Wednesday, August 27, 2008

What farm dinner was that?

With bus and crew reunited in Cheyenne, WY we set out across the High Plains, bound for Minnesota and Cedar Summit Farm. Passing through central Iowa we experienced our first midwest severe thunderstorm. “Severe thunderstorm” meant constant lightning, strong winds, heavy rain and pulling over the bus because of zero visibility. A lot of excitement! We observed swirling low clouds and later learned of funnel clouds seen in the area. Good thing our Friday farm dinner is in the next state to the North, where fair weather is forecast.

We rolled into Minneapolis for a late dinner with our guest chef Scott Pampuch of Corner Table. Scott showed us around the restaurant and gave us the last minute menu changes.

Friday dawned with a deep blue sky as we made our way to Cedar Summit. Cedar Summit is Jim’s dream come true for a dinner site: a big green grassy field. We’ve seen every kind of site over the past nine years, but never a field of green grass. Truly we would be “Out Standing in the Field”. The field had been unoccupied by the Cedar Summit dairy herd for several weeks and therefore had a tall, lush carpet for our long table.

Co-guest chef Lenny Russo arrived as we arranged our table in the field. Lenny last prepared an Outstanding in the Field dinner in 2005, the year that Jim and the bus both didn’t show up because of a breakdown in the Yukon of Canada. In 2005 remaining Outstanding staff was flown ahead to put on the meal. This time both Jim and the bus showed up.

Brian Ellison of Death’s Door Spirits mixed fresh cocktails as guests arrived: delicious! Brian was in for the entire farm dinner marthon weekend and would be a part of all three events from Minnesota to Illinois. His is based out of Washington Island, WI and locally sources all ingredients for his spirits as well as the cocktail mixes. On the bar list that night were the Vodka Cobbler with fresh berries and Maple Whiskey Punch with fresh cream from Cedar Summit.

As the dinner progressed, Dave Minar released his just-milked dairy cows into the pasture surrounding the table. Cowbells rang out as the nearly full moon rose on a warm upper midwest evening.

Fountain Prairie, Madison, WI

After packing up the dinner we managed to get a few hours in on the road and landed at a rest stop in Wisconsin. After a few winks Leah cracked the whip with an early wake up of 7 am. We all argued about reasons to sleep in, but Leah would have none of it. A few hours later we pulled into Fountain Prairie Farm. Fountain Prairie has “hairy cows”, more officially known as Scottish Highland Cattle, a breed that is well suited to the cold winters of Wisconsin. John and Dorothy Priske greeted us as soon as we pulled up. They were anxious to show us a potential dinner site on a hillside looking over their reclaimed prairie lands. Another amazing site!

John and Dorothy have a bed and breakfast on their ranch and soon after the dinner sold out, they had a notice posted on their website that the bed and breakfast was also booked for the evening.

After greeting the guests under a tall tree next to the farmhouse the group took a tour of the ranch and set out for a trek to the hillside dinner site. The table was set within the tall grass prairie, gently following a curve of the clearing.

Chef Tory Miller of L’Etoile in Madison prepared a delicious meal including a “surprise course”: Fountain Prairie ribeye grilled over the coals with fresh herbs. Jim walked around the table with Rink DaVee (Shooting Star Farm), Willi Lehner (Bleu Mont Dairy) and George Kohn (West Star Farms) as farmers shared stories with guests.

A spectacular sunset blazed as the full moon rose to light the evening. Sated guests rode back to the farmhouse on bleachers pulled by tractors- a novel ending to a farm dinner.

Two down, two to go.

The crew is tired but still very excited about the rest of the weekend. The bus is running well but Ben’s developed a serious limp from muscling the bus down the highway. Now that the bus is with us, Aubrey is reunited with her ‘Bedazzler’ and Jim has benefited with personalized boxer shorts with a flashy “J”. Serious and hardworking culinary interns Anna Lena and Annette are still trooping along and putting up with our shenanigans.

On Saturday we found our way to Nichols Farm and Orchard in Marengo, IL.

Our late morning arrival saw farmer Lloyd Nichols with his engine revved, ready to tow us around the farm to find the best site. What an exciting ride! The verdict was the table would be in the orchard, aligned with the a view of the highest mountains in Illinois (at 800 feet, not so high).

Nichols Farm guest chef Mindy Segal of Hot Chocolate Restaurant in Chicago wins the prize this season for most enthusiastic chef. She literally squealed with delight on the phone when Leah called to ask if she would join us on the farm. Ever since then, she’s been excitedly planning a signature OITF event: food, farmers, wine, beer, music- all of the ingredients for a memorable dinner. She even went so far as to close the restaurant that Sunday evening and have almost her entire staff there in the orchard.

Thanks to Mindy and her savories chef Mark, we were blessed with perhaps the largest number of farmers and producers that have shared the table this season. This was reflected in the menu: beer from Three Floyds Brewing Co.; pork and duck from Gunthorp Farm; grits from Plapp Farm; raspberries from Sow Little Farm; musk melon from Seedling Farm; tomatoes, beans and apples from Nichols Farm; wine from Black Star Farm; and spirits from Death’s Door.

Mindy climbed an orchard ladder as the dinner came to a close, thanking her crew and Outstanding for the opportunity to make dinner on the farm.

After cleanup and staff meal, knowing we had a day of rest before the Chicago, Leah decided “a night out” on the farm would be fun and stayed up late happily celebrating with the remaining kitchen and service staff, even bringing a few of them on board the bus very very late that night when they didn’t have any other place to stay.

A Day Off!

After laundry, final clean up and a relaxed two hour drive we arrived in Chicago. First stop: Hot Doug’s, which Anna Lena, our German intern, was very eager to visit. She kept telling Jim in her strong German accent that she really wanted to go to “Hot Ducks”. After much confusion, Jim figured out she was actually saying Hot Doug’s: a famed ‘encased meats’ joint.

What a place! A line out the door and down the street for Chicago’s finest. Pretty good stuff. Ben was probably the most adventurous in his choice of “dog”: pheasant bacon sausage with foie gras and whole grain mustard. A once in a lifetime opportunity for a Californian.

Also a fine final American dining experience for Anna Lena Banzhof, as she was soon whisked off to the airport to return to university culinary studies in Italy.

Just in case Hot Doug’s didn’t satisfy our Chicago cravings, that night we decided to visit Gino’s East for deep dish Chicago style pizza. Though Gino’s was “interesting”, it didn’t quite reach the culinary heights of Hot Doug’s. Probably no more Chicago deep dish pizza for us.

City Farm and Chef Paul Virant

Last August Paul Virant joined us for a memorable dinner event at Kinnikinnick Farm. This season, Paul was excited about setting the OITF table with one of his very local suppliers. City Farm is a tremendous effort by farmer Tim Wilson to reclaim and rehabilitate abandoned spaces in the city of Chicago. Productive green fields of vegetables are surrounded on all sides by the bustle of the city. We pulled up to City Farm with plenty of time to decide where the table should go, but we didn’t need much time as there was only one place it could possibly fit! Seventeen 8 foot tables soon became a curving single table.

Paul and crew greeted good friends and city farmers Tim and Aaron and got down to work. We couldn’t hide the table as we usually do, so guests immediately placed their plate down at the table as they arrived. A beautiful sight.

The group of guests was shown a tour of the farm which we thought would be somewhat short since the farm is literally the length of our long table. However, the City Farmers proved us wrong with much to share about their land and story.

For dinner it was Paul’s suckling pig that stole the show, though every course was delicious with City Farm ingredients included throughout: turnips, greens, tomatoes, beans, herbs and other goodies.

With the darkness of the night came the glow of city lights. The noise of the traffic subsided as the dinner conversation grew animated and filled our little farm.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

We found the Bus!

... and it's looking better than ever.

In the next two days we drove more than 25 hours arriving at Paonia, CO in the late evening. This is our 3rd visit to Zephyros Farm and Garden so we know our way around.  Jim's friends Rebecca and Rob Miller welcomed us with beer, cherry tomatoes.... and laundry facilities!  The next day we enjoyed the charms of small town Paonia, as we planned the big event. Rob and Rebecca also had a big event that night; they were organizing a free concert in the park. The talk was all about the forecast for possible rain in the afternoon and evening. Farmers Don and Daphne of Zephyros Farm & Garden, assured us that the farm was in a “dry spot” which tends to miss any passing thunderstorm. We arranged for a “Plan B” in case of rain, scouting the farm for a suitable greenhouse shelter in case of rain.. The space we found sort of looked like a restaurant with open windows in the front. We followed plan A and the table was set outdoors as we hoped to escape the forecast “chance” of thunderstorms.

Our beautiful table along a small lake with the Rocky Mountains in the background.

Shortly before guests arrived, Jim checked the Doppler radar, which showed a super cell to the southwest heading towards our location at 10 miles an hour. The weather service just then issued a severe thunderstorm warning for our area. As we had about 40 minutes until the thunderstorm arrived and our event started in about 20 minutes, Jim had the idea that the guests could see the table outdoors before we whisked it away into the greenhouse. Much excitement and chaos ensued as the dark thunderstorm slowly approached with black clouds and increasing wind. Just as many guests arrived and were able to see the table, we made the decision to head indoors! After a mad scramble of fifteen minutes or so, the table was safely set in the cozy greenhouse. Chefs and kitchen staff relocated to a nearby utility packing shed to complete their preparations. Safe in our plastic house, we listened as the rain pelted down and the wind howled outside.

Don and Daphne attempted separate farm tours, where they led guests off during breaks in the rain, which were quickly abandoned by most guests as the rain and winds increased mid-tour. A few hearty souls completed these overly exciting farm tours.

With guests safely ensconced indoors, our dinner began and Don and Daphne were able to describe the farm to the entire group. Chef Mark Fischer with his Restaurant six89 and the Little Nell at Aspen crew were good sports in dealing with the clement weather and produced an amazing, delicious dinner. Colorado farmers and producers shared with guests local stories as Outstanding staff enjoyed serving guests away from wind and rain.  We said goodbye to our friends in Paonia knowing we'd probably be back, hopefully with less exciting weather next time.

Early the next morning we left for Boulder, enjoying the drive through the Rockies. We thought about Ben and our bus and how it was probably a good thing that he was taking the flatter Northern route to cross the Rockies. We arrived at Munson Farms to meet the much anticipated Bob Munson, who lived up to all of our expectations. Within minutes of being on the farm, Bob leapt into the corn rows to pick some ears, giving each one of us a fresh cob of “Colorado’s sweetest corn”. Mmm. What could be a more beautiful spot for our table than right in those rows?

That night we visited The Kitchen for dinner and chatted with Chef Hugo Matheson about the Boulder scene. The Kitchen has a chalkboard showing all of the local producers for the night’s meal: a wonderful way to let people know where their food comes from. Later, Jim, Anna Lena and Annette danced in the streets of Boulder to the raucous sounds of the local street musicians. We also managed to find a new favorite brewery: the Mountain Sun on Pearl Street. Aubrey and Leah almost convinced one of the cute boy service staff to come on the bus, but he wasn’t quite ready to make that commitment.

The next day, dinner preparations began as thunderstorms built up over the nearby Rockies. We were excited to finally meet the Frasca Food and Wine crew after so much time planning and extended phone conversations between Leah and Frasca event manager Cristin Napier. Chef Lachlan Patterson and his crew arrive and admire our table set in the corn field.

Jim kicked off the farm tour with a mention of farm, family and history. Bob and Mike Munson took over, telling their story and leading two big groups for a tour of squash and corn fields. The threatening thunderstorms of midday fizzled, leading to a beautiful and dry late afternoon.
Once the guests finally arrived to the table (Bob was considering taking everyone on another loop of the field) they were very hesitant to sit down and just stood at the end of the row, admiring the long table set in the corn field.

The food was served and wine began to flow. Sommelier/owner Bobby Stuckey charmed guests, spreading his enthusiasm and warmth as field ambassador of Frasca Food and Wine. Chef Lachlan and his sous Travis were in perfect character for a farm dinner, with straw hats and Frasca Food and Wine t-shirts.

The table hummed with appreciation for the delicious foods of Lachlan and crew. Anne Cure of Cure Organic Farm and Wyatt Barnes and Amy Tisdale from Red Wagon Organic Farm walked along the table regaling guests with tales of farming tomatoes and zucchini and their appreciation for the chefs who create such amazing food from their ingredients. As the sun set, Bob Munson and family rose from the table, offering many guests fresh ears, gathered at arms length from the table.

At the end of the night, Lachlan climbed the farm ladder in the dark to look over the candlelit table and thank his staff and attending farmers. A beautiful night in Boulder.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Where's that Bus?

Washington, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming? When will we see our bus?
Maintenance is difficult when your bus was built in 1953. “We’ll fix that right away” turns into “Where the heck will we find these parts?” and to “We’ll have to build those parts and you may not see your bus for a week or two”. Well, waiting has turned into more waiting, which has finally become “Here comes the bus!”

We are now in Boulder, Colorado heading for Cheyenne, Wyoming in our pick up and trailer to meet Ben, pulling in from Hwy 80. Before Ben shows up, we’ve rented some cowboy accommodations with horses to ride and all of the cowboy amenities. Anna Lena bought some new boots, so she’s ready to “yee-haw!”

Our next dinner is at Cedar Summit Farm, outside the Twin Cities, on Friday. The weather forecast looks favorable, a nice change from looking at the sky in fear in Paonia, CO. But before we move on to places further afield, we’d like to share with you some of our recent adventures.

Crossing the border was an adventure, especially with Jim being in Baja, Mexico on a quick father-son surf trip adventure and leaving it to two Americans and a Canadian in a pick up truck and trailer full of chairs, books, a grill, dishwashing supplies and propane (among other things). “What are you doing?” “Who hired you?” “What do you have in that trailer?” “Where’s your boss?” Questions became more questions, became visits to the import brokers and phone calls to our bookkeepers. At one point we were asked to pay 5% tax on the entire contents of the trailer (including Jim’s cookbooks) and Ben and Aubrey both needed $150 work permits to enter the country. What a hassle. After much discussion and confusion (struggling through a “recently updated” DOS program for processing the cookbook importing), lucky as we are, we walked away with a $29.27 charge for the duty on importing the cookbooks after. Yay Canada!

Preparations for our Vancouver table included evacuating the entire contents of the UBC Farm greenhouse which is used for their Farm Wonders day camp. With the creation of our greenhouse restaurant, the children’s day camp garden was the only stretch of greenhouse not covered by tables. The percentage chance of rain was not particularly high, but Outstanding in the Field always needs to be ready, “just in case”. Our tour started off with a few sprinkles, which was the only rain we experienced that evening, but the atmosphere of the greenhouse was warm and cozy on a chilly night. Our hosts Gavin, Amy and Mark settled into the table with Outstanding guests joining us from Alberta, Ontario, Washington, California and Texas.

Chef Andrea Carlson of Bishop's had an impressive line up of farmers join us at the table, probably the most entertaining group of farmers and producers we’ve ever had. The comedic chicken farmer (Karl Hann of Astra Organics) outdid them all with a hilarious description of the joys/tears of farm life. Click here for a detailed look at the event from our friend The Culinary Fool.

In the days between Vancouver and Kelowna events, we visited Leah’s family homestead in Salmon Arm, BC. Barb and Gord were excited to see their long lost daughter and finally meet the Americans that kidnapped her a couple of years back. We enjoyed dinners on the deck and Gord’s homemade fruit wines. Annette and Anna Lena went for a scenic hike up the nearby mountain while neighbour Art told us of having just sighted a black bear near the same trail. Yikes! We enjoyed a nice swim in the Shuswap Lake before continuing down to the Okanagan Valley for our dinner at Little Creek Gardens.

We drove the long, winding road down along the shore of the west side of the Okanagan Lake to Dale and Donna’s farm. The views were spectacular on the 135 km (84 mile) long lake. Dale Ziech farms the lakefront property, growing lettuces, carrots, tomatoes and herbs. Dale’s wife Donna Denison produces her famous Little Creek Garden salad dressings right on the farm. Guest chefs Dana Ewart and Cameron Smith have come to the Okanagan from eastern Canada, where they worked with some of Canada’s most honored chefs. They have created Joy Road Catering: setting long tables in local vineyards and now… farms.

Our winemaker from Cedar Creek Estate Winery, Tom Di Bello, arrived from down the lake by boat to pour his wines. Guests gathered in the garden before our farm tour, led by Farmer Dale Ziech. Our tour led down the steep hillside, carpeted with “salad”.

We arrived at the table set on a promenent rise with a lovely view of the lake. This was the smallest dinner of the season, with 60 guests. A stroll in the park for our staff and a nice break from our usual long long tables. All enjoyed a delicious five course dinner as the sun slowly set.

After clean up, staff meal and a refreshing dip in the lake with the kitchen staff, we retreated to our accommodations for the evening. Donna had set up beds for each of us on her huge deck, complete with sheets hanging over the rail to block out the morning sunrise.

The next day we began an epic journey, our greatest distance between dinners. A LOT of driving. We entered the United States at a barely-used border check point in the forest of Eastern Washington and the border guard was for some reason much less confused than those at Peace Arch border crossing in Vancouver. Back in America!

More blogging tomorrow morning from our cowboy cabin.