Why it’s worth paying $200 to eat in a field
We are in the middle of a farmer’s field near Bradford, Ontario, but it looks like a five-star restaurant. Jim Denevan has brought his roving dinner series, Outstanding in the Field, here for one night only. The itinerant anti-restaurant takes locavore lust to the next level by staging dinners at the food source, this time with a little help from Cowbell chef Mark Cutrara, the owners of Dingo Farms (Dennis and Denise Harrison, who provide the aforementioned field) and 90 guests—growers and urbanites, who each paid $200 for their seats. This is Denevan’s first foray into Ontario, and the farmophile likes the lay of the land; he’s already planning more Ontario stops. Sadly, Denevan’s signature 1953 red bus couldn’t make the trip due to border troubles. A bemused customs agent asked, “You organize dinners on farms? Why would anyone want to do that?”
Denevan has served some 7,000 fans at 60 events this year, and countless more since he started the road show in 1999. Feasters come from far afield: tonight, one couple is in from Texas, and two other diners came from Mexico. Our hosts bring five courses of heaping family-sized portions. First up is a leafy salad of Cookstown greens dotted with crisp radish pods. We like, but the Harrisons’ seven-year-old son, Spencer, isn’t sure: “Does this have weeds in it?” Next is an assortment of meaty heirloom tomatoes dressed in rich ricotta from International Cheese, basil from the Harrisons’ garden and balsamic vinaigrette.
An interlude of Niagara Fielding Estates 2007 Pinot Noir goes down easy, and sommelier Allison Slute tells us about its burgundy-style earthiness. When a summery corn salad arrives in a husk canoe topped with a divinely tender Dingo lamb kebab, Spencer pipes up again: “Is there any more meat coming?” There is. We’re licking our chops when the main course arrives: juicy, thick slices of roast beef and pork with a dusting of horseradish and a creamy apple-pickle potato salad. By nightfall, it’s dessert time. A fruit-forward Fielding cabernet franc accompanies a lemony buttermilk cake topped with crème fraîche and cascading berries. Organic farming rep Amber Gulbis says with approval, “This is the only time I would eat something I can’t see.”
After dinner, we grab a word with the affable Denevan (who regaled guests with tales of his recent J. Crew catalogue photo shoot) to ask how he went from artist-chef to ritual forager. He has always been into organic growing techniques, but it was a six-month hiatus as a farmhand that started the shift. “I have a connection to the countryside,” he says. “Otherwise, I would feel pretty silly wearing a hat like this.”