November North Coast Feast

Outstanding in the Field, the traveling farm-to-table feast launched here by Jim Denevan in 1999, comes home to Santa Cruz.

Photos by Jennifer Walker. Text by Eric Johnson.

Dec. 2, 2015—When my friends Steve Principe and Jen Walker invited me to join them for an Outstanding in the Field event up on Red, White and Blue Beach, I figured I was going to be in for a good time. Enjoy a meal grown by local farmers and cooked by a local chef, with 100 or so people, in a beautiful outdoor setting? Maybe that's not everybody's idea of heaven, but it is mine.

So yes, I had high expectations. Still, I was blown away.

For one thing, I was thinking of this as an outdoor dinner. What it is is an outdoor dinner party. I mean: party. For two hours before we sat down, we drank. We sampled cocktails made by Sean Venus of Venus Spirits on the West Side. Our friend Emily Thomas from Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing was there with a fine selection of beers. There was a terrific variety of wines from Coterie Cellars. So we milled about, perched on a cliff overlooking a spectacular stretch of North Coast beach, drinking and munching apps.

Another nice surprise: It hadn't occurred to me that most people at the party would be out-of-towners. Turns out this event, founded by Santa Cruz chef and artist Jim Denevan in 1999, is a really big deal. People plan vacations around it and travel from all over everywhere. There was a couple from Boston that had attended an Outstanding in the Field event in Wisconsin last summer and vowed to do it every year. There was a nice lady from Texas with five or six friends from other cities throughout the country, who meet at an Outstanding in the Field event every summer, and have done so for the past seven years. She'd compiled them all into a photo book that she brought to the beach as a gift for Denevan. There was sparkling conversation all day long.

The food was also a revelation. My first taste was a tiny bite of sashimi with cured lemon, made with sustainable tuna from H&H Fish, who also supplied the surprisingly good (to my taste) main-course serving of mackerel. The first course at the table was kind of an antipasto featuring charcuterie from El Salchichero, sheep cheese from Garden Variety, and nice pickled vegetables (I'm guessing they were from Emily Thomas' Cremer House).

Cooking for 100-plus is obviously a challenge, but Chef Carlo Esperanza from Assembly nailed everything. Even his oak-grilled rice balls were tasty. The sauces were spectacular — especially a bright green fresh tarragon sauce that paired perfectly with the fish. And the roast Fogline Farms pork was transcendental, in the setting.

Around dessert (chocolate cake), the table started buzzing and people started pointing up into the sky, where it appeared that some kind of meteor was pulling a huge cone of light behind it. I swear, I thought it was some kind of light show devised by Denevan, who is as well known for his massive land works as he is for his culinary adventures. You may have heard about the missile that rattled people from LA to San Francisco. Perfectly timed.

All of this was followed by a bonfire, where an unhappy young woman was accidentally entertaining the crowd with the loudest, brayingest hiccups any of us had ever heard. Turns out I know a trick, learned from my old friend Steve, that cures hiccups every time. I showed her, the hiccups were silenced, and the crowd broke out in applause. Nice ending to a perfect day.