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A Top Chef, a Farm Dinner, and a Reluctant Fire

Sage Mountain Farm, Temecula CA [1]

Here I was on a mailing list for the last year for a farm dinner outside of Portland, Oregon [2], and I had neglected to look in my own backyard (don’t tell the locavore police). It was my Pilates teacher—between administering punishing sets of stretching (I am officially not flexible)—who told me about a farm dinner happening outside San Diego at Sage Mountain Farm [3], known for its sustainable and organic produce.

OITF national mode of transport

The dinner was organized by Outstanding In The Field (OITF) [4], a Santa Cruz–based roving bus tour led by a handful of cheerful and tan hosts who unite a farm’s ingredients with a local chef and invite eaters to partake (though be warned: farm eatin’ ain’t cheap). The goal is, of course, to promote locals farmers as a food source and help consumers better understand the importance of good farming techniques. Each dinner is an ambitious one-time collaboration and it can encounter some hiccups, as ours did, and I soon realized the crowd is divided between those who want to complain about it and those who want to roll with it.

Ilan Hall (right) and The Gorbals bartender

The guest chef was Ilan Hall (right), the Top Chef season 2 [5] winner (the one who shaved his head with Elia in a drunken late-night stunt). He has since opened The Gorbals [6], a restaurant in Los Angeles that reflects his Scottish-Jewish heritage. Hall emerged shortly after we arrived at the welcome tent, where we were given a rosé wine from Temecula’s Ponte winery [7]. And then given another. And another. The fire on the frying oil wasn’t lighting due to wind. Finally, they got it started and sent out fluffy matzah balls wrapped in Nueske’s bacon. Then it was potato latkes, but perhaps only half the crowd got to try them. Every time the poor waitress (yes, one waitress for 150-plus people) turned around, she was deluged (and usually by the same three people who apparently forgot to have breakfast or lunch).

Ilan Hall serving potato latkes

Luckily I had brazenly introduced myself to Ilan early on so, seeing as we were now best buds, I simply asked to steal a latke that had yet to be dressed with the sour cream. He shrugged and handed it over and then at least three people with wide, hungry eyes asked me how I’d obtained it. I advised them to push those three people out of the way.

Finally, they called a group meeting to discuss the game plan and introduce the farm owner, Phil Noble. I realized I had heard him speak at a Slow Food symposium on sustainable meat the year before. I was impressed with his argument that “grass-fed beef” is impossible in the desert-borderland of Temecula (essentially they have to import hay), so he calls his cattle and poultry “green-fed” since he lets them graze on the leftover organic produce in his fields. Is anyone else doing this? Because it seems brilliant.

Sage Mountain Farm's Phil Noble

Phil walked us out into the fields and showed us a few of his in-season vegetables, including sweet onions, baby leeks, broccoli, potatoes, and squash. In the photo, he is talking about how he likes to use broccoli leaves as a sandwich wrap. People who hadn’t nudged their way in for a latke began to moan a little.

OITF table, Temecula

And we were off to the table. OITF sets up one long table, which makes for some nice photos, and communal dining. The people around us were chatty and eager for a great experience, less one woman who didn’t seem to want to be there, and kept whispering to her husband and wandering off. (Also, don’t mention to her that you don’t like the Lakers.)

One couple of lawyers drove in from Laguna Beach, on their first date; another couple—a music producer and a vegan spa product designer—were excited to have a night without kids. We all got to chatting and drinking wine and… chatting… and drinking wine… wait, where’s the food? That’s right, despite the new location, the fire was refusing to light again. And when the first dish finally arrived—roasted whole chicken with arugula herb salad and yellow beans—it was undercooked and had to be sent back. We ate the vegetables that had been under it and risked salmonella poisoning anyway. Waiters later told us they had failed to order enough chicken for the group. Finally, the twice-cooked chicken arrived, and too bad it was in short supply because it was delicious (or were we starving?).

Roasted whole chicken arugula herb salad beans

Next up were pork spare ribs with bell pepper glaze, corn, fennel, and kale. Keep it coming.

Pork spare ribs bell pepper glaze corn fennel kale

The third dish was a bone-in pork shoulder with carrot, bacon, and mushrooms (two bacons and two porks—I guess this is modern Jewish cuisine?). Not that I’m complaining. I’m trying to figure out how to make bacon healthy so I can eat it every day.

Bone-in pork shoulder carrots bacon mushrooms

The dessert was an afterthought: what seemed to be store-bought pound cake with some farm strawberries.

Though we finished our meal by candlelight (or, more accurately, moonlight), it was an experience to watch it all come together: learning about the back-breaking work of running a farm was humbling, including the challenges they face selling in local stores (I made a point to bring up their name to my local produce manager the next day); the dinner was surprisingly delicious for what was a glorified camping dinner for 150 people (wine didn’t hurt either); and the staff, and even Ilan, were welcoming (and by now knew how to cut the tension of delayed dinners and those few guests who liked to grumble like they were at Spago’s). It was fun and adventurous and I’m ready for the next one in Willamette Valley! [2] Stay tuned.

OITF dinner by moonlight