A great evening with Outstanding in the Field!
When people hear we are from Nebraska, we commonly hear the old cliche about how flat it is and how it seems like one big cornfield. And while the one big cornfield thing is true in some areas, there is a growing number of small farms who have chosen to take a different path and diversify to offer different produce and products that they grow on their own farms.
With the farm to table movement growing in popularity, a market for these farms’ products has been opened, and chefs and farmers have a mutually beneficial relationship. Typically the results of this relationship is found on the plates in the restaurants, but what would happen if the chefs were brought to the farm?
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This is the question that Outstanding In The Field founder Jim Deneven asked in 1999 when he decided to host a dinner party in the middle of his brother’s orchard and bring the chef and diners out of the restaurant and into the field. Now 17 years later, Outstanding In The Field has traveled to all 50 states and even crossed the ocean to bring chefs out of the kitchen to events in fields as far flung as Japan.
Traveling around to events in a vintage bus, the Outstanding In The Field crew keeps a busy schedule with multiple events a week, bringing an outdoor kitchen and their signature long table and hosting a fine dining event that is unique and very memorable.
Recently the big bus rolled into Nebraska to host a dinner at Branched Oak Farm in Raymond, Nebraska. Branched Oak Farm is a working dairy farm owned by Krista and Doug Dittman, that makes wonderful organic artisinal cheeses and dairy products and who were at the forefront of the small farm movement in Nebraska.
Using the milk from their grass fed herd of Jersey cattle, the Dittmans make a variety of delicious farmstead cheeses, from cheddar and mozzarella to Gouda and Camembert, some of which would be featured in our dinner, which would feature the cuisine of Chef Paul Kulik.
Chef Kulik has long been a visionary in the Omaha culinary scene and was one of the first chefs in Omaha to embrace the farm to table movement and make a commitment to using local ingredients in his restaurants, The Boiler Room and Le Bouillon. A James Beard Award nominee, Chef Kulik has found success by not only challenging his culinary teams to be creative, but also his customer’s expectations, his menu constantly evolving to push the diner’s boundaries.
With a menu that isn’t you typical steak and potatoes meal, finding producers who could provide the produce, meats and dairy products needed to create Kulik’s vision required close partnerships with his suppliers. This demand for special products has created a market that allowed farmers to branch out from the usual and specialize into things like heritage pork breeds, specialty greens and produce or artisan cheeses.
Outstanding In The Field wants to celebrate the relationship between farmer and chef and help diners see where the food comes from. An elegant long table with white tablecloth and full place setting out in the middle of the field is a pretty amazing setting, especially when you have a setting like we had out at Branched Oak Farm.
The table was set in the middle of a cow pasture, tall grass, clover and wild flowers surrounding the table under the big Nebraska sky. Popcorn clouds peppered the blue sky, red tailed hawks and western meadowlarks soared above while butterflies and grasshoppers flitted around in the tall grass. Starting out with a cocktail and appetizer hour as we waited for everyone to arrive, we were treated to a shandy from Scriptown Brewing or a delicious French white wine and small appetizers like mortadella stuffed squash blossoms or chicken liver mousse on house made multigrain chips with microgreens.
We had a chance to explore the farm and grounds during the cocktail hour, getting a chance to see Branched Oak Farm’s jersey herd come in from the pasture to be milked in the dairy and see Branched Oak Farm’s “Inconvenience Store” where they sell their cheeses and fresh dairy daily.
The herd is grass fed on carefully managed organic pastures, with the cows being moved to different pastures every 12 hours. This keeps the grasses in the pastures healthy and lets the cows produce a high quality milk that Branched Oak Farms uses in their cheeses. We also had a chance to sample a selection of cheeses from Branched Oak Farms served by Krista Dittman.
The meals at Outstanding in the Field events are always served family style, the chefs plating large platters to be shared, which not only facilitates serving, but also helps to make conversation among diners. Each diner brings their own plate, which makes for an interesting tablescape and lets attendees get a glimpse of the personalities of their fellow diners.
Our first course was a delicious combination of house cured prosciutto atop a selection of melon and marinated cherry tomatoes from Squeaky Green Organics. The salty prosciutto brought out the sweetness of the melon while the marinated cherry tomatoes added a tart burst to each bite.
Our next course was a classic rustic French dish, ratatouille, made with heirloom tomatoes, eggplant and squash from Squeaky Green Organics, while Branched Oak Farm camembert added a rich creaminess. Some toasted house made bread finished up the dish, giving a nice crunchy texture which served as a nice contrast to the soft vegetables and creamy cheese.
This dish typifies the cuisine found at Chef Kulik’s Le Bouillon, rustic Country French like you would find on the tables in southwestern France. A 2015 Chateau l’Argentier Rose d’Aramon from France was a delicious pairing, the light rose wine refreshingly crisp, perfect for summer sipping.
The third course was reflective of some of the dishes found at Chef Kulik’s other restaurant, The Boiler Room (our review here), an urban chic restaurant that uses classic French fine dining techniques to put a unique spin on modern rustic dishes. The third course, Crispy Chicken wings atop a creamy bed of polenta, was probably some of the best fried chicken we had ever had, deliciously crisp on the outside, juicy and flavorful on the inside.
The chicken, raised at Plum Creek Farms, a family owned farm that raises free range chicken and processes it all on their farm, has consistently been fantastic whenever we have had it, and in the masterful hands of Chef Kulik and his staff, simple fried chicken became a star!
The bed of creamy polenta made from corn grown on Early Morning Harvest Farms was creamy and smooth, rich and slightly sweet, was the perfect counterpart to the juicy fried chicken. Fresh pea shoots from Bedford Gardens were picked just moments before service gave a crisp fresh snap to the dish.
A delicious 2012 Cave Saint Cyr Chenas from Beaujoais, France was a delicious pairing, its deep ruby color hinting at its notes of black cherry and vanilla that worked really well with the richness of the chicken.
The fourth course was a classic Chef Kulik dish, a cassoulet, a dish that we have had a version of many times when we have dined at his restaurants. A classic rustic french dish that is essentially a slow cooked casserole, the cassoulet we were served was made with duck confit, pork sausages made with TD Niche Pork, carrots and onions from Shadow Brook Farms and slow braised beans from Sqeeky Green Organics.
Satisfyingly rich and meaty, the duck tender and the pork sausages juicy and pleasingly fatty, making this a dish that was wonderful hot out of the pan, but would have been great to take home in a doggie bag if that would have been allowed! This course also was paired with our favorite wine of the night, a 2014 Alain Brumont Tannat-Merlot that had rich fruit flavors and spice with a not overly dry finish.
No meal would be complete without a dessert, and this course was definitely a hit with everyone that was near us. A delicious Branched Oak Farms goat cheese and caramel tart that was topped with white chocolate Rosmann Family Farms popcorn, peach preserves was absolutely a hit.
The goat cheese tart was smooth and creamy with a delicate tartness that helped balance the richness. The popcorn was tender and light, the white chocolate sweet, pairing perfectly with the caramel sauce and peach preserves. If it wouldn’t have been poor form, I am sure there would have been some folks licking their plates clean!
The event was an amazing evening, a perfect combination of atmosphere, good food and fellowship. Getting a chance to experience a fine dining meal while dining against an ever changing backdrop of the farm, the sun setting across the fields as the cattle move in the pastures was an experience that was charming and an interesting way to know your local farmers and chefs. Being immersed in the farm and away from the typical restaurant environment makes brings the whole farm to table movement out of theory and right into real life.
Seeing the relationship between farmers and chefs is very powerful and really shows the genius behind Outstanding in the Field! If you have the chance to experience an Outstanding in the Field event near you, take the opportunity!
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