Synergizing the very best aspects of tide-to-table dining, sustainable farming, and conscious consumption, Outstanding in the Field makes waves by curating an unconventional—but refreshing—dining experience for its guests. Literally.
Sitting partially submerged in the Puget Sound, a long table complete with a white tablecloth greeted the guests of Outstanding in the Field’s dinner hosted by Taylor Shellfish Farms. The surreal sight was but a hint of the discoveries to be made dining at the rocky beach on the farm.
While the spectacle of the table soaking in the waters of Washington state was something to behold, Outstanding in the Field was founded in 1999 as a “radical alternative to the conventional dining experience,” to celebrate “people and place and the origins of good food.” And the origins of the food at their #table-to-farm dinner at Taylor Shellfish Farms could not be more apparent.
The sound in which the table was placed serves as the source of the shellfish grown by the host, Taylor Shellfish Farms. During an unexpectedly suave pre-dinner cocktail hour on the beach, we were encouraged to join the farm’s marine biologists on a tour of the shellfish hatchery on the property. Taking a break from the circulating platters of fried halibut skin hors d’oeuvres and fresh-shucked raw oysters, we were able to take an intimate look at the way our meal had been raised.
By helping guests to focus on the intrinsic connection between the environment and the food on their plate, Outstanding in the Field encourages more mindful consumption of the meal to come. Amid glowing tanks of algae in the shellfish hatchery, a marine biologist explained to our tour group that shellfish feed on algae, so the hatchery must also cultivate its own varieties to feed the oysters, clams, mussels, and geoducks during their growing cycles.
In this way, Taylor Shellfish Farms also made for a perfect host farm for the evening. The sustainable shellfish farm has been growing oysters in Washington state since 1890, and has become attuned to the way environmental changes can impact the quality of the shellfish they are able to deliver. During the tour, the biologist guiding the group explained that ocean acidification has become a threat to the shellfish seed, preventing the nearly microscopic baby shellfish from thriving in years past.
Bill Dewey, Director of Public Affairs at Taylor Shellfish Farms, points out that while ocean acidification has been a challenge for the farm, they have used their experiences overcoming these hurdles to share their knowledge. “Where we were one of the first industries in the world to be impacted by ocean acidification and know it,” he said, “we have been called on to tell our story in forums all over the world.” More than that, Taylor Shellfish Farms has become active in lobbying for positive environmental policies: speaking at the UN on three occasions, working with the state government on the Ocean Acidification Blue Ribbon Panel, and serving as a founding member of the Shellfish Growers Climate Coalition in partnership with The Nature Conservancy.
It’s not hard to see why these measures are necessary. While full-grown oysters and clams have sturdy shells that can withstand the battering ocean waves (or the tumblers in the hatchery), young shellfish look more like grains of sand, with some trays in the hatchery containing millions of baby shellfish in a space about 2 feet by 2 feet.
These insights made the return to the beachside cocktail hour all the more impactful—watching the years of work spent growing the oysters be undone in an instant with the skilled flash of a knife. While perhaps bittersweet, slurping the oysters and admiring the placid waters of the Puget Sound crystallized the moment as a perfect union of place and taste.
And truly, no chef was more capable of uniting those two elements than Nick Coffey of Lopez Island’s Ursa Minor. Beyond setting the table and partnering with host farms, Outstanding in the Field invites chefs to devise inspired menus out of the local ingredients provided by the farms. Coffey was a particularly apt choice for this, as his cuisine at Ursa Minor revolves entirely around hyper-local, sustainable ingredients—to the exclusion of kitchen staples such as lemon juice and olive oil.
“We don’t buy anything that couldn’t grow here,” he says. “For many restaurant kitchens, these things can become crutches to bring flavor and enhance dishes. We’ve had to think critically about what aspects of lemon juice or olive oil contribute to what we’re reacting to when we taste a dish.” Coffey’s dedication to this principle runs as deep as his love for his adopted home on Lopez Island, one of the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington state.
Originally from the midwest, Coffey and his wife moved to Seattle after college, where Coffey’s first job as a cook in a grocery deli sparked his love of cooking. During the years he spent working at various Seattle establishments, including Bastille and Sitka & Spruce, Coffey was introduced to Lopez Island and immediately fell in love with the agrarian culture of farmstands and fresh produce on the island.
This love for the island drives nearly every decision Coffey makes in his kitchen. “Lopez is the muse that inspires everything we do here at Ursa Minor. We want the restaurant to represent the island,” he said. “We thought it would be disingenuous to use anything else—to bring in ingredients and packages that had no connection to the flavors of the island.”
The flavors of the Pacific Northwest flourished throughout the multi-course dinner prepared by Coffey and his team. Where the long table had nearly been floating in the water at the start of the evening, by the time the meal was ready the tide had receded to reveal the state’s iconic rocky shoreline. Leading with a salad course featuring beets, berries, marigolds, and chrysanthemum, Coffey’s cuisine anchored us to the present moment and the specific environment in which we were dining.
As we passed the family-style plates amongst ourselves, strangers became acquaintances became companions as we savored the aromatic greens that tasted as though they could have been plucked from the hillside behind us. Shellfish featured in a chilled tomato-based stew, complete with Washington’s famous geoduck. Looking over the waters that support these unusual creatures as we ate, it was impossible not to think of the interconnectedness of sustainability and quality ingredients. They do not exist in a vacuum, separate from each other. Rather, the farms are ground zero, the place where environmental change has the most immediate impact, eventually trickling down to reflect on your plate.
Coffey echoed this sentiment, saying: “The cooking begins before the food reaches the kitchen. It’s the decisions being made on the farm, whether it’s when to plant the seed, when to harvest, what varieties to grow, what to plant, when to water. All of those affect the flavors of the product before I get them.” Keenly aware of the importance of small farms to his restaurant, Coffey has built strong relationships with local farmers, foragers, and fishermen, and urges others to do so as well.
“It’s important for everyone, whether you’re a cook or a diner, to challenge yourself, and go outside your box. When you’re out at a farmer’s market or a restaurant, challenge yourself to try a new vegetable or buy a new type of potato. Try new things, because the people that are producing those things are pushing themselves and challenging themselves as well.”
Certainly, Coffey’s main course deliciously incorporated this idea, with a locally-raised grilled rabbit over new potatoes with mushrooms and arugula. While hearty, the meal was thoughtful, invoking a deep respect for the time and labor that goes into everything from raising livestock to foraging for fungus. Between dinner and dessert, guests had the chance to stretch their legs and admire the small sunbreak appearing in the otherwise overcast sky. A glance at the end of the table revealed the water slowly and silently rolling back in just as the roasted koji and caramel tart was served.
By the end of the meal, forks scraped in a happy cacophony over the final bites of dessert, and those sitting at the far end of the table quickly concluded their conversations as the tide dampened their shoes. Despite a pre-dinner warning from Outstanding in the Field Founder Jim Denevan, a few souls braved the waves to linger over dessert as the incredible experience drew to a close.
In truth, the magic of Outstanding in the Field is not the food (though it was superb), or even the location (in the middle of Puget Sound), but in the way all these separate elements are harnessed together to create a special, fleeting moment, as ever-changing as the tides. By setting the table in time with the tides, the meal was a crucial reminder of the necessity of eating with the seasons and listening to nature’s tiny nudges. Either that, or accept that your feet may get wet along the way.