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Grunion Run  March 2011

Refreshing Relaxation  April 2007

Taking the High Road  February 2007

August 2006  
Spicing Things Up
by Cameron Walker

Surfer, land artist and creator of the "eat local" dinner series Outstanding in the Field, chef Jim Denevan is king of the ephemeral.

There's a shady tree to sit under and tiny biscuits dotted with ricotta and summer peaches to munch on. Rows of crops gleam in the late-afternoon sun. Then Jim Denevan starts to talk. Denevan, who’s 6’4” and wearing a slightly-too-small cowboy hat perched on his balding dome, has the crowd gazing intently at him as they sip at glasses of a 2001 semillon, a white wine, from Ahlgren Vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
This is exactly what I’ve come for--a feast of locally grown ingredients served in the middle of a farm, along with a chance to meet the farmer who planted the greens or have the fisherman who wrangled in the third course as a dinner companion. But suddenly, I decide I might need a cowboy hat, too. And if a wooden rocking horse showed up and Denevan jumped astride with that half-smile of his, I don’t think I’d be the only one who went home and dug my old childhood toy out of the garage.

He works the same magic on almost everyone. A surfer, land artist and chef, Denevan, 45, draws people into unique, transitory experiences—in summer, to multi-course feasts on organic farms, and in winter, to giant-scale sand drawings along northern California’s beaches.

Outstanding in the Field, which Denevan started in 1999, brings award-winning chefs to small farms to create meals made from locally grown ingredients. The dinners, which began in Santa Cruz’s fertile soil, are now a countrywide phenomenon. Each summer Denevan and a five-person crew bring their white tablecloths and maverick spirits to farms across the country (with a stop in Canada, as well).

The dinners, championed by foodies such as Chez Panisse’s Alice Waters, require guests to step out of their comfort zones for an eating adventure that can involve sea caves hollowed into the sand or zig-zagging hikes into the forest in search of wild mushrooms. Farmers show the guests around the farm, then the same produce and herbs appear atop one long table, covered with white linens and the plates that guests have brought from home.

The table’s first appearance this season is at Route 1 Farms’ 40-acre spread nearly 18 miles north of Santa Cruz along U.S. Highway 1. Farmer Jeff Larkey first spotted the idyllic fields, nestled within Big Basin Redwoods State Park, on a mountain bike ride; now, he grows about 25 different row crops, including radicchio, potatoes, and the deer’s tongue lettuce that will make an appearance in the evening’s salad.

Tonight, Denevan’s doing the cooking. “The chef is kind of an ambassador of the fruits of the region,” he tells a crowd of diners.

Denevan could be Santa Cruz’s own ambassador. The city, on California’s central coast, brims with a vibrant mix of surfers, university folks, aging hippies, and commuting Silicon Valley techies, as well as fields that can grow anything from grapes to avocados.

Born in nearby San Jose, Denevan moved to the seaside town when he was 15, but he’d already started surfing. In the late 1970s and ’80s, he and his friends dominated the breaks around Pleasure Point. “He was the fastest surfer to surf 38th avenue,” says Marcel Soros, who surfed with Denevan back then. As a kid, he’d bug Denevan to recite the capitals of all the states. “He’s a phenomenal leader, and he’s highly intelligent,” Soros says.

Surfing is what got Denevan into the kitchen. Cooking was the perfect night job: Each day he could peel off his wetsuit and tie on an apron.

In 1986 the 24-year-old Denevan left town to spend nearly a year in Milan and Paris, working as a model. While modeling itself didn’t fulfill him (“Just standing and smiling is one of the stupidest jobs imaginable,” he says), the immersion in European culture—think meals in the Alps and Southern France—added new meaning to his cooking.

On his return, Denevan dove back into the restaurant world, including an 11-year stint at Gabriella Café, a whimsical Italian-inspired restaurant in a cozy adobe building, with a hand-written menu and milk that arrives in cow-shaped pitchers.

Denevan—who had worked at his brother’s organic apple farms in the hills of Santa Cruz as a teenager—began pedaling over to the farmers market with the restaurant cart. “The whole kitchen would be teeming with fresh vegetables,” says Mary Dumont, who was then a server at Gabriella Café, and is now the executive chef at The Dunaway Restaurant at Strawbery Banke in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Still, Denevan wanted to spice things up. So he started bringing in farmers, including his brother, for dinners at Gabriella Café. The entire meal would revolve around a farm’s produce, and customers could rub elbows with the folks who’d grown their meal. You might think farmers are reticent by nature. “The farmers wouldn’t shut up,” he says. “They were so happy to be able to share what they did in an environment where their work was appreciated.”

With connections from farmers markets and restaurants (and Denevan’s urge to escape a hot kitchen), the dinners went outside. In those early days, the crew had to pose for photos in the fields—donning chef’s coats and brandishing whisks—in order to get people interested (and clear on) the concept.

Seven years later, he’s enticing other chefs, such as former co-worker Dumont, out into the field. Denevan was the chef for the first five dinners—and has wrapped on an apron for the first 2006 dinner—but says he “thought it was a good idea to let other people work hard.” Somehow, he makes the job as appealing as Tom Sawyer made fence-painting. Convincing the chefs is “not a hard sell, it’s really easy,” he says.

Getting farmers, chefs, vintners, cheesemakers and the folks who’ll eat the fruits of their labors at the same table borders on a fairytale. “It just seems so unlikely,” Denevan tells the crowd, nearly bemused.

When we meet at the dinner’s end, I start to think it’s unlikely, too. He seems scattered. Glancing around from the candles that sprung up on the white tablecloth to the still-smoking grill to the scarf of fog overhead it’s as if he’s watching a hummingbird dart around his restaurant without walls.

It turns out that’s just the way he works. “I think about everything at the same time, the big picture beyond just the tables sitting there in the field, I’m thinking about everything from the microcosmic to the macrocosmic,” he says. Some of the things that catch his attention: geography, geology, place, adventure, maps, weather, beach fossils, the pattern of waves on sand.

In fact, it’s those kinds of interests that have formed the basis of his other career, one that exists outside the world of food.

Denevan had always spent time on the beach, but about 10 years ago, he began to draw on it.
He carved out his first sand drawing as most people do—with a finger—but instead of initials in a heart, or a smiley face, he went with a giant fish, covered with designs of dinosaurs, people, volcanoes and birds. The drawings were elaborate and complex, and he has been doing them ever since.

Sculptor Jane Rosen met Denevan at a beach north of Santa Cruz early one morning. Rosen told Denevan the spiral he was crafting with his rake was a Fibonacci spiral—a pattern that grows based on a mathematical series.

“He looked at me and went pale,” Rosen says. That Denevan would be drawing something so mathematical and complex must have struck eerily close to home. Denevan’s mother, a mathematician, had studied the Fibonacci sequence; he had started sketching out the spirals and other designs around the same time she’d been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Denevan’s father had died when he was five; his mother went back to school to get her masters’ degree in mathematics so she could get a university-level teaching job to support Denevan and his eight siblings, three of whom were diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Denevan’s transition from anonymous beach doodler to serious sand artist happened the way everything seems to happen for him—by breaking the rules with a large dose of whimsy. One day Renny Pritikin, then the curator at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, got a call from his receptionist with words that send chills down every curator’s spine: "There’s an artist here who wants to see you."

Pritikin said the artist should leave a note. What he got was a grainy, scribbled-on photograph of a beach drawing. But the dramatic image caught the curator’s eye.

When the two met, he told Denevan that if he wanted to show his work in a museum, he’d have to start taking himself more seriously as an artist.

A few months later Denevan returned with “exquisite” nine-foot photographs of his beach drawings. In 2005, Pritikin included photographs and a video installation of Denevan’s work in a show of large-scale sculpture. A film about Denevan’s life and art, Sandman, came out this year.

The giant freehand drawings, which take Denevan five to six hours to create—the span between low and high tide—look meticulously plotted. Yet Denevan draws spontaneously; he calls the process a dance.

Once the tide comes in, his work disappears. He even tosses the drawing stick he’s found on the beach—his dance partner—back into the water. “I go there with nothing, and I leave with nothing,” he says.

That sense of art without permanence seems to infuse Denevan’s life. Like the sand drawings, the farm dinners have the bittersweet feeling of a summer you know will end too soon. The morning after a dinner Denevan often goes back to the farm to see that all traces of the dinner have vanished. The allure of this momentary and fleeting magic, whether on the plate or on the sand, seems to be what draws Denevan—and the people he has drawn into his world.

Hundreds of people gathered to watch him create a drawing on Ocean Beach as part of his 2005 exhibition. For curators, an artist like Denevan is a godsend, says Pritikin, now director of the Richard L. Nelson Gallery and Fine Arts Collection at UC Davis, because he shows people “that contemporary art can be fun and can have a place in their lives.”

“There’s something about temporary places, whether it’s a table in a field or a drawing on the beach that brings up feelings in people,” Denevan says. Those are the kind of things Denevan tends to focus on. “Philosophical concepts about what the dinners mean or why we put the table there, or what are we going to do a year from now,” he says.

If Denevan’s the visionary cowboy, Katy Oursler, 30, is his down-to-earth, more detail-oriented sidekick. Oursler, who’s been Outstanding in the Field’s CCO—that’s Champion Celebration Organizer—for nearly three years, can, at a moment’s notice, come up with the age of a young cheesemaker in Colorado (13) and the number of dinners they’ll put on the table this year (21), all while orchestrating the crucial tasks involved with feeding dozens of guests each summer weekend.

The day after the dinner, the two sit next to each other on a couch in a Santa Cruz tearoom and reel off stories of their two years on their North American farm tour, making the thousands of miles on a 1953 Flxible bus—Denevan bought it for $7,000—with six people and three beds sound like a fantastic, if cramped, mobile summer camp. There’s the time in Alaska where they all ate beneath Pioneer Peak, northeast of Anchorage, dressed in foul-weather gear; there’s the apple cider they bought in Colorado; the smoke-dried tomatoes in Texas; the time at the Finger Lakes’ Blue Heron Farm when Denenvan predicted that a looming storm would pass. The tablecloths and napkins (and guests) got soaked.

“And after that initial shower came through…” Denevan says.

“Oh, we had the double rainbow…” Oursler says.

“The sun came out, and it was really beautiful. And people spontaneously broke into song,” Denevan says.

What song? I ask.

“Amazing Grace,” Oursler says.

Sometimes, it seems that amazing grace is the only way they pull it off. Last year’s visit to Boggy Creek Farm, in Austin, came together at the last minute—the farm they had originally scheduled canceled about a week before. Denevan and crew arrived without a local chef and behind-the-scenes chaos ensued.

Carol Ann Sayle, one of Boggy Creek’s two farmers, says her kitchen still has splatters from the pork the crew cooked. But for the guests and the two farmers, sharing platters of food at the long table, the evening was magical. The next day, Denevan borrowed a mop to draw designs along the nearby creek until Oursler and crew corralled him for the next destination. “They were delightful,” Sayle says of Denevan and company. “They knew how to throw a good party.”

Spontaneity reigned supreme when the dinners started up again this year. Before guests arrived at the Santa Cruz dinner, Denevan switched the table around several times before settling on the perfect spot; after the deer’s tongue lettuce salad, he gets up to say the next two courses would be swapped.
“To some degree, the menu is a sketch or an outline,” he says. “The farm is a living thing. We want the menu to be that way, too,” Denevan says.

The 68 guests don’t seem to notice—or care about—any disorder. They are too busy making platters of food disappear as farmer, fisherman and chef spin tales of how each dish got to the table. I start eating the hard-boiled eggs that I’d picked out of the salad after Denevan’s 14-year-old son, Brighton, tells the crowd he’d raised the chickens himself. Then comes the pork shoulder with bitter greens, so juicy and fresh that even a committed fishitarian has a second helping; then, the California sea bass caught nearby, alongside a bright-green mash of fava beans. I get up from the table for a moment—when I return, I find that my tablemates have saved me the one last piece of a rich strawberry-filled tart.

The servers, in their white shirts and black aprons, begin lighting up a line of torches as the meal ends, and the guests begin to stroll reluctantly down through the fields. Even as the plates are cleared away, Denevan’s mind seems like it’s meandering. Maybe to the PBS show—Endless Feast—that’s set to be filmed during this year’s tour; maybe about the natural sea arch that will frame an upcoming dinner at a Half Moon Bay cove, or maybe to drawing with a stick on the beach in Northern Spain.

Turns out he isn’t wandering very far. In the late fall, a foraging dinner will take guests on a hunt for wild mushrooms and other Santa Cruz delicacies. His eyes race around the golden hills, at the fog rolling in, at the fields, at the trees, at something the rest of the table doesn’t see. “It’s going to be somewhere around here,” he says.

Now I’ve got my own wild ideas: buy a mushroom guide, and clear the calendar.

Copyright 2006, Cameron Walker.  All rights reserved.