A Chef's Dinner for 120, With No Stove in Sight

By Amanda McClements
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Chef Anthony Chittum is used to cooking dinner for 100 people over the course of an evening at Vermilion in Alexandria. With a stove. And electricity.

Last Thursday, he had to feed 120 without either.

The 31-year-old was tapped to be the guest chef for a dinner in the woods hosted by Outstanding in the Field, a self-proclaimed "roving culinary adventure" that sets up elaborate meals on farms and other scenic spots across the country. With the help of a local chef and host farmer, the group aims to connect diners to the land and to the source of their food.

As word spreads about this literal form of farm-to-table dining, tickets to Outstanding in the Field's events -- from California to Queens, N.Y. -- sell out like hot concert tickets. Most seats for the first D.C. area dinner went in just 45 minutes.

"There's something happening right now that's really profound," said Jim Denevan, the cowboy-hat-wearing founder of the group. "People are really excited to hear about the farmers. They want to come out and learn about food from the people doing the work."

On Thursday, a devoted group of food lovers who had paid $180 each traveled about 80 miles south of the District to the grounds of George Washington's birthplace for Chittum's multi-course meal, featuring seafood from nearby Dragon Creek Aqua Farm. It was the first Outstanding event to focus on aquaculture.

Because Denevan and crew keep a busy schedule in their red-and-white 1953 tour bus, most of the planning for the event, six months in the making, fell to the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which runs Vermilion and four other restaurants in Virginia. "This has taken a lot of organization," Chittum said.

In the middle of a grassy cedar grove with stunning views of the Potomac, a crew of nearly 15 chefs, managers and servers set up a rustic makeshift kitchen with three charcoal grills, two butane burners and several long prep tables.

A half-hour before dinner, things were surprisingly calm. "Most of the prep work was done last night by 6 p.m., and then I stayed at the restaurant until midnight labeling everything," Chittum said.

He regularly consulted a spiral notebook filled with detailed checklists for each course. The evening's menu, which drew from local waters and farms, included marinated eel on brioche, whole grilled rockfish, cornmeal-crusted catfish, bison cowboy chops and a porchetta, the pig butchered just days before.

As guests made their way to a long line of interconnecting tables that snaked through the trees, Nathan Anda, former head chef at Tallula who was assisting Chittum for the night, remarked, "It's going to be funny when the lights go out."

Indeed, it was completely dark by the time the second course was served, and Chittum plated the rockfish by the glow of a single propane lantern. The lack of light wasn't the only challenge in this most open of open kitchens. A stiff breeze prematurely cooled a huge vat of frying oil on the butane burner, slightly delaying the fried catfish, and made regular additions of charcoal necessary to keep the grills hot.

With all the courses served and no major hiccups, the cooks took stock.

"I went from being a chef to being someone cooking really good food on a campfire," said Evening Star Cafe chef Will Artley, one of Chittum's right-hand men for the event. "It makes you appreciate the power you have in your kitchen."

The experience didn't leave Chittum ready to give up his electricity at Vermilion, but he did see an upside to the al fresco setup, especially on a breezy September night. "It's definitely much cooler than my kitchen," he said.

Amanda McClements writes the Metrocurean blog about the Washington dining scene at http://www.metrocurean.com.

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