A Justice Site
CSUDH - Habermas - UWP - Archives
California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: August 5, 2005
Latest Update: August 5, 2005
This backup copy is to be used only if the original site on the Web is not accessible. It is meant to preserve the document for teaching purposes, when sometimes the URLS are changed when sites are updated, or sites are eliminated. Please be certain to give credit if you refer to this to the original URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/21/magazine/21STYLE.html. Original URL, consulted: August 21, 2005.
August 21, 2005
By KIM SEVERSON
On the morning of Jim Denevan's outdoor dinner party, finding a skiff topped a long list of problems.
In the late afternoon, Denevan would lead 48 guests to a remote isthmus an hour's drive north of Seattle. There, at a Last Supper-style table, they would eat eight courses built from the bounty of local farms and cooked over mesquite charcoal by Johnathan Sundstrom, the chef at Lark restaurant in Seattle.
The dinner would feature local spot prawns, smelts smothered in summer truffle aioli and little hens grown especially for the occasion. It was timed to peak just as the tide turned the isthmus into an island. Guests could walk onto the isthmus, but they might not be able to walk off. Hence the skiff.
Denevan had already asked people to bring their own plates, a nifty bit of community building that would turn the table into a collective expression of the diners. It also meant that the crew wouldn't have to rent plates.
Denevan, 44, is a surfer, a sand artist and a self-taught chef. But he is also something of a gentle con man with a knack for persuading people to do things for a greater good. He knew he was already pushing his luck, charging $150 for a dinner with a bring-your/own-plate policy and a 20-minute hike through tall grass. Asking guests to roll up their pants and navigate a marsh filling fast with icy water from Puget Sound might be too much.
Blaming Denevan for not having such a crucial piece in place less than 24 hours before the meal would be easy. He never nailed down the date with the fellow who was supposed to help his ragtag team of four Californians stage the dinner. Instead of delivering skiffs, the guy left town to cook dinner for the Dalai Lama in Idaho.
Denevan tends to wander like a child toward whatever seems the next cool thing. After a few days with him, it is an act of pure faith to believe he has spent the past six years persuading some of the best chefs, winemakers and farmers in the country to volunteer time, food and space on their land so he could produce his ''Outstanding in the Field'' dinners.
On the eve of what would be the outfit's most adventurous and elaborate dinner to date, Denevan shrugged off any worry.
''We'll find some skiffers,'' he said. ''I have no doubt.''
Then again, wading through Puget Sound after dinner just might be part of the magic, a way to tell the story of food in a way no diner had ever heard it before. Like surfers on a safari for the next best wave, Denevan says people are hungry for food adventures outside of the confines of restaurant walls. The nation is ready for extreme dining, and Denevan insists he is just the one to lead it there. If he can find a skiff.
Denevan began his mission in 1999 after he orchestrated a series of farmers' dinners at Gabriella Cafe, a small restaurant in Santa Cruz, Calif., where he once worked as a chef.
''Farmers who were shy and generally didn't want to talk really loved it when people were listening to them,'' he said. ''They really opened up.''
Denevan figured they would be even more open on a farm, so he organized a dinner in his brother's apple orchard in the nearby Santa Cruz mountains. The following years he did a few more, and word spread among the Northern California food elite and supporters of sustainable farming. In 2003, when Alice Waters attended a dinner at Frog Hollow Farm on the Sacramento River Delta, intended to benefit her Chez Panisse Foundation, Denevan had the culinary equivalent of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.
The timing was perfect. Across the country, farmers were replacing chefs as the new celebrities of the culinary scene, and farmers' markets were opening by the hundreds.
''I'm spaced out,'' Denevan said, ''but I also know why and when something becomes interesting to someone and it's time to hold out the fruit and say it's ripe.''
Last summer, Denevan decided to go on the road with his band of true believers. They bought a 1953 Flxible transit bus for $7,000, added some ill-fitting curtains and took off, the bus choking out oil from its ailing diesel engine -- a little problem they have yet to rectify on this second summer of their underfinanced tour. The isthmus was the second dinner on this year's trip, which will take them through 14 states, including Alaska, North Carolina and New York. The people working with Denevan receive $100 a week and sleep each night in the bus, which is packed with yerba mate tea, tamari-roasted almonds and a tumble of clothes and sleeping bags. They park the bus wherever they can, hoping that farmers or other people along the way will give them space for the night.
A support vehicle -- actually Denevan's decade-old Jeep Cherokee with an overloaded, unregistered trailer attached -- carries the tables, handmade tablecloths and glass platters they use to set up the meals.
Money and time appear to be foreign concepts to Denevan. He seems to assume he will be taken care of -- somehow. And on tour he generally is, often by Katy Oursler, the director of the organization who is Wendy to his Peter Pan. Oursler is a former wedding planner who got tired of watching people spend $50,000 on events they never enjoyed.
Examining the books or the business plan or the nonprofit status of Outstanding in the Field is difficult because the organization essentially has none of those things. Although some dinners are so successful the group can donate money to local organizations that support open space or small-scale farming, the road events barely generate enough cash to get the crew to the next dinner. They barter seats at the table for services and supplies and pick up volunteers along the way with a simple pitch: ''We need you to do it for the farmers.''
Any big expenses, like getting the bus repaired or even renting skiffs, come from the emergency fund, which is a thin line of credit on the Santa Cruz home Denevan's mother left him when she died.
Still, chefs have been eager to donate what amounts to thousands of dollars in food and time. Sundstrom of Lark agreed to do the isthmus dinner for the adventure and because his restaurant is built to showcase small producers in the state. He paid the farmers out of the restaurant's budget, hoping he might recoup at least a little of the cost from Denevan.
In 2003, one of the stops was in the Hudson River Valley in New York, where the chef Dan Barber agreed to create a dinner a few months before his restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, opened. He wouldn't do it again.
''He's kind of spacey, a real concept guy,'' Barber said. ''He doesn't like details. We basically ended up doing all the work.''
Still, Barber agrees that the concept is a strong one: ''The beauty of the idea isn't the literal part of sticking people in the middle of the field. To me it's the story of the farmers and the food and where it's coming from, whether people are eating in Midtown Manhattan or a town in Iowa.''
Sometimes, the team gets pulled off track for Denevan's other life's work, which is drawing in the sand with a stick and a rake.
His sculptures began to get attention from the media and followers of environmental art about the same time he started the dinners in 1999.
Denevan creates startling geometric patterns and swirls that sometimes cover miles of beach. He has done several hundred, mostly along the beaches of Northern California. They take about five hours to make and are quickly erased by the tide. The dinners are as ephemeral. Last year, he dug the sand out of a Northern California sea cave, filled it with tables and talked Melissa Perello, the chef at Fifth Floor in San Francisco, into grilling freshly caught salmon on the beach.
Frish Brandt, director of the Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco, saw Denevan's work a few years ago. ''I immediately loved the idea of it, the magnificence of it and the transience of it,'' she said. ''It was fragile and temporary. That thing he does with sand and that thing he does with food are both transient media, but they leave a memory. They change you.''
Transience is a theme of Denevan's life as well. His mother, Dorothy, died in 2000 from complications of Alzheimer's disease. She had been the frugal, rational rock in a family of nine children, a widow who raised them on a math teacher's salary. Before she became sick, three of Denevan's older brothers developed schizophrenia. To cope, he took to the waves of Santa Cruz. And when his mother started to become sick years later, Denevan put his rake in the sand to draw. ''She always said I was a dreamer, that I should be more responsible,'' he said.
Denevan is unsure about how to move his art and the dinners to the next stage. Galleries are showing interest, and he has plans for a farm-dinner book and a television show, and he is the subject of a documentary by Chesley Chen called ''Sandman,'' to be released in 2006.
It all seems possible, as if he is about to really make it. But then the brakes overheat on the bus, the team argues over paying $12 to park overnight and someone wanders off to to relieve himself in an alley. You wonder if it is all somehow an elaborate fantasy.
That's how it was with the skiffs. It seemed ridiculous that Denevan expected Sundstrom to walk with hundreds of pounds of equipment and food through marshland to the site and even more ridiculous that paying guests might be stranded at high tide on a piece of land no one was even sure was legal to use.
But the sun was shining on Denevan this day. Sundstrom created his lovely seasonal courses, coaxing from each ingredient its best attributes. The tide came in fast, but it never quite turned the isthmus into a complete island. The sun set, and diners, blissed out from the food and the wine and a 360-degree view of the Pacific Northwest, wound their way along a small path that was only slightly damp.
Microsoft millionaires had dined with farmers; adventure-seeking college kids broke bread with catering executives.
Magic had happened.
The crew sat exhausted amid the remains of the dinner. A crescent moon punctuated by a single star rose over the water. Denevan, a lost little boy looking for solace in sand castles and peanut-butter sandwiches, smiled. It turns out he never really needed those skiffs.