The Table-to-Farm Event Outstanding in the Field Really Does Live Up to the Hype
Nearly 25 years later, the roving dinner series continues to focus on what matters most in today’s culinary world: uplifting regional farmers, food and beverage purveyors, and restaurateurs.
When I first heard of Outstanding in the Field, I thought it was basically going to be a picnic for rich people. At a ticket price of $375 per person, all I — a product of the lower Northeast’s working-class community — could think was, OMG! Hard pass.
But I also don’t like dissing something before I try it. Sure, it’s commendable that the roving outdoor dining event — started in 1999 by Jim Denevan, a native Californian, artist of temporary land art, former chef, and surfing enthusiast — went from “about 25 paid customers and many friends and family pretending to be guests,” Denevan told me, to setting up its iconic long table in all 50 U.S. states, and in 25 countries and counting. Almost 25 years later, the “culinary caravan” has a cult-like following that sells out nearly every tour.
The real intrigue for me — and the ethos of Outstanding — is that it actually supports local farmers and restaurateurs. The mission is simple: Bring the table to the farm instead of the other way around, and dine at the source of the food. There’s one table where guests — from 100 to 1,000 depending on the location — sit and eat in the environment where their meal comes from, sharing stories over farm-fresh fare and local wines, ciders and non-alcoholic bevs. And last year, the brand launched the Outstanding in the Field Foundation, a nonprofit focused on transforming lives through food, farming and education.
It’s why I decided to attend this year’s Philly event, which took place last Saturday on FarmerJawn’s five acres at Elkins Estate, with appetizers, a multi-course dinner and dessert made by chef George Madosky and his team at Ellen Yin’s Fork. It was the second year in a row that FarmerJawn — the urban agriculture org founded by Germantown native Christa Barfield — hosted the event. Fork has participated a handful of times, including last year at Blooming Glen Farm in Perkasie. “Agriculture is the culture,” Barfield reminded us. “We should have one complete food system, [which] is what real health care looks like.”
The schedule followed that of a traditional dinner party: Guests arrived, mingled during cocktail hour, passed the night away over good food, wine, and conversation, found room in our stomachs for dessert (there’s always room), and parted ways once the sky became deep, deep navy.
The food and drinks were phenomenal, naturally. Dishes showcased FarmerJawn’s produce, plus cheese, pork and other ingredients from local spots like Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative, Birchrun Hills Farm, and Green Meadow Farm.
There was everything from melon sprinkled with goat’s milk feta and pepper, to zucchini baba ganoush and a rainbow tomato salad with High Street Philly croutons.
I couldn’t get enough of the tomatillos with cucumbers, turmeric, labneh, and poblano pepper salsa verde — bright and heat-packing — or the tender, ripe figs accompanied by house-made bacon, blue cheese and sherry vinaigrette.
There were fall-off-the-bone pork ribs and sausages cooked on an open-fire grill, and Kensington’s Mural City Cellars and Chestnut Hill’s Cider Belly poured an abundance of impeccable wine and hard cider from start to finish.
I found Outstanding to be neither boring nor pretentious — though, I do think there’s still something to be said about access when it comes to not just this event, but fine dining at large. (A lot of Philadelphians surely get left out when there’s a $300+ bill.) Saturday’s event saw a sea of people — close to 200 — from all walks of life who love locally grown food and drink and want to be part of something “bigger” than themselves, even if only for a night. (The no-assigned-seating thing helps!) To my left, a couple who used to live in Mount Airy and now resides in Glenside — we talked about renovating our respective homes because the market makes it impossible to move, even if we wanted to — and across from me, a husband and wife who met in high school and now live on the Main Line with their five kids.
Most surprising, to me at least, is that Outstanding isn’t gimmicky or showy in the way that pop-ups like Dîner en Blanc can come across. (For the record, I love DEB for its social aspect and more approachable price tag, but am fully aware of its BYO-everything, often neighborhood-disrupting nature.) Though there’s no written policy about phone usage, it’s clear the vibe is don’t use it, which helped keep the focus more on the experience and cultivating connections with fellow diners than on the photo op that is the long table. Did people take pictures of the setting? Of course. But not once did I see an Instagram influencer shoot content or whip out their ring light, actions that can disrupt the uncontrived quality of interactions. I witnessed people — complete strangers — passing bountiful plates of food and getting lost in conversation, rarely ever checking their phones or social media accounts.
Denevan made himself one of the guests, too. He spent the night seamlessly socializing, balancing conversations with attendees, cooks, servers and staff. He sat still for as long as he wanted to — without coming off like he had someone else better to talk to or someplace better to be — before walking the length of the table, wine glass ever in hand.
I wasn’t surprised to find out that there are repeat attendees — Outstanding groupies, if you will. At one point, I met a guy who had flown in from Wisconsin for his third Outstanding. He told me he first heard about it when his hometown CSA was being showcased for that year’s Wisconsin event and wanted to support the farm from which he got (and continues to get) his produce. “It’s a bigger way to support my CSA and local restaurants,” he said. “I went to my second event last month, and decided to buy tickets to the Philly one because my two daughters go to school around here. I’m a ‘Fieldhead’ now!”
Then there’s Eric Rymshaw, co-founder of Rittenhouse-based architectural and interior design firm Fury Design Inc., who marked his fourth regional Outstanding on Saturday. “Our first time was pre-pandemic and was on a farm in Upper Bucks County,” he tells me over email. “We love the food, the presentation, the comradery of strangers at a community table, and the message of supporting small growers and sustainable techniques.”
Day quickly turned to dusk, as it usually does when you’re having a good time. By dessert, candles lit up the otherwise pitch-black environs, and some folks cocooned in blankets for warmth. The grand finale? Peach slab pie and rye chocolate chunk cookies topped with sea salt. (To die for!) I cursed myself for not bringing a to-go container, but that’s the whole schtick, right? You can’t take the stuff with you — just the feeling, and hopefully, the connections, too.
At some point, the guest list thinned to just six of us — Denevan included. I don’t remember what we talked about, but I do remember us all laughing, my wrapping one cookie in my napkin to take home (cheating, I know!), and Denevan exclaiming “It’s a UFO!” as we looked up to see a fleeting streak of neon blue light in the sky.
And I couldn’t help but think, as the six of us stood out in the field, how special it was to gather and break bread — not for the ‘gram, not to show face, but for the sake of ongoingness and nourishment — of our neighbors, our providers, our food system. Outstanding, wouldn’t you say?
The full 2023 Outstanding in the Field tour schedule can be found here. Tickets start at $375 per person and include all food and beverage (welcome reception and multi-course, family-style dinner with wine, cider, and N/A pairings). Tickets go on sale the first day of spring every year.