VAIL, Colorado --Here's a wager: Jim Denevan and his Outstanding in the Field crew are always the last ones to leave the (sometimes metaphorical) campfire, staying up until the wee hours sharing tall tales, lusty elixirs and a love for living in the moment. It's an informed bet, as there's no other type of person who'd want to spend the summer cruising the country in a vintage bus, partnering with local restaurants to bring a farm-to-table culinary showstopper to ranches, sea caves, orchards, farms, community gardens and vineyards across the land.
And on July 26, the bus stops in Edwards. Armando Navarro of Larkspur and Jeremy Kittelson of Avondale will be the ones standing in the field - Donovan's Copper Bar Ranch fields in Squaw Creek, to be exact. The duo has been working with Kerry Donovan, part of the Donovan clan that owns the ranch, to pull it off.
"It's a little challenge," Navarro conceded. "But it's exciting. We're very happy to do it."
Both restaurants are owned by Thomas Salamunovich, a chef who might have been the first person to use the term locavore within the county. His passion for all things local and fresh is apparent in his choice of executive chefs. Both Navarro and Kittelson allow their menus to be dictated by the season.
Outstanding in the Field's mission is "to provide a memorable outdoor dining experience where people can see directly the people and stories behind the food on their plate." To that end, this year will be the crew's seventh trip across North America. They're in charge of the ticket sales and most of the on-site logistics: dining-area scouting and set-up, tables, chairs, linens, kitchen construction, the time table, expediting - even the serving dishes. Restaurants provide the food and most of the staff: chefs, prep cooks, servers and the like. The chefs also are responsible for finding the farmers, ranchers and other culinary artisans they want to work with to bring about the dinner. Navarro and Kittelson's combined list of participating farmers is long indeed, due in part to the passion of Avondale and Larkspur director of kitchen operations, Allana Smith, and Avondale's purchaser, Jose Calvo.
The Avondale/Larkspur dinner will celebrate the eggs and produce of Copper Bar Ranch (Edwards), Dick Mayne's lamb (Gypsum), La Venture Farm's produce (Gypsum), Mike Eaton's beef (Edwards), Elie Ouakline's bison (CO/Kansas border). And that's a short list, because they haven't yet decided on their cheesemakers and winemakers.
"It's about celebrating the land, and the feeling behind it," Smith explained. "People are still trying to make a living from it."
Each person who provided the raw ingredients that make up the dinner will be invited to "share their story" at the table.
The growing season hasn't begun in earnest at Copper Bar Ranch, but Kittelson, Navarro and Smith all met with Donovan to sort out what will be planted in anticipation of the dinner.
"We went through the seed book together," Donovan said. "How often does a chef get to pick out a seed, rather than browse a produce catalogue?"
Navarro was particularly interested in some of the more exotic greens and lettuces; Kittelson has already earmarked the baby potatoes and fresh eggs.
"We're purchasing additional chickens so we can have some more layers," Donovan explained. "We're also going to do some foraging, hopefully. We'll see how the spring goes."
Donovan often forages for strawberries, rose petals and watercress on the ranch. She's also planting lots of rhubarb, herbs, greens, sunflower shoots and beets. Speaking about some of the items, she talks about pushing them, or coaxing them into being ready early in the season rather than later.
"Our philosophy is: You grow it, it's ready, you harvest it," she said. "It will be a fun experience to convince a garden to grow in time for a specific event."
Though the end of July is actually early in the harvest schedule, they've chosen items that should work, especially if harvested at the "baby" stage. Should is the operative word - there is something deliciously primal about depending upon a garden's schedule, not a grocery store, to decide the ingredients of a menu.
Because of Mother Nature's independent streak, the chefs don't have to commit to a menu until 10 days prior to the event. If frost knocks out the strawberries or the beets just won't cooperate, they'll simply change the plan.
"Yes, we're serving lamb," Navarro said decisively. "Lamb represents Colorado."
For Dick Mayne, lamb is in his blood.
"My father was a sheep man, his father was a sheep man and his father was a sheep man," said the Gypsum native.
He uses the term "sheep man" rather than shepherd deliberately.
"One of the misconceptions that people have about sheep is that sheep are stupid. Sheep are not," he said. "They're independent. They want to do what they want to do, instead of what you want them to do. If you learn to think like they do, it's easier to control them. And sometimes, I've found on these smaller flocks, you don't herd them: You lead them. They'll follow you. Of course, a bucket of corn helps."
Mayne met his wife, Luanne, at Eagle Valley High School; they've been married for 43 years. They raise Suffolk sheep, which are the classic baa-baa black sheep cuties. He sells his meat by word of mouth, as it's more of a hobby for him. His main business is producing bucks for breeding. The ones that don't make the cut, either as sires or mamas, get eaten. And according to Mayne, they're darn fine eating at that.
"Lamb chops - those are hard to beat," he said. "Lamb chops and fried potatoes."
He'll be providing three lambs for the dinner; chef Navarro will be using them in his main course. His story will be one of many to be heard at the dinner.
It's a complicated business, setting up a dining room for 120 people in the middle of a pasture. Donovan is planning on grooming several areas for the Outstanding in the Field crew, who will roll up at 11 a.m. the day of the dinner and decide right then and there where to place the tables. The table configuration is simply one long line, so everyone sits at the same table. It's a bit of important symbolism.
They'll have the field kitchen set up by 2 p.m., which is when kitchen staff is allowed to come and dive in. By 4 p.m., the guests will start arriving, and are met with a variety of passed appetizers; it's a whirlwind.
Before sitting down, diners collect their dinner plates, which are used throughout the three courses. The dinner is served family style on large platters.
Copper Bar Ranch is host to mules, cattle, horses and chickens, in addition to a large family garden. "It's named after our family bar in Vail Village when we had one," Donovan said. "It looks like a traditional homestead from 100 years ago. There's a very old log cabin there that we moved up from Nottingham Ranch. We have what amounts to a very large family garden. It's not acres of cultivated land. There's also some pasture land that we maintain, and a hay barn."
The cattle are of the highland variety, big and bush with longhorns. The mules are used for riding and packing, primarily on hunting trips.
"I've imagined some very amusing scenarios in my head," Donovan said. "I have two mustang who are very curious, and I can see them coming over and being inquisitive during the dinner."
Though the Outstanding in the Field crew asks chefs to provide a second dinner for the crew, to be eaten after the tables have been cleared and the dishes washed, there's nothing in the chef's preparation literature about feeding wayward farm stock. Copper Bar Ranch might provide a first in that aspect.
"It's all about the glory of doing it," Smith said. "I'm beside myself I'm so excited about it."
Traditionally, Outstanding in the Field dinners accommodate 120 to 150 people. Because this is the first one hosted at Copper Bar Ranch, they're keeping the numbers on the low side. Tickets went on sale only a few weeks ago, and there are only 32 left. To secure a place at the table, visit the organization's Web site at www.outstandinginthefield.com; online is the only way to purchase tickets.