Forget trying to get a reservation at Joel Robuchon or The French Laundry. This summer's coveted tables are out in farm fields, literally. A raft of new businesses started by restauranteurs and food enthusiasts are offering outdoor culinary experiences everywhere from the Napa Valley to Spain's Basque country. The idea is to supply diners with great food and ambience and to reconnect them to the land where the food is grown while supporting local farms and artisans.
Chef and artist Jim Denevan started his Santa Cruz, California-based company, Outstanding in the Field, in the mid 1990's as a way to introduce diners to local farmers. Denevan, along with his associate, Katy Oursler, have since expanded their reach from local farms to far-off locales such as vineyards in California, farms in Italy, South America and, most recently, on an iceberg in Greenland.
The dinners are luxurious often including six courses and sometimes cooked up by world-renowned chefs but also educational with farmers giving tours of their land and explaining how the produce is grown. Additionally, proceeds from some dinners go to non-profit organizations supporting environmental, agricultural and organic education. For the Greenland dinner, sponsored by Absolut Vodka as part of its Absolut Visionaries campaign, the focus will be on global change as influenced by the world's tastemakers.
Other companies such as Plate & Pitchfork based in Portland, OR and Dinners at the Farm in the Connecticut River Valley prefer to keep it local by using venues and ingredients of nearby farms. Erika Polmar and Emily Berreth started Plate & Pitchfork six years ago with a fundraiser for a non-profit organization but their dinners became so popular they had to expand it. "We wanted to reconnect people to their food source and make it a fun experience instead of a preachy one," Polmar said. Guest chefs from around the state often head the meals on the farms, much like Outstanding in the Field.
Dinners at the Farm meals, however, are always prepared by its founders, chefs Jonathan Rapp of River Tavern in Chester, CT and Drew McLachlan of Feast Gourmet Market in Deep River, CT. They started the company two years ago after hosting several outdoor dinners at nightfall after a local farmer's market. Rapp and McLachlan make everything from scratch right down to the bread, charcuterie and preserves. Due to the increasing popularity of these dinners which range from $100-$180 a plate, they sell out months in advance. Rapp and McLachlan are even contemplating franchising their business by creating partnerships with other chefs and farms to help spread the word about supporting small local agriculture and preserving farmland. At the end of the day, all the cooking and hard work boils down to one simple fact: "There's just something about the spirit of cooking and eating in the very field that the food came from that's pretty special," says Rapp.
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