This article was first published in print in Southern California Life Magazine, September 2022 edition.
I pulled off onto a dusty road in a harsh low desert area I never knew existed until an invite to Outstanding in the Field arrived in an email. My instructions were to bring my own plate, come hungry, and be ready to break “bread” with strangers.
For many years I admired these long table dinners on social media with hundreds of people celebrating the good life in destinations all over the world. Today I was arriving for a meal at an unusual farm named Somewhere in the Desert, in arid land north of Palm Springs near recently trendy Yucca Valley. This Mojave Desert landscape had me wondering how anything could survive and grow here.
In the early 1990s, Outstanding in the Field was a novel idea showcasing farms on the menu. Today, Outstanding in the Field pairs with farms and chefs to set the table at farms, beaches, vineyards, mountain tops, city streets, fishing docks, and other extraordinary sites, offering shared connection for one time in one place – an experience that will never be replicated. Almost like an ephemeral piece of art, the experience is a celebration of humanity encouraging a family-style meal and lively discussion at the table.
Founded by Santa Cruz-based chef and environmental artist Jim Denevan, the 1-night pop-up restaurants are brought to the source ingredients while helping diners connect to the land and sea and learn where their food comes from, all while celebrating the hard workers who make the meal possible – chefs, farmers, vintners, brewers, and more. To date, Outstanding in the Field has hosted meals in over 18 different countries.
Greeted by beauties in country straw hats and prairie-style dresses with a Pinot Noir rose from Sonoma County’s Ernest Vineyards, I snapped photos of a barn that framed the dreamy land and table-scape while mingling with others over more libations like a 54 French Saison from Las Palmas, our favorite local beer and wine bar in Palm Springs. An entourage of pre-dinner bites ensued in and around the farm, like fried plantains stuffed with mozzarella and beet agua chile atop cucumber slices.
As I admired the surrounding San Bernardino Mountains, I chatted with an older couple from Michigan over Baja-style fish tacos, who follow the dinners all over California. Nearby, a happy couple engaged right before the event was surrounded by all their elated friends surprising them by showing up for this special communal dinner. During a farm tour I met several pairs of girlfriends who flew in to celebrate – perhaps the end of pandemic fatigue or socializing in an outdoor “safe” setting.
Farmers and hosts of the day, Gardenia Ramirez and Eric Wilson of Somewhere in the Desert, shared how they combat the local climate to grow produce by building soil health – capturing the moisture with hay bales and dumping 20,000 pounds of compost with worm castings for nutrients. Today they relish in a mini fig orchard while winter yields leafy greens. A pumpkin patch is possible in October and the land has given them cabbage, swiss chard, cauliflower, broccoli, lettuce mix, cilantro, and spinach. They have had to learn how to combat local predators with unique tactics like using wild garlic to repel over 50 hungry rabbits. Wilson, a former Army veteran, said he started gardening and fell in love with it but cautions, “how we need to rethink our food supply and become more self-resilient.”
We were wowed by Chef Gabriel Woo of Bar Cecil, the hottest new restaurant in Palm Springs which was created to house the owners’ unbelievable art collection so that on any given night you may be dining under a Calder or a Damien Hirst. But tonight, Chef Woo’s kitchen was an open flame with an exceptional team to help him flawlessly execute an 8+ course meal for over 200 people.
After savoring beer, wine and passed appetizers, guests were seated and plates were passed – heaping colorful fresh salads exploding with blood oranges, sunflower seeds, and edible flowers. Roasted chicken mole, polenta and succotash with local zucchini, yellow squash, grape tomatoes, onions, and corn were shared. As the sun set desert hues melted around us, I felt so lucky to be here. Elated and joyous, more 2019 Grenache from Ernest Vineyards was poured while grilled lamb lollipops with onions, cilantro and rosemary (from the farm just a few feet away) were happily passed and devoured over laughter and conversation.
Sweets ensued with a finale of figs and local dates, alongside Bar Cecil’s famous Pavlova topped with Tamai Family Farms strawberries, Straus Family Creamery crema and meringue.
Celina, a woman sitting next to me from Massachusetts reminded me, “This story is our future. We have scientific consensus and we know what to do but the best way to move human behavior is through food – experience based. When you taste locally grown food, it tastes much better and you are more apt to support local farmers.” I smiled deeply, comprehending fully, responding with, “I’ll clink to that.”
Make reservations as they sell out quickly. Learn more at https://outstandinginthefield.com