of us.”