Farmers are cool. And Jim Denevan, founder of Outstanding in the Field, possesses a deep-rooted desire to help others understand just how awesome they are.
He's chosen a simple method: bringing 100-plus eager diners together with local farmers, brewers, fishermen and wine and cheese makers to eat together and celebrate the local bounty. Local food producers host the events at their farms – creating a restaurant without walls in gardens and natural hideaways – allowing the guests to eat on the land from which the food came.
Top chefs like Madison's Tory Miller, Chicago's Stephanie Izard and Minnesota's (and now Milwaukee's) Scott Pampuch have all cooked with open-air flair for Outstanding in the Field, roasting lambs on spits, grilling rib-eyes to a perfect medium rare and shucking oysters in hidden beach coves.
And this summer, Hinterland's Dan van Rite will bring 140 Outstanding in the Field diners a Wisconsin culinary experience they won't soon forget.
The event, which will be held at the Dietzler Farm in Elkhorn, will feature three passed appetizers and four dinner courses, including wine and beer pairings and dessert. According to Van Rite, main attractions will feature beef tartare-stuffed shishito peppers, steam ship rounds (the upper rear leg of a steer, cooked and presented whole) and a salad comprised of grilled greens, among other farm fresh delights.
Van Rite is excited to try his hand at giving diners a taste of Wisconsin's best, and he cites the experience as something completely different from what he does in his day-to-day in the Hinterland kitchens.
"I think it's great to pair up with farmers, establish relationships with the purveyors," he says. "It's going to be fun to interact with the guests and cook a meal completely outdoors."
He'll be utilizing a variety of mechanisms to prepare the food at Dietzler Farm, including two wood-fired grills, high-powered propane burners and (hopefully) a smoker transported from Burlington's Yuppie Hill Farm.
It's difficult to say which aspect of the Outstanding events is most impressive – the farm-fresh, locally sourced meal created by America's most notable chefs, or the picturesque, natural setting in which the food is served. But, suffice it to say, the experience is more than the sum of its parts.
Denevan began holding Outstanding events in 1999, first cooking all of them on his own, and later pulling in area chefs to assist. He has now hosted dinners in 45 states, Europe (six events – Ireland, Wales, Holland, Denmark and Italy) and Brazil.
"One thing that we do is just give the farmers a platform," says Leah Scafe, the organizational brain behind Outstanding. "We let them say what they'd like to say – about farming, their family. They connect with the guests personally. They get to express what's important to them about what they do and the changes that they've seen happening in their industry."
Although Outstanding dinners err on the pricey side (generally $200 or more per person), the price tag reflects a desire to pay farmers, chefs and purveyors a fair price for their wares.
"Many farm dinners are fundraisers. Produce is donated, meat is donated. Ticket prices are low," Scafe explains. "But, you can't put a farm dinner on for $40 a person and make sure that everyone gets paid, including the farmers. Wine is a great example. We don't ask for donations. We have been able to maintain really good relationships with winemakers and work with them on multiple events, in part due to the fact that we're in a partnership with them. We pay them for their wares."
That sense of fairness and communal energy is central to the mission of Outstanding in the Field, which is to "re-connect diners to the land and the origins of their food, and to honor the local farmers and food artisans who cultivate it."
It's a simple concept, but one that aims high. The series of Wisconsin dinners this August are expected to draw not only locals, but also diners from throughout the U.S. who want to get a taste of the area's terroir and understand it from the ground up.
The dinners illustrate the centrality of food to culture, elevating the position of farmers from simple workers of the soil to producers of cultural experience and vivid sense of place. In their essence, the dinners bring people from radically different backgrounds together to celebrate great food and the nobility of farming within a fleeting segment of time that won't – that can't – be repeated.
For more information on Outstanding in the Field and to purchase tickets, visit OutstandingintheField.com.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.