Al fresco dining in New York City is often limited to a meal at a sidewalk table where the frenzied ambiance is courtesy of taxis zipping by and humid waves of summer heat shimmering off the asphalt. When Jim Denevan and his Outstanding in the Field crew roll into town, however, they expand the perspective of the weary New York diner longing for more than a wedge of hazy blue sky overhead.
Chef Denevan has been hosting farm-to-table meals since 1999. It was a modest start with only a few meals that year in Denevan’s home state of California, but the enterprise has expanded to dozens of dinners prepared onsite by local guest chefs at farms around the country as Denevan and his crew follow the seasons from May to early December.
Arriving at The Queens County Farm Museum on Outstanding in the Field day is a little like stumbling across Brigadoon: the notion of a farm in the city seems mystical and impossible. Founded in 1697, the farm is anything but temporary however; it is the oldest continuously farmed piece of land in New York, according to Farmer Michael Grady-Robertson. It is a not-for-profit organization with a “commitment to preservation.”
The farm is impressively diverse for a relatively small operation. Grady-Robertson and his crew of five tend two acres of vegetables as well as a variety of animals including hogs, sheep, cows, chickens, and geese. The beekeeper is an exterminator by trade; he will transfer those pesky hives from private residences to the farm where the bees make raw honey from the local wildflowers. Grady-Robertson’s five-year plan is to make new use of some of the 47 acres to include pastures, nature walks, and a dairy.
The Outstanding in the Field crew (or “OITF” as they call themselves in print) arrived in Queens yesterday from another event on the North Fork of Long Island, an area with numerous farms and vineyards. As guest chef Bill Telepan and his team prepared the main meal, guests sipped glasses of a crisp Chardonnay from Shinn Vineyards on Long Island and wandered around Queens Farm, sometimes followed by the roaming roosters.
Chef Telepan, proprietor of the eponymous Upper West Side restaurant on 69th Street between Columbus Avenue and Central Park West, has long been committed to using local products. He is a jaunty fellow with a big laugh, and his food is accessible and respectful of the ingredients.
Herb-flecked egg salad served on wedges of green bell pepper demonstrated how simplicity can be charming. One delighted diner commented, “I haven’t had egg salad since I was a kid!” It turns out that farm-fresh eggs are something of a revelation. Squares of watermelon and feta were tangy and refreshing with slivers of watermelon radish and mint. Chef Telepan shared some of his own prosciutto, impossibly thin slices wrapped around wedges of cantaloupe, followed by creamy shell beans with garlic on crostini.
Following a brief tour of the farm by Grady-Robertson and his apprentices, the 130 or so guests moved over to the main dining area. The OITF team had lined up tables in one long row in between the grape vines and the pumpkin patch. Guests brought their own plates as a contribution to the meal, making a pretty mix-and-match mosaic on the white table cloths. With the blessing of a blue sky overhead, dinner was served.
The first course was a salad with Queens Farm leeks, mesclun, and sauce gribiche, a cold French dressing made from more of those eggs, paired with Shinn Vineyards’ rosé. Diners served their neighbors, family-style, and the love of food and appreciation for the setting sparked immediate conversations. The pasta course was a creamy mix of cherry tomatoes, eggplant, and Vermont buffalo mozzarella with fusilli, paired with Shinn Vineyards “Red,” a Merlot/Cabernet Franc blend.
As the sun set, and with a Namaste to the Queens farm hog who served as the main course, guests spooned up sides of paprika potatoes, kale accented with pork belly, and grilled corn on the cob served with a spicy and beautiful pink Spanish-spiced butter that demanded seconds. What fun, a pairing of “Wild Boar Doe,” a Bordeaux blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Franc!
By the time the tres leches cakes with berries and peaches arrived, fellow diners were new friends. The roaming OITF staff chatted and lit candles as guests sipped the Shinn Vineyards Ultra Brut and passed plates of tiny cookies. A resident bat gobbled the mosquitoes, enjoying his own local feast.
The experience of open air dining on a farm that sourced most of the meal engenders a stillness in the frantic city dweller. Outstanding in the Field allows us to pause and appreciate the grace of it.