Epicurious: Foodies flock to the fields 

Araxi’s chef teams up with ‘culinary vagabonds’ to create a unique dining experience in the fields of North Arm Farms

On Saturday, July 18, the fields of North Arm Farm will be transformed in a decadent dining room for food lovers from across North America. A table to seat 130, draped in linen and set with care, is to be erected in the field, and Araxi's executive chef, James Walt, is in charge of transforming fresh finds from the fields and further abroad into a delicious five-course menu.

Jim Denevan is the founder of Outstanding in the Fields. An executive chef himself in the 1990s, Denevan was inspired by his older brother, a pioneer organic farmer, to host Farmers Nights at his own restaurant in Santa Cruz, California, bringing farmers in to meet customers. But it eventually dawned on him that he could turn the tables, so to speak, taking diners directly into the fields to learn about their food sources.

He held his first Outstanding in the Field event in 1999, and four years later, took the show on the road. Since then, they've hosted dinners at 128 sites across North America, and as far away as Italy.

"The consistent theme is that the food not only comes from the local region, but we have the characters that produce the food - it might be a cheese maker, fisherman, beekeeper - but basically the farmer's featured in the meal," Denevan explained.

Logistically speaking, there can definitely be challenges to holding dinners out in the elements. But Denevan and his crew are ready for the unexpected, toting tents and other shelters to cope with whatever Mother Nature might throw at them.

While the Outstanding team has hosted dinners in Kelowna and Vancouver in previous years, this time around, Pemberton's North Arm Farm made it on their tour route, with Chef James Walt enlisted to prepare the meal in an al fresco kitchen.

Walt's talents have earned him recognition as one of the top seven chefs in the country and, most recently, praise from Chef Gordon Ramsay (one of the toughest critics out there, if you've ever caught an episode of "Hell's Kitchen") naming Araxi the best restaurant in Canada. Now, Walt has teamed up with Outstanding in the Field, a group of passionate culinary talents from the States who travel across North America hosting white-tablecloth dinners in farm fields to help consumers gain a newfound respect for their regional food sources.

"We're having a bit of a food revolution right now, and it definitely gets better every year," Walt said.

Today, the chef lives in Pemberton, where he regularly picks from the freshest of available produce, meats and other ingredients when designing menus for Araxi.

"In the city, you're really dependant on the middle men, the people that come by with their trucks, who've been out to the farms. Whereas up here, you really see the farmer," Walt said.

Walt had the opportunity to help out with a previous Outstanding in the Field event, assisting the former chef at West with a dinner at the UBC Farm.

"Its absolutely fantastic," Walt said. "So when they approached us, I thought this is perfect!"

"The garden is like a big fridge, you know? You run out when you're looking for a new garnish and say, 'hey, arugula flowers would be perfect!' and go and grab them and put them on."

That's just about as fresh as it gets!

"For us, it's the perfect time of year," Walt added, pointing out that by July 18, almost all crops will be ready.

The dinner will start with a tour of the farm, followed by a dinner with the host farmer and other local food producers.

At the upcoming Pemberton event, organizers are hoping to draw a crowd of up to 130 food lovers from all over North America, many of whom are repeat customers that travel across the continent to attend the Outstanding events.

"I didn't expect this when we started crossing North America, but people are using it as a destination point to do other things," Denevan said. He estimates that about 80 per cent of attendees are coming from outside of the region for the unique dining experience.

The cost to attend Outstanding in the Field is $200, which includes wine pairings. For more information or to make reservations, visit www.outstandinginthefield.com .

An extra scoop

Speaking of "Hell's Kitchen," it looks like the popular show is headed our way for its sixth season of unscripted culinary mayhem.

Sixteen aspiring chefs will battle it out head-to-head, with the winner of the unscripted series receiving a position as head chef at Whistler's very own Araxi Restaurant during the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games.

The two-hour season premiere airs on Tuesday, July 21 at 8 p.m.

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