Feasting in a Field of Flowers

photo by Saam Gabay

Jim Denevan, artist, surfer, and visionary, grew up in a Northern California family of eleven that included two siblings diagnosed with schizophrenia. It was often challenging, but there was also the shared glory of a nightly coming together around a long table meticulously crafted by his dad. After dinner, Jim used to go to the beach where he’d draw huge triangles, circles and Fiobonacci spirals. According to Man in the Field: the Life and Art of Jim Denevan, a new documentary set to come out September 2021, Jim liked the temporality of it and how the sea came in and dissolved his work. It felt elemental and solitary, and gave him a new sense of engagement with the land. He thought, This is what I want to do with my life. This, and traveling the country, connecting with farmers, and engaging beautiful strangers with the people who grow their food. That last part was born out of a similar Zen he felt cooking in kitchens, and seeded his next venture in the late 90s, a restaurant on wheels called Outstanding in the Field.

In the beginning, it was just Jim in a 1953 red school bus, traveling around, stopping and talking to farmers, and asking them if he could cook a dinner for them and their friends. Now Outstanding in the Field is doing a hundred events this year alone, with 1800 more under their belt and collaborations with 150 chefs so far. They’ve gone to fifty U.S. states and sixteen all over the world, taking their farm- dinner-circus to cliffs and fields and mountains and valleys. They’ve set up on main street in the small town of Geneva in upstate New York, at a micro goat dairy in Vermont, at a teaching farm outside of Houston, at a botanical garden in Africa, in a nautilus swirl on Stinson Beach, at an organic farm on Oahu, and in the clouds on a clifftop in Big Sur. In each place they partner with farmers, fishermen, cheesemakers, vintners, brewers and often a well-known chef as well. People come together at these events to drink delicious wines and beer, eat gorgeous food and discover what many have been missing these days: fellowship, adventure and the wild.

On a recent night in Malibu, Outstanding in the Field set up at Thorne Family Farms. The dusky field was full of dahlias and zinnias, their bright heads nodding in a slight breeze. Chef John Cleveland manned the open fire, and Crowns and Hops passed out frothy glasses of craft beer while Kita Wines poured.

Farmer Larry Thorne is a dreamer and adventurer himself, once envisioning these acres of farmland connecting his neighbors and rich with sunflowers, dahlias, zinnias, tomatoes, blackberries, enormous zucchini, melons, green beans, and more. His own father had been born and raised in a tiny town in the Smoky Mountains before coming to work at Walter Lowe’s Culver City farm in 1938, where he sold berries and vegetables to people like Howard Hughes. Farming became Larry’s dream and now, on Saturdays, his farmstand is mobbed in this pocket of hidden Malibu, the kind of place that’s shielded from the tourists at Cross Creek shopping center, and from the bling and commoditization of a once-wild neighborhood of surfers and Angelenos who chose to live close to the land. Helena Henderson of Malibu Farm restaurant is a loyal customer of Thorne Family Farms, and Santa Monica’s own Farmshop as well.

“Growing food is truly a partnership with Mother Earth,” Larry says. “It’s about finding that connection to the land, soil and climate. It’s not only about taking what we need, but by giving back in sustainable ways so that we can preserve the land for the longevity of our future generations.”

The Outstanding in the Field dinner that night was not only about the farm, but also about the home-grown LA vendors who brought their beer, wine, and food. In a tent on the grounds, Teo Hunter was talking up his new brewery with fellow founder, Beny Ashford.

“With Crowns and Hops, we wanted to create a brew pub in an area that has been starving for public space, in an area that has food deserts as well. We wanted a nucleus for breeding that love of fresh premium products that come from inside the community.”

Teo and Beny just signed their lease in the heart of Inglewood and also have put up an equity crowd- funder so that people can buy into something created for and in an underserved community. Their beers are wildly imaginative, like the The Blue Peach, brewed with peach puree, blueberry puree, graham cracker, vanilla, black lava sea salt, cinnamon and coriander in collaboration with Barrel & Flow (Pittsburgh, PA) with Black Calder Brewing Co (Grand Rapids, MI) and brewed in honor of Stacey Abrams. Other IPAs are inspired by jazz, rock n roll and hip hop, and even Key Lime pie.

“Our goal,” Teo says, “is to create something in craft beer that’s signature. Our pilsner is a clean lager, crisp and specifically representative of our neighborhood.”

Kita Wines has a similar out-of-the box creation story. Tara Gomez, chief winemaker, studied Enology with the help of a scholarship from her tribe, the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, and then gained experience at Fess Parker and J Lohr wineries, before making the obligatory pilgrimage to Europe. Back in California, her tribe purchased Camp 4 vineyards in 2010, and she came onboard. Now her bright wines have native Chumash names like T’aya, which means abalone shell.

It’s getting dark and people head for the table, wearing their best flowing dresses and linen suits paired with sneakers and cowboy boots. In the crowd is Sherry Mandel of the Tehachapi Heritage Grain Project, who’ll tell us about the rare corn on the menu. Chef Cleveland of Post and Beam LA has brought family and friends as he whips up his distinctive brand of South LA soul food honed with Chef Govind Armstrong and then spiffed up on his own. A menu card names dish after dish as they are placed on the table, family style, all of it spicy and delicious and paired with the delectable beer and wines.

There’s an undeniable synergy here. It’s hard to explain. Put simply, this whole is more than the sum of its parts. Whatever Jim Denevan has created, it has something to do with the power of sitting down to one long white table, that childhood thrill of eating outside, the joy of the bounty of talented chefs, and the pleasure of getting to know people and sharing an experience that feels new, essential and just what we need right now.

Man in the Field: the Life and Art of Jim Denevan will be released this Fall. Crowns and Hops’ crowdfund to support the only black-owned brewery in Inglewood can be found at startengine.com/crownsandhops. A list of upcoming Outstanding in the Field events is at outstandinginthefield.com. And if you’re hankering for a taste of Chef Cleveland’s South LA soul, there’s always his legendary Sunday brunch at postandbeamla.com.

Cover Photo by Saam Gabay


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