Outstanding in the Bleu Mont Field
By Erica Krug | Photos By Erica Krug and Sena Krug 0
When Jim Denevan, founder of Outstanding in the Field, first started doing farm-to-table dinners in farm fields in 1999, he invited his friends and family to be his "fake" customers to provide legitimacy for his new business. "I needed people for photo shoots to get it off the ground," Denevan said. Now his events sell out across the country with people stampeding to get a spot at the stunning long table covered in white cloths set against pastoral landscapes. To date, Outstanding in the Field has planned over 800 events and served over 80,000 guests.
By now most people are familiar with the "farm-to-table" movement, but in the late 1990s when Denevan, a California native whose older brother is an organic farmer, decided that he wanted to connect people to where their food was coming from, this was still a fairly new concept. Now in its twelfth year doing events across the country, Outstanding in the Field is the gold standard for farm-to-table dinners; if you're lucky enough to place a plate at the table, then you are in for a magical evening. On this August night in southern Wisconsin, my sister and I felt charmed to find ourselves in the field.
Denevan, who bought a 1953 bus in 2004 for $9,000 in order to take his dinners on the road, has landed on a fool-proof formula: find a picturesque farm for the meal and locate a reputable chef and restaurant to cook it. This year's Madison-area event took place on August 6 at Bleu Mont Dairy in Blue Mounds, with Chef Dan Fox, a 2016 James Beard nominee for Best Chef: Midwest, at the helm, planning and preparing the meal for 180-some guests. In addition to running the popular Heritage Tavern in Madison, Fox raises meat for Heritage Fox Farms.
This was the second time Outstanding in the Field took place at Bleu Mont Dairy. Cheesemaker and Bleu Mont owner, Willi Lehner, said he was honored to have the event back again. Lehner, a second generation cheesemaker whose parents came to the United States from Switzerland in the early 1950s, said he grew up alongside his dad making cheese. When Lehner bought his current property 27 years ago, he said he started making a connection between what cows eat and how cheese tastes. For this reason, he only makes cheese when cows can be in pasture during warmer months and uses winter for another one of his passions: "Winter is for skiing," Lehner said with a smile.
Dedicated to his craft, Lehner also built a cheese cave at Bleu Mont in 2005 in order to age the cheese. "While touring seventeen farmstead cheese makers in Scotland and Ireland, I asked them where they liked to age their cheese and everyone said they would age cheese underground," Lehner said during a tour of his cave. Lehner said the average temperature of the cave is 55 degrees and the point is to control the humidity because too much humidity wrecks the surface of cheese and causes it to crack. Known for artisan cheeses like his Bandaged Cheddar, Lehner makes and sells ten varieties of cheese at the Dane County Farmers Market in Madison. By the end of the Outstanding dinner on this evening, Lehner rolled wheels of cheddar out to the field in the dark to sell to adoring fans. Denevan, who said he loves working with cheesemakers, is familiar with this kind of frenzy for cheese and the people who make it. "Cheesemakers are elevated to Saint status in Europe," Denevan said. "They transform milk into cheese."
On this idyllic late summer afternoon and early evening, Chef Dan Fox and his crew are busy churning out dishes with Bleu Mont's cheese and other locally-sourced ingredients. Upon arrival, appetizers, including tempura bacon-wrapped Bleu Mont Dairy cheese curds and smoked whitefish, pickled beet and fresh dill, are available for mingling dinner guests. At a side table, Heritage Mixologist Clint Sterwald served drinks that were a gorgeous shade of red. Calling it "The Renegade," the drink contains local favorite Wollersheim Garden Gate Gin with vermouth, Door County cherries, Rishi Black Tea, basil, lemon and fermented honey. While pouring a drink, Sterwald said the cocktail was purposefully bitter so that you crave food. "You'll be hungry by the time you get to the dinner table," Sterwald said.
As if we needed a reason to be hungry. As the sun started to slant lower in the sky, course after course arrived at the table. Fox Heritage Farms charcuterie and Bleu Mont Dairy cheese board with Cress Spring Bakery bread and stone fruit. Green bean and cherry tomato salad with pickled red onions, Bleu Mont sheep's milk cheese and buttermilk dressing. An entree of Fox Heritage Farms Tomahawk rib-eye and braised beef short rib with Bleu Mont Dairy cave-aged bandaged cheddar creamed grits, tamarind-glazed Savory Accents shishito peppers, carrots and broccoli.
Dinner was served family style, making it easy to make new friends. By the time dessert arrived, my sister and I found ourselves posing for photos with dinner companions and sharing contact information. Dessert, a beautiful silver platter of Door County cherry clafoutis with currants and a pistachio-candied ginger crumble, was served alongside Ruby Coffee Roasters iced coffee.
As dinner came to an end, Fox and his crew made their way to the field with lanterns to address dinner guests. Fox described how incredible it was to work with Lehner, sharing how he created the menu and talking about how dedicated Lehner is to his craft of his cheesemaking; it's clear that this was a collaborative effort on the part of all parties involved.
As people started to head for home, we lingered because we weren't ready to leave. We finally made our way to the luminary-lit gravel road back to the highway. The crickets were loud and a sliver of a crescent moon lit out way. As we approached the highway, we heard music coming from somewhere. It turned out a group of people had missed their ride back to Madison and were waiting for another one, but no one seemed to care. We all would have stayed all night, if we could.