Table to farm
Fighting through Friday rush-hour traffic on the outskirts of Boston, my husband, Ben, and I utter endless variations on “Can this possibly be worthwhile?” But a mere 34 miles from our Cambridge home, we are suddenly transported, winding down a bucolic main street in a town that looks as if it were airlifted from Vermont. As we turn in to our destination, an herb farm that serves weekend dinners in a converted barn, the city feels very, very far away.
It’s been nearly a decade since Blue Hill at Stone Barns first motivated jaded Manhattanites to wangle reservations for “Farmer’s Feasts” in its elegant rural dining room in Pocantico Hills, N.Y. — and more than 40 years since Alice Waters popularized locally grown cuisine at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. In the time since, “farm to table” restaurants have exploded; airlines, chain restaurants, and even vending machines now boast locally sourced ingredients. But while it may come from a farm, you’re usually still eating at a restaurant in town. Now, a growing number of farms are welcoming diners willing to take things one step further and make a pilgrimage back to the land to sample the harvest in its native habitat — often with service that rivals four-star restaurants. Farm to table, meet table to farm.
There’s an option for every budget and every palate, ranging from the very fabulous — ornate events staged by Outstanding in the Field, an organizer of gorgeous, pricey dinners at farms all over the U.S. (think long tables running the length of a field, candles twinkling in the twilight, and 100 new friends clinking glasses across the table) — to the very simple (bring along a tablecloth and picnic where you will).
Our dinner on this April night is at the Herb Lyceum at Gilson’s, an herb farm in Groton, Mass., that started offering dinners in its renovated barn way back in 1999. Owner David Gilson’s 17-year-old son, Will, an aspiring chef, persuaded his parents to let him create dinner-party-style Saturday night feasts. Word spread quickly, and the Gilsons soon found themselves expanding the space and adding extra nights. The dinners have continued ever since, drawing visitors year-round from Boston and the surrounding area for $60-a-head, four-course dinners served at candlelit communal tables in the barn (it’s BYOB).
Will Gilson is now a rising culinary star with his own much-lauded Cambridge restaurant, Puritan & Company. But he says cooking on the farm prepared him in a unique way for his career. “I was given this opportunity that accomplished chefs today strive for,” he says — “a micro restaurant giving dinner parties.”
Gilson’s current chef, Bryce MacKnight, grew up in New Hampshire and told our group that he cooks from memory, reimagining the foods of his childhood. Here in New England in April, it’s too early in the season for much produce from the farm itself (though we eat ramps foraged nearby by a friend of MacKnight’s), but we’re constantly reminded that we are sitting on an herb farm. The drinking water is spiked with lemon verbena, and a sprig of rosemary sits on each napkin. The courses — spring pea soup, beet salad, and roasted leg of lamb — feature hearty doses of mint, savory, and sage.
When it comes to memorable outdoor farm dining, the ne plus ultra is Outstanding in the Field, an organizer of over-the-top movable feasts — imagine Martha Stewart Weddings meets Little House on the Prairie — which this year will host more than 90 events across North America and in Europe. Founder Jim Denevan was working as a chef in Santa Cruz in the late ’90s when he started inviting his purveyors — including his brother, a local organic farmer — to step into the dining room and talk to his surprised patrons. “I kind of sprung it on the guests,” he says. “They’d come for a romantic dinner and there’d be this farmer talking about growing the carrots or raising the animals.” Denevan says he was on a “mission” to bring the story of the ingredients to the restaurant — a connection, he says, that was missing at the time.
In 1999 he moved the dinners outside to his brother’s farm and started combining farm tours with lavish meals in the fields — and in 2003 he took the show on the road. Outstanding in the Field has since served 55,000 guests at 430 dinners, many of which sell out online within minutes. Up to 15% of seats are comped at the dinners, filled by the purveyors who contributed to the meal. For the first five years he lost money because, he says, “it wasn’t possible to charge the amount of money that it took.” He’s now able to name his price: about $200 a person (including wine; you bring your own plates). What makes it so expensive? The cost of paying the guest chefs (almost 300 have participated so far, including almost 80 James Beard Award nominees and winners), the food, and hiring an attentive staff to tend to the complex logistics.
But Denevan says in addition to covering costs, he’s making a value statement. People don’t wince at paying high prices for wine, he says; he wants to add that “cultural value” to the farming experience. “There was definitely the idea that if these characters — farmers, artisans — are culturally valuable, there should be a price that recognizes their importance in the world,” he says. “We want to elevate the position of the farmer culturally.”
Denevan missed only four events in the 2012 season, and he’s always the chef at the opening event of the year. He’s particularly fond of the most challenging (and magical) venues: At a secret sea cove in Santa Cruz County, he can arrange the table so the tide laps diners’ feet midway through dinner, and the guests access the beach via a temporary bridge made of rented tables and chairs. He once built the bridge so it appeared to float away when the tide came in. “I like the dinners with a bit of adventure,” he says.
Denevan’s company has sparked a cult following — one couple attended 13 dinners last year — and an offshoot “Outstanding in My Backyard” movement — dinners planned by foodies at their homes for their neighbors, using produce from their own gardens and farmers’ markets.
Local groups across the country are staging similar events. In Oregon, Farm to Fork and Plate & Pitchfork host events at farms across the state. In Colorado, Meadow Lark Farm Dinners hosted 33 sold-out dinners in 2012, including a handful of all-vegetarian meals, and in the Midwest, Dinner on the Farm is bringing — well, you know — to eager diners in Minnesota.
If sitting poised at your computer to nab tickets the minute they go on sale isn’t your thing, there are plenty of other working farms to choose from. Fifty miles from Washington, D.C., at the Restaurant at Patowmack Farm, guests can spy chef Chris Edwards clipping herbs and lettuces from the kitchen gardens outside the converted greenhouse that serves as a dining room. His goal is to educate diners about the benefits of local and sustainable food — without pushing too hard. “I want them to have an exquisite experience,” he says. “But I also want them to see that you can make good food from natural ingredients — and if more people get on the bandwagon, then the prices will come down.”
Farm-based inns and resorts extend the experience beyond dinner: The Inn at Shelburne Farms, on a 1,400-acre farm along Lake Champlain in Vermont, offers guest rooms and cottages along with a restaurant that serves up the farm’s bounty. And in New Jersey, Richard Branson is collaborating on turning a 500-acre estate, Natirar, into a resort, spa, and private club. Ninety Acres Culinary Center, located in the estate’s restored carriage house and garage, features a formal dining room, bistro, a wine school, and a cooking school partnership with Viking Corp.
In the San Juan Islands of Washington State, the Willows Inn has a small farm with a fulltime “culinary farmer,” but the main draw is chef and co-owner Blaine Wetzel, who has brought national acclaim to tiny Lummi Island with his dedication to all-local cuisine. An alum of the prestigious Copenhagen restaurant Noma, Wetzel lives by the inn’s motto, “Fished, Foraged, and Farmed: Only Here, Only Now” (he even avoids traditional cooking oils in favor of fruit juice or fats rendered by fish or meat), and forages daily around the island for inspiring ingredients: stinging nettles, geoduck clams, and seaweed from the beach across the street.
Many farms offer a more casual experience — say, a family day trip to a farm for lunch. Two hours outside Minneapolis, the Stone Barn in Nelson and Suncrest Gardens Farm offer competing pizza restaurants in the Wisconsin countryside. Both turn out wood-fired pizzas with toppings grown (or raised) on the premises.
Meanwhile, deep in southwest Georgia, White Oak Pastures — a grass-fed beef, sheep, and poultry farm that’s been run by the same family since 1866 — offers curious (read: strong-stomached) visitors a chance to understand the full cycle of sustainably and humanely raised meat. They can view the animals in the fields, tour the abattoirs designed for humane treatment, and then join the cowboys, butchers, and gardeners for lunch in the pavilion, a $5 meal cooked on-site (the day we spoke, lunch was black-eyed peas, butter peas, chicken fajitas, and rice). On weekends, the space is converted into Seasons at White Oak Pastures, a more upscale experience.
If you enjoy your farm visit so much you want to stay awhile, a growing number of housing developments are weaving farmland and farm-based restaurants into their plans, as in the case of Serenbe, a 1,000-acre development near Atlanta that will preserve 70% of the land as green space, with three “hamlets,” including one centered on an organic farm and stables. Similar developments exist across the country, including Prairie Crossing outside Chicago and Spirit of Brandtjen Farm, south of the Twin Cities.
Back in Groton, Mass., we stroll out of dinner, full and relaxed, our pockets stuffed with e-mail addresses from the new friends we spent the evening getting to know at Gilson’s communal table. A full moon lights the clouds from behind as we head back toward Cambridge, and Ben turns to me and says, “I feel like we’ve been gone for a week.” He’s right. Next stop: that long table under the stars.
This story is from the June 10, 2013 issue of Fortune.