Friday, October 31, 2008

Ubuntu Adventure

After a short rest in Santa Cruz we began preparations for next dinner the following Saturday: a vegetarian feast set in the Napa mountainside farm/garden that supplies Ubuntu Restaurant. Ubuntu owner Sandy Lawrence's garden is tended by legendary master gardener/farmer Jeff Dawson (pictured below).

On Friday, Leah and Jim drove up to Napa early to visit both the gardens and the restaurant. In the garden we met up with Ubuntu chef Jeremy Fox who showed us around pointing out a variety of unusual crops... ingredients for what is probably the best vegetarian restaurant in the U.S.A.

A Tough Kid/A Worried Parent

While dining that evening at Ubuntu, Jim took a call every parent dreads. Jim's sister Tish was trying to track Jim down (his cell was off ) Jim's 16 year old son Brighton had a very bad skateboard accident with no helmet. He hit some construction debris at high speed while returning home from his food/farming internship at 'Food What!?' up at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Brighton's fall resulted in a traumatic head injury with fractured skull. Witnesses found him in the street unconscious and in convulsions called 911, paramedics arrived in minutes and he was quickly en route from Santa Cruz on a Life Flight helicopter to Palo Alto and Stanford's Lucille Packard Children's Hospital. Hearing the news Jim and Leah rushed to the hospital and arrived as Brighton was in mid-surgery. The scene was grim, all close to Brighton were in shock and hoping for the best. Neurosurgery on two hematomas successfully addressed the problem of life threatening swelling. Brighton was soon moved to the Intensive Care Unit. He remained unconscious for several days. Friends and family gathered in support from Santa Cruz and beyond and visited him at his bedside and watched and waited. After four days Brighton began to awake. His parents, friends and family were ecstatic. Soon, though covered with tubes, neck brace, respirator and IV he was moving around, talking, though still very confused and wrestling with Dad, trying to get out of bed, wanting to be outside and 'get to my garden'.

Full recovery was rapid from that point: Brighton was cleared to soon go home and even given a date to return to school. A return to school with a huge scar across the top of his head. Something to show all the curious kids contemplating a life of danger- without a helmet.

A huge thank you to police, paramedics, helicopter pilot, nurses, doctors and all and everyone who helped Brighton!!

Back to Ubuntu

Thankfully, tour veteran and now Outstanding in the Field private events manager Katy Oursler ably hosted the Ubuntu Gardens dinner. After a long season of events, the OITF crew was more than capable to put together the dinner without Leah and Jim there. (A very proud feeling for Leah- who has worked so hard this season to keep everything running smoothly). Sandy Lawrence and Chef Jeremy were unsure what to expect, although Leah kept reassuring them that everything would run smoothly. And it most definitely did. Katy was a wonderful host and all of the other elements came together seamlessly: an interesting tour of the gardens, a delicious menu and wonderful biodynamic Napa wine.

It was a gorgeous setting: the table fit perfectly at the top of the garden, overlooking the greens, tomatoes, New Zealand spinach and French ice plants. There was a collection of old and new OITF-goers and some veterans said it was one of the nicest events ever, with some of the most delicious food. As has been acknowledged multiple times, Ubuntu is definitely doing something right!

Jim and Leah are looking forward to returning to Napa sometime soon to enjoy the rest of their meal at Ubuntu and hopefully to work with Chef Jeremy Fox and Sandy Lawrence again.

Thank you to our guest Dave Scholl, who sent this photos after the event to share since Jim and Leah weren't there.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Home Territory

L.A. story

After all the wide open spaces we experienced major culture shock rolling into LA and Hollywood for our next dinner. Caleb man-handled the bus on a thrilling ride from the sparse high desert- careening into L.A. and major traffic. Whew!! We situated ourselves in Hollywood and returned to nearby Wattles Farm for our second Outstanding visit. In glorious California weather guest chef Neal Fraser of Grace Restaurant happily roasted two whole Red Wattle heirloom pigs in caja chinas. Head gardener Toby Leaman spirited guests off for tours of the property as we squeezed another enormous Outstanding crowd into this expansive and fertile community garden. It's always a pleasure, and we will be back.

Home Stretch....

On our way to Ojai we stopped in Ventura to put our toes in the chilly Pacific Ocean. Three and a half months ago we left sight of the Pacific and now 35 Outstanding in the Field events later we were just too tired to get very excited about seeing it again. We slowly climbed back on the bus and made our way to Ojai and scenic Earthtrine Farm. BD Dautch of Earthtrine is one of our favorite farmers and he certainly has one of the prettiest farms we have seen. Guests sipped Michael Meagher's Vino V wine near the orange grove and soon all toured the property. The guests made a bit of a rush on the table during the tour as they sometimes do... and soon everyone was happily dining on local specialties created by guest chef Josh Brown of Bouchon Santa Barbara and Seagrass Restaurant. It was definitely nice to see some familiar faces: Farmer BD, some of our loyal California service staff, even our Paso Robles dinner chef, Deborah Scarborough of Black Cat Bistro, made a surprise appearance at the table. We're definitely almost there.

After dinner everyone was a little ragged and frazzled and our staff after party was more than a little deranged -but no matter- soon we would have time to rest.

Home (?) to Santa Cruz

We did it!! We survived! We succeeded. And we still had the bus - though it did miss 8 or 9 dinners...

The planning, the work, the challenges, all the new friends, spreading the word about farm dinners, and now we're back home in Santa Cruz. The ironic thing about this though (Leah made the observation as we were driving north from Ojai) is that none of us, other than Jim, really had homes, let alone homes in Santa Cruz. The bus had become our home, as we had left so many months ago. Sure enough, everyone spent the night at Jim's house and some of us even slept on the bus in the driveway.

Is it time to think about next year? Who is on the bus? Where will we go?

Maybe we'll think about that a little later.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

East to West and Back Again

NYC Scout/Absolut-ly

Jim and Leah flew off to New York for several days to scout for a November 3rd, 2008 special event sponsored by Absolut Vodka. Jim was asked to participate as an Absolut ''Visionary'' and come up with some super cool idea to go with the "In an Absolut World" campaign. A couple of the ideas that unfortunately didn't make the cut were a table crossing the USA/Mexico border and a table set on an iceberg in Greenland. A giant dry lake drawing was also in contention. Absolut supplied Jim with some scout money last June which resulted in interesting times in Vegas, the Grand Canyon, dry lake exploration in Nevada and an amazing trip to Greenland with Outstanding bus driver Ben.

Finally, Jim's NYC five borough dinner idea was approved. ''In An Absolut World Cities Farm'' A five borough dinner on a New York rooftop. So Leah and Jim were off to NYC to visit the five boroughs and meet gardeners/farmers while having the whole process documented.

A final version of the film will be released soon on the Absolut website.

Phoenix and Crooked Sky Farm

Meanwhile, the culinary caravan made its way through Texas and New Mexico and onward to Arizona and the next dinner. Jim and Caleb decided to do the cheffing in Phoenix. Jim does a few dinners every year and was excited to grab a knife and get back in the kitchen (Jim was chef for all dinners during the first three years of OITF). Caleb arrived several days ahead and set about sourcing local ingredients. He also sourced a local kitchen: Tapino Kitchen & Wine Bar and chef James Porter in nearby Scottsdale who joined us for what became a group effort. Chef James and Tapino are pioneers in the Phoenix area in the use of local product. Besides sourcing a myriad of local goodies we attacked a cactus for nopales right in front of the restaurant. As you can see, Adam got right in there picking and foraging and was a great help in the kitchen too. We also visited the Superstition Dairy which had a few animals on display left over from the previous day's dairy open house which included a petting zoo.

Our Crooked Sky Farms dinner went off without a hitch though the site that was a bit on the industrial/rustic side. Farmer Frank gave a heartfelt description of what it was like to realize his lifelong dream of becoming a farmer. He also described his hugely successful CSA. Tucson CSA chicken farmer Philipe, an immigrant from France, walked the table with Jim describing the french heirloom chickens he raises. (Thanks Mali and Aubrey for making the long drive to pick up the chickens). Rancher Paul from Double Check brought his young daughter around the table and shared the the story of his grass fed beef operation.

The next day we said goodbye to our new friends and slowly made our way across the desert. Thanks again to Wendy and James for helping us out with this event.

Ancient marks

Our journey included a side trip to see several ancient desert drawings located along the Colorado river. Markings preserved for hundreds of years by the dry desert environment and discovered decades ago by a pilot in a passing plane.

What is it like to travel by bus across North America living in a very small space with six people...?

We get that question a lot: "What's it like living on the bus?" On our way to the next dinner Jim remembered there was a town in California called 'Desert Hot Springs' located several hours ahead- this seemed a good enough reason to get off the bus and book some rooms at a spa called The Spring.

THE KEY TO SUCCESSFULLY TRAVELING ON A BUS is to make sure GET OFF the bus as necessary.

The ladies loooved the spa and basked in luxury... the guys were quickly bored with 'treatments' and soon made plans to take off into the desert. Jim, Caleb and Adam took the bus on a Man Adventure leaving all the ladies lounging at the spa. Neiman Marcus/Armani asked Jim to make some temporary drawings on a dry lake for a fashion shoot so... another scout. Other nearby dry lakes were also checked out, including the Lucerne Dry Lake in the Mojave Desert. A strange adventure in a very odd environment.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Another Marathon...

Hog Heaven

After a flight from Miami reunited with bus and crew we all made our way to Bourbon Street in New Orleans for a bit of drinking.

Caleb and Mali stayed out a little too late while the rest of us packed it in early getting plenty of rest for the next day's event....

After a long drive we arrived at our dinner site La Provence Restaurant. La Provence has a small farm out back with very large pigs, chickens, raised vegetable beds. "Locally grown" as in everything is a stone's throw away from the kitchen. We set out our table and a few stray chickens jumped on to check it out. As we set the table Caleb took a bit of time to spiff up the bus. Arriving guests mingled and met our forager and beekeeper and then heard the story of the farm.

La Provence's new Executive chef Randy Lewis executed a beautiful meal. He and his wife KK are old friends of John Besh's (owner of La Provence) and they had recently relocated from California to take over the restaurant as chef and manager and are doing a wonderful job at it. One of the farmers almost stole the show though: Adrian Juttner of Algiers Honey, who has a hive right there in La Provence's backyard. Adrian eventually brought to our attention that it was in fact his birthday and he was due home for some celebration, but once we got him touring down the table chatting to the guests, there was almost no pulling him away! The guests are always so interested in hearing about bees and Adrian had plenty to share.

Unfortunately, John Besh had an emergency at one of his other restaurants and wasn't able to join us for the evening, as originally planned. It turned out to be one of our better Outstanding in the Field dinners, possibly because a real restaurant kitchen is a very short distance away. Cleanup was quick because we had a very long drive to the next site: 7 hours! The longest distance between sites and the shortest amount of time to do it.

A long way to the top

After an all nighter with the bus and with truck and trailer we arrived in the mid morning at Jolie Vue Farm in Brenham, TX, about an hour outside Houston. Aubrey had rejoined the tour in Houston providing some much needed driving relief. It was a dazzling day with perfect weather and a stunning hilltop site. After opening introductions with the Boudreaux family (and a wonderfully welcoming crew they were!) we all set out for the long trek to the hill top dinner site. What a view!

Guest chef Monica Pope of T'afia and her crew worked very hard to create a fantastic meal for a LOT of people at a very remote site. A great Texan meal with Jolie Vue corndogs, steamed pork buns, "trotters & gear", smoked sausage and an amazing swiss chard and goat cheese gratin, just to name a few. There's no way that anyone left that meal not feeling entirely satisfied.

Read a review by Allison Cook and see pictures of the dinner in this Houston Chronicle article.

Austin Back Yard

Farmer Brenton Johnson's Backyard Garden sure is big! Big enough for one of our longer tables and then some. With the table set in the shade of big green pecan trees our dinner guests were treated to a stellar meal from Austin Chef Jesse Griffiths. Jesse recently started his own series of farm dinners in Austin called Dai Due Supper Club. Seems Outstanding in the Field is no longer a voice in the wilderness... Despite our table being considerably longer than what Jesse was used to, he and his skillful crew did a wonderful job. Following a beautiful curried squash soup, a menu favorite was the whole grilled Vermilion snapper. Up until a few days before the dinner, Jesse wasn't sure what sort of fish he was going to be able to get in enough quantity as many of the coastal fishers were still recovering from the recent hurricane. But Jesse knows all about planning menus based on what's available right then and he handled it without a problem.

Special guests Larry and Carol Anne from Boggy Creek Farm also joined us at the table. Beautiful Boggy Creek Farm was the site of our Austin dinners in 2005 and 2006. It was wonderful that most of the interns of Johnson's Backyard Garden were also able to join us at the table and appreciate their hard work, shoulder to shoulder with the rest of the dinner guests.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The South

Good sports

We arrived in Athens in the early evening to find vast numbers of football fans (250,000 was one estimate) swarming the streets. Alabama vs Georgia is pretty important around here and EVERYBODY was out. Somehow Caleb found a good parking spot for the bus and we were off to explore. We stopped by our favorite Athens restaurant Farm 255 and chatted with Olivia Sargeant who participated in the Athens Outstanding dinner a few years ago at Full Moon Farms.

Next day: Game Day!! Jim found some black and red Georgia hats and t-shirts and we soon joined the black and red throngs in bar hopping. Between hops we stopped into Farm 255 for dinner. Farm 255 has a charming chalkboard posted on the wall that lists all the local sources of ingredients. Dinner was super good and the restaurant was nice and quiet as all were elsewhere watching the game. Georgia was soundly trounced by 'Bama and we soon joined the masses in post game revelry, finally stumbling to our 'home' on the bus late in the night.

We groggily awoke the next day much much too early and slowly made our way to Atlanta and the next dinner.

A History Theme

At the Atlanta History Center we set our long table on historic Tullie Smith Farm. Our site, located in the Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta, was a mix of big city and historic farm. Guest chef Chef Scott Peacock of Watershed Restaurant is well known for his active interest in food history and Southern cooking. Scott even went so far as to get permission to cook with historic cast iron cooking pots. Scott is a charmer and our guests loved the farm, the incredible food and the atmosphere, but they especially loved Scott.

Our new friend Niki, the private events manager from Watershed, took us in that night and Adam and Caleb stayed up late with her playing the old classic video game Shark! Shark! The rest of us experienced a detailed recounting of the activities the next day as we enjoyed lunch at Watershed. Thanks Niki!

With lots of laughs Jim and Leah quickly finished lunch and rushed to make a flight to Miami and the next dinner. The plan was that Caleb and Adam would drive the bus and truck and trailer on to New Orleans because Miami was just too far a drive for the rolling culinary circus. Leah and Jim would then be joined by Jim's art assistant Mali Mrozinski and the three of them would put on the Miami event.

Miami Vice

The three of us found a nice hotel on the beach (much cheaper in the off season) and set out to take in the sights and sounds of Miami. Miami is typically hot and humid in late September. It also rains a lot. We were advised against putting on a farm dinner event in South Florida during this time of year. Fortunately the weather gods were with us once again and the very rainy hot days on arrival gave way to a short window of clear and less hot weather.

Gabriele Marewski of Paradise Farms had contacted us four years ago asking if we might add Miami and South Florida to our tour. Miami seemed a little too far to go so we never quite got it together. Meanwhile Gabriele has started her own successful farm dinner series ''Dinners in Paradise'' which is now going into it's second season. With Gabriele's experience and the great on site equipment and set up we were able to put on a Florida event with less traveling staff than usual. Gabriele's partner at the farm, Christopher Siragusa, was an amazing help, along with the rest of the Paradise Farms crew. With our visit to Florida it was interesting to see a dinner series inspired by our example and how they might differ in approach. Michael Schwartz of Michael's Genuine Food and Drink was our guest chef.

Among the many wonders of the evening were the variety of exotic tropical fruits incorporated into the dinner. A memorable course was the homemade organic ricotta with the farm's honeycomb, toasted hazelnuts and walnut raisin crisps, paired with the local Schnebly Mango Wine. The Schneblys are doing some interesting and tasty wines with local Florida fruits, right around the corner from Paradise Farms. Executive pastry chef Hedy Goldsmith put together a killer collection of desserts featuring delicious bittersweet chocolate cookies, jellies and Paradise Farms jackfruit- a spectacle in itself!

The next day we enjoyed a lunch visit to Michael's very cool restaurant in the Miami design district before jetting off to New Orleans.