On a sprawling farm in of one of Mexico’s loveliest colonial cities, San Miguel de Allende, a yards-long table is set under a canopy of trees. Nearby, a chef darts toward a brick-walled fire pit to sample the slow-smoked goat that a farm worker volunteered to baste with the juice of bitter oranges. When guests finish their tour of the property’s greenhouses, horse barns, and sustainable ponds, they’ll carry their own plates to the table, which is set with a white cloth, fresh bread, tiny radishes grown in the nearby fields, and glasses of local wine. This bucolic scene is something out of a fairy tale, and it’s the brainchild of Jim Denevan.
As much time as he spends on table placements that correspond with the angle of the setting sun or what to do in the event of rain, Denevan is mainly concerned with getting people to pay attention to what they’re eating and where it comes from. To do so, he thinks of these dinners as interventions, a concept drawn from the art world. This often means manipulating the setup to interact with the natural surroundings. He may time the entrée to coincide with high tide on a private beach near Santa Cruz so that the swell tickles guests’ toes. Or he may set the table on a fallow field at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York so that farmers can help diners visualize the future of the farm’s bounty. The goal is to disrupt guests’ perceptions of what a meal—especially one they pay for—should look like.
“People need to get out to feel a few raindrops, to hear from the farmer in their own voice . . . it’s good for you.”
At dinners in countries with strong existing food cultures, expectations tend to be more pronounced, and the results, in many cases, are more powerful. In Spain, diners are accustomed to sitting down for dinner around 10 p.m., but Outstanding in the Field dinners are always timed to reach a pinnacle—the dessert course—as the sun is setting or has just set. “They called it a late lunch,” Denevan laughs. In Brazil, the concept of dining together with strangers is common, but in Wales, it’s unfamiliar. “There are countries where family-style dining is not done, where no one has ever seen a platter that you pass to your neighbor, at a dinner you paid for,” he says. “They are simultaneously like, ‘Are you confronting our culture? Is this right?’ Yet they go with it.”
But it’s the way people come together to embrace the unexpected that makes meals like these unforgettable. One of the most memorable events for Denevan was a collaboration between an American chef and a Japanese soba master set at Fujisan Winery, in the foothills of Mount Fuji. The day before, he’d cut through six-foot-tall grasses to position the table at an elevated point, curving it to match the slope of the world’s most symmetrical volcano. It was a cloudy time of year, and locals had told him there could be a period of weeks when the view of the mountain was obstructed. As soon as the guests arrived, they asked Denevan to point them in the right direction, hoping to catch a glimpse of the volcano. But there was no visibility. Then, 10 minutes after everyone sat down, for a brief moment—not more than a few seconds—the clouds parted and the whole of Mount Fuji emerged. The table burst into spontaneous applause. “When everything goes the way you think it will, it’s more easily forgotten,” he says. “But being ready to be surprised—that’s when magic happens.”
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