On January 19th, I turned another year older. This year, timing could not have been better for my birthday to fall on the same day as an event I had always wanted to attend. Outstanding in the Field, created by Jim Denevan in 1999, is a movable feast traveling to farms across America, reconnecting diners to the land. In each city they tour, they carefully select one of the best chefs from that region to prepare a meal entirely produced with ingredients found on local area farms. This of course, includes the host farm you are dining on. For the second year in a row, about 20 minutes outside of Orlando, they chose Lake Meadows Naturals in Ocoee. Owned and operated by farmer Dale Volkert, Lake Meadows provides private tours and has a charming on-site shop selling the freshest eggs, poultry, honey and more. Chickens and cows roam freely on the pristine property and their sweet farm dogs provide endless entertainment as they run wildly chasing chickens. I've had many products from Lake Meadows in local restaurants and can attest to the quality and standards of anything they produce. The chef chosen to cook the elaborate feast for 100+ guests, was James Beard award winner, Melissa Kelly of Primo. I was so excited when they announced her as chef. I finally dined at Primo in Orlando's JW Marriott last year and was utterly blown away by the meal. Everything on the menu at Primo is either plucked directly from their garden or chosen from another trusted neighboring farm. Chef Kelly spends most of her time up in Maine, where the original Primo resides. During the winter months, the restaurant shuts down and she travels between Florida and Arizona to visit her other establishments. Her commitment to seasonal, sustainable cooking and comfort in knowing the animals she uses have been raised humanely and have lived a quality life, is what I believe makes everything she prepares truly magical.
The casual evening started at 3PM with welcome cocktails. Served in mason jars and using liquor from small batch distilleries, we had a choice between an Old Fashioned and a super delicious gin, kumquat, cucumber creation.
The attentive wait staff scattered about the farm offering appetizers of fried chicken livers, soft scrambled eggs with kale and truffles, pork kielbasa, grilled pizzetas and beef tartare.
After the appetizers, Jim Denevan gathered us around as he told his story of early beginnings and what Outstanding in the Field means to him as a chef. He also introduced us to Leah Scafe who has been an integral part of OITF as their director, since 2007.
We broke off into groups of three and moved on to follow Dale as he guided us around his farm. Dale gave us a special look into the frosty egg checking room. In the first picture, Dale is showing us the glowing light belt that all eggs must ride along to check for cracks. If the egg is crack free, it moves on to the washer before getting packaged up in cartons for wholesale.
As our tour winded down, we were escorted to the mega long table to find a seat. All guests are encouraged to bring their own plates. While they do provide plates if you need one, OITF promotes the idea of everyone bringing their own to create a colorful, unfussy and fun table.
We found a spot at one end and were fortunate to sit was some really nice people. Amongst us strangers, we also had the pleasure of sitting with Brandon, one of the farmers at Lake Meadows and his girlfriend.
Below, some of the outrageously incredible food from chef Melissa Kelly. Everything was spot on but it was the lamb & white bean ragout with ricotta cavatelli that sent me into a next level food coma. It was like a warm blanket of love and seemed to include everything I crave in a dish.
Course after course we chit chatted about the food, the wine and the overall experience of the event. Anyone who goes out of their way to purchase tickets for a meal like this, is someone I know I'll be able to relate to. And the company at our end of the table was a real delight. As the sun set and the night crept in, photography suffered but the ambiance got better and better. The staff placed candles on the tables and the cool January breezes seemed to blow at just the right speeds.
I thought the feast was complete with a pavlova and an assortment of palate pleasing toppings to satisfy a sweet tooth, but then our new friends at the end of the table decided to sing Happy Birthday!
A literally perfect night in every aspect and an unforgettable 35th birthday. After dinner, one of the girls sitting at the table mentioned that she had developed a friendship with Melissa Kelly over the years she worked at Primo. She kindly introduced me to her and I had a wonderful conversation with the chef as we swapped food stories and I learned a bit more about her background. I was glad I could thank her in person for the beautiful meal she and the Primo team had created. I realize it's only January but I'm already looking forward to seeing Jim and his staff next year for another memorable evening. Although, chances are I may not have the patience to wait a year. This dinner is certainly worth chasing the bus across state lines for.