As the sun dipped below the horizon on Friday night, nearly 200 diners sat down to break bread in the middle of a peach orchard in Gilbert. Strangers shared platters of wood-fired salmon and toasted with glasses of locally made wine. Golden rays of light threaded themselves through the leaves of the citrus trees.
It was a picture right out of your favorite glossy lifestyle magazine — almost too perfect to be real — and yet, it's a scene that has been replicated hundreds of times at locales as far-flung as a winery outside of Tokyo and an oyster farm on Puget Sound. In each of these places and dozens more, diners come to a farm to eat in the place where food is grown. It's an effort to turn the farm-to-table movement on its head by bringing the table to the farm.
The events are organized by Outstanding in The Field, a company founded by Jim Denevan, who hosted his first dinner in Northern California in 1999, long before pop-up restaurants were cool. The company has come a long way since then. It now tours for months at a time each year, hitting farms in every corner of the country and a few spots outside of the country. The Winter 2017 tour, for example, includes a stop in Mendoza, Argentina, and will feature Diego Irrera, head chef at Francis Mallmann's Siete Fuegos restaurant.
We were invited to attend last week's event in Gilbert, which was held at The Farm at Agritopia and featured food from well-respected local chef Chris Curtiss of Fox Restaurant Concepts.
The event started in the mid-afternoon, and despite the unseasonably hot weather, guests enjoyed an hour-long wine reception featuring rosé from Garage-East, the not-yet-open new project from Dos Cabezas' Todd and Kelly Bostock. Passed hors d'oeuvres included oysters on the half-shell and tuna tartare — both of which seemed like somewhat strange menu choices for a dinner meant to highlight local farms.
In any case, the evening kicked off with a few words from Agritopia farmer Doug McCollum, a former California date farmer who joined the Gilbert operation earlier this summer. Following a tour of the urban farm, guests arrived at the orchard to take their seats for dinner. It was a somewhat chaotic affair, as smaller groups vied to find for seats together while other parties had pre-reserved sections. And it should be mentioned that while the Outstanding in the Field website says the company's about "camaraderie and whimsy and generosity," the price tag for getting seat at the table is nothing to scoff at — event tickets start at $180 for some events but cost a cool $215 per person for this particular event.
The food, at least, was excellent. Everything at Outstanding in The Field is served family-style, which could be awkward with a table full of strangers, but for the most part works well and encourages conversation. On Friday night, we passed plates of harissa hummus and slices of locally made Noble bread, followed by plates of pickled vegetables, and oversize bowls of salad topped with local dates and Black Mesa Dairy goat cheese. The best dish of the dinner was far and away the family-sized filets of Ora King salmon. The white platters, piled high with perfectly cooked fish, were as visually impressive as they were delicious.
The final courses included lamb and, for dessert, butternut squash bundt cakes served with a set of four accoutrements including clotted cream and pear butter.
As crew members cleared away the far-from empty plates (serving sizes were generous) by candlelight, diners began to push back their seats and start the walk back into the light of Argitopia's restaurants. Exiting the orchard after the hours-long dining event was a bit like coming out a dream, leaving a place where food is always good and conversation always easy. But as we thought back over the meal, we couldn't help but wonder why so many of the evening's ingredients came from so far away — none of the proteins came from local sources, for example — and if the evening's high price had more to do with the experience than the food.
To be fair, though, it was a great experience.