“We’ve never done one of these dinners inside a cloud before, so we’ll see how this goes.”
With these words, Outstanding in the Field founder Jim Denevan kicks off one of the culminating dinners of the team’s fall 2019 season. He couldn’t be more spot on in his clever and charming personification of the evening’s atmosphere, indeed, on rolling hills in the middle of Half Moon Bay in the midst of a soupy, magnificent cover of haze, I am struck with the odd and remarkable sensation that we have landed ourselves in a particularly hospitable cloud.
There are a smattering of wonderful things about attending a dinner with Outstanding in the Field, and this evening in Half Moon Bay quickly stirs up each of them. As a first time guest, I could hardly stifle my excitement. The date was branded on my calendar for months and I bided my time, waiting to experience the mother of all dinners. This unplaceable restaurant without borders that can exist anywhere and nowhere at once. No two dinners are ever alike. The chefs change, the menus change, and the seasons change, but it is the inherent quicksilver aspect of these events make it so that no experience could ever be repeated. Despite this, guests will surely return time and time again to reclaim some of the magic that only this meal, this celebration, can expend.
Denevan founded Outstanding in the Field in 1999, with an honorable and incendiary idea to change how people interact with their food, with each other, and with their surroundings. At its core, OITF maintains this concept: build a restaurant for one night only, the middle of a beautiful place, bring hoards of strangers together, give them wine and unforgettable food, and watch them remember how happy a simple, good thing can make them.
Since that first dinner in 1999, Outstanding in the Field has held events in all fifty U.S. states, as well as fifteen foreign countries. This year marked their first event in Sweden, in addition to a new glamping experience at a select few events. Over one thousand dinner events have been planned, prepared, and served by the Outstanding in the Field team, taking the concept of “farm to table” and amplifying it a hundred fold. In fact, it’s the table that’s being brought to the farm here. And all guests are much better for it.
This particular dinner, set on the Markegard Family’s cattle ranch, complete with ocean views and cliffside panoramas (if only that fickle fog would let up), has a sense of community that is palpable from the very first glass of wine poured. The coastal chill in the air and the sheets of mist whip through the wine tent, past the big red bus, between the Appaloosa horses and nipping at the heels of the eager cattle dogs. I am reminded of a lovely, rougher kind of living. Completely devoid of gimmick, Outstanding in the Field gives us something rare in our convoluted, braggadocious era: not a moment that looks good on camera (although, that is obviously achieved as well), but a genuine experience amidst the noise. We are apart of something truly special.
The beauty of said moment at this particular dinner is largely thanks to the Markegard Family itself, whose cattle ranch is not only beautiful, but soulful, mindful. Husband and wife team Eric and Doniga Markegard have tended to the land for years, both coming from impressive backgrounds — Eric as a sixth-generation cattle rancher and Doniga as a seasoned wildlife tracker and regenerative agriculturist. The lifeblood of the dinner derives from their seamless collaboration with Outstanding in the Field’s team. In all honesty, it takes me less than fifteen minutes to feel like I really want to be a Markegard, and I just may have a chance. One of Doniga’s young daughters asks me to “hold her cow” while she grabs an appetizer (I am all too eager to oblige), while her older sister shares her last grass-fed slider from the burger bar with me. I think we’re bonding. I wonder if they’re looking for a live-in ranch hand, a permanent cow-holder. Anything, really. I’ve already decided I want a reason to stay.
One of the prevailing forces behind the ranch and the family, Doniga Markegard, knows a thing or two about being one with the wilderness. Her family’s land is a testament to that. She points out the vast array of species that inhabit the land, from deer to owls to the highland cattle that graze behind a wall of mist. With a background in wildlife tracking and permaculture, Doniga has dedicated her life to discovering ways she can be apart of a solution to the devastation taking place in nature.
“Since humans have been removed from nature,” she explains, “there is so much destruction as a result of that[sic]It’s not enough to ‘leave no trace’ and then go buy all your food at a grocery store. We’re not doing enough.”
She has a knack for posing human blunder and neglect in an earnest manner, without an air of condescension or blame. She’s all about action, as is the Markegard Ranch, which regularly holds ranch days and community events in addition to partnering with Outstanding in the Field.
First and foremost, Doniga sees the best way to initiate people into the movement is to help them understand how fun and fulfilling a life lived entangled with nature inherently is.
“Any opportunity to get people to connect to their food source is key. People love it—they are fulfilled. They’re craving that connection,” she says.
She goes on, almost waxing poetic: “There is not one force in nature that fails to have an impact on everything else around it. Our actions are also like the rain, the wind, the ocean, and we can choose for those actions to give more life than we take…or we can be oblivious and neglect.”
It is heartening and unspeakably pleasing to me to look around the lilting, misty hills of Half Moon Bay and see a group of people changed, at least for one day, by the act of being fully immersed in the outdoors. Whatever that craving is Doniga mentions, it is surely being satisfied before our very eyes. As we move from a hospitable hour of mingling over appetizers and drinks (provided by Alfaro Family Vineyards and Fruition Brewing), we begin the trek down the hill to our cliffside table. It holds views of the ocean, if only we could see it. No one seems to mind the fact that the Pacific hides stubbornly under a bed of fog.
Dinner is flawlessly executed by the team at Alderwood of Santa Cruz, led by Jeffrey Wall. All of it is memorable, although certain aspects of his menu strike a note of unique perfection: the California rice with celery root puree; the hen of the woods shawarma, the sturgeon caviar delicately served on the most democratic of vessels: a Pringles potato chip.
Our night together, this wonderful, lucky congregation of feasters, culminates with a magnificent pillow of pink and gray fog settling along the horizon. It’s hardly six o’clock and yet it feels like midnight, or perhaps those hushed, sacred hours prior to dawn. Crème brûlée with pumpkin compote is passed out by the apron-clad team of servers, all of whom by this point feel like friends. More wine, more brûlée. Are you going to finish that? The strangers that sat across from us are gone, replaced by friends. Over the past two hours we’ve exchanged travel itineraries, restaurant recommendations. We managed to persuade the servers to bring us second helpings of sourdough bread and California rice. Someone pilfered a stick of smoked butter into their handbag; we’ve all drank entirely too much wine.
The trek back to the car park is harrowing, but we relish in it all the same. We walked into the wilderness for this wonderful experience, and now we must walk out. This process is then made a bit easier (and a whole lot warmer) when Jim Denevan himself honks the horn of his massive bus and invites straggling guests to hop in. Despite his gallant chauffeuring, we still manage to get lost. Thank God for the heroic Markegard son, a pre-adolescent cowboy in every regard, who discovers us walking off the bus deep in the wrong direction, and heroically asks us to just hop in his Kawasaki UTV — he knows where he’s going. It is not lost on me that every single member of the family has done me a tremendous kindness in the seven hours I spent on their ranch. I decide I’ll make up for it someday, though I’m not quite sure how.