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Irony Chef: As you can clearly see here, longtime Gabriella Cafe chef Jim Denevan is not only outstanding in the field, he is actually out standing in the field.

Who Fields It Knows It

'National Geographic' meets 'Iron Chef' when Jim Denevan takes foodies day-tripping for 'Outstanding in the Field'

By Christina Waters

Lanky, blond Jim Denevan admits to having "a missionary impulse." That impulse led Denevan, an innovative earthwork sculptor and longtime chef at Gabriella Cafe, to combine his love of the land, food and artifacts together in an alfresco experience he called Outstanding in the Field.

The idea is to go beyond restaurants and dine at the source, to soak up the aromas, atmosphere, geographical inflection of the places where our food is grown.

"I wanted to bring people close to the producers and growers of organic foods," he says.

And so he has. Doing miles of fieldwork and networking, Denevan--whose brother Bill is the celebrated orchardist of Happy Valley Farm--hosts six to 10 dinners a season, each one located in the midst of the fields or orchards of an organic farm. Teaming up the grower's specialty crop with wild seafoods and naturally produced meats, Denevan invites a guest chef to join him and a guest winemaker to come, pour and chat about winemaking.

When I first talked with Jim about his outdoor dining series, I admit I was tempted to consider it so much politically correct ideology. But with it now in its fourth year, and with last month's successful celebration with Alice Waters under its belt, the series has made a believer of me.

"The experience is a little like National Geographic meets Iron Chef," Denevan laughs. The action begins at around 2:30pm with the arrival of guests at the designated site--the upcoming Sept. 28 event takes place at Happy Boy Farms, with guest chef David Kinch of Manresa and winemaker Paul Draper of the fabled Ridge Vineyards.

"While we're setting up the kitchen right out in the fields, people arrive at a table set with glasses and wines, and after chatting with the winemaker, the farmer shows them around the property for a half-hour or 45-minute tour." During warm afternoons, the tables are spread out under the shade of orchard trees or umbrellas.

"It's all very beautiful out in the fresh air," he says.

Dinners involve five or six courses, each paired with a separate wine, and the affair lasts until 7:30 or 8pm.

"It's not just a picnic," Denevan understates.

During this year's series, Denevan and his co-chefs have solved the field kitchen challenge in colorful ways. A wild pig was roasted in a pit, lamb has been grilled on spits--"we even rolled an oven right out into the field. Chefs can get very obsessive about the on-site process."

Denevan's personal culinary quest is to reacquaint diners with the handmade, hand-grown aspect of the meals they enjoy, foodstuffs which are part of a complex organic process. Denevan admits that all the players in this outdoor opera enjoy the unique conversational chemistry created by beautiful food and fine wine consumed out in the midst of fertile fields. Diners ask lots of questions, and farmers love to talk.

"I want to reattach the story with the object," he says. And from his own hand-crafted vantage point, Denevan believes the public is hungry for this sort of deeply personal involvement with the ancient process of growing.

For details about alfresco dinner series, contact 877.886.7409 or visit www.outstandinginthefield.com.

And while we're on the subject of amazing food experiences, fans of California culinary superstar David Kinch need to know about another upcoming dream dinner. Manresa, the lovely high-concept Los Gatos dining room, will hold a rare and wonderful event for those devoted to the finest flavors money can buy. Abundantly praised by the likes of Gourmet Magazine, chef/owner David Kinch will be joined on Thursday, Sept. 18, by his old colleague, Wayne Nish, chef of March Restaurant in New York City.

"We are each doing four courses," Kinch emailed me last week. "It will be great--very civilized, with only one seating so everyone has a table for the night."

Kinch and Nish go way back to their salad days at the Quilted Giraffe, so this dinner should prove sensational. Plus you'll get a chance to take a look at the gorgeous terrace and interior of Manresa. Call quick for your reservation, 408.354.4330.

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From the September 10-17, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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