We gathered advice from the best in the business on how to make alfresco dining unforgettable
It’s time to upgrade the American backyard barbecue. Sure, you could trot out the usual stuff—potato salad, baked beans, sweet corn—but it takes only a few simple steps to create something a little more memorable.
Jim Denevan has learned quite a bit about elevating the backyard supper. He worked in catering in the 1990s, when outdoor weddings were “white rental plates and really generic food.” In 1999, he founded Outstanding in the Field (OITF), which hosts more than 100 outdoor dining events a year. At each event, chefs cook a farm-to-table meal in a remote outdoor venue. Everything is trucked in, from stoves to refrigerators to tables. Locales range from vineyards in Burgundy, France, to secret sea coves in California to working cattle ranches in the Rockies.
Even at home, throwing a great outdoor dinner party takes a touch more work and luck than hosting inside, including dealing with unpredictable weather or lugging your dining room table into the yard. But we’re willing to bet your friends are more likely to ask you to host again if you can step up your game. Denevan and two regular OITF chefs shared their best advice for pulling off a backyard dinner party for the ages.
Talk Up Your Farmers’ Market
Food that tells a story is food that people remember, says Denevan. Most OITF meals are farm-to-table dinners, where much of the produce comes either from the farm hosting the event or neighboring growers. You probably don’t own a 19th-century working beet farm, but you can still craft a narrative around your dinner. “Go to your local farmers’ market and chat with the farmers,” says Denevan. Chances are they’ll talk your ear off about their heritage pork breeds or unique method of growing microgreens. Take the microgreens, and the story about how they were grown, home with you.
Build Out a Theme
“I like to work with a theme because it helps me present one linear experience,” says Nyesha Arrington, a Los Angeles–based chef who has cooked for OITF four times in places like Catalina Island and in the desert during Coachella. Did a farmer chat your ear off about his mother’s family farm in the old country? Consider using that country’s cuisine as a jumping-off point.
If that seems daunting, draw inspiration from the venue, says Arrington. For a dinner on Catalina Island, spiny lobsters were the obvious choice. Your best bet is to pick a few regional dishes and elevate them. (Think a hotdish in the Midwest, crabs in the Mid-Atlantic, smoked meats in the South, and anything with chiles in the Southwest.)
Plan a Menu That Makes Sense
“I tend to cook things in a larger format rather than meticulously thinking about each little plate,” says Arrington. Family-style dining also makes the meal feel more relaxed and reduces waste. Grill an entire leg of lamb, and carve it at the table instead of serving individual plates of lamb chops. Or toss together a large grain salad instead of grilling individual quinoa cakes. Arrington likes to find a perfect cut of local meat, and then pair it with a memorable sauce like a tangy chimichurri. She makes the meal her own by tossing nontraditional ingredients into her chimichurri (current favorite: wild ramps).
While it’s fun to use a dinner party as an excuse to try a pages-long recipe, both Arrington and Denevan try to keep things easy for their own backyard parties. “What you do is make a big fire and get stuff from your local sausage or charcuterie guy,” says Denevan. “Things that go with bread and beer and wine and cheese, like brats and franks and sausages.” From there, he sets up an array of interesting mustards, homemade pickles, hot peppers, and chutneys, plus diced onions, tomatoes, and other veggies from the farmers’ market.
Watch the Weather Like Crazy
“I’m actually kind of obsessed with weather,” says Denevan—as a kid, he dreamed of being a meteorologist. A day or two before an event, he starts refreshing his weather app and adjusts his plans as needed. Fourteen miles per hour is the exact wind cutoff where Denevan moves tables behind a windbreak, like a row of trees, a fence, or a hedge. (You can also just push the table closer to the house.) If it’s warmer than 78 degrees, Denevan moves the tables into the shade. When it’s well into the 80s, think about pushing your start time closer to sunset, if that’s an option.
Still, things don’t always go as planned, no matter how obsessively you check the weather. That’s OK. Once, Denevan set up tables so far away from his backup indoor space that by the time the team realized rain was coming, it was too late to move them. Everyone ate in the rain. “I thought, ‘This is a disaster!’ But afterward, when we asked people for feedback, some repeat customers said this one was their favorite. It was really memorable,” he says. “People don’t actually need to be comfortable 100 percent of the time.”
Set the Scene
When you set the table, try to keep everyone seated around just one. “In 1999, when we started doing events, no one sat at communal tables; no one wanted to share a table with a stranger,” says Denevan. But he persisted. Now guests expect to make new friends during the meal. “Who you sit next to should be a surprise,” Denevan says. Make sure you don’t fall into the trap of inviting only people who know each other.
As for dinnerware, resist the urge to go disposable. This isn’t a backyard barbecue, remember? Denevan suggests asking guests to bring their own dishes, a strategy he employs for OITF events. “They become a conversation starter. Every plate has a story,” he says. Someone will bring a piece of wedding china, while another guest will show up with a plate their kid crafted. Plus, the look of clean white linens paired with a rainbow of dinnerware is hard to beat.
Deal with the Mishaps
If your dinner ends after dark, bugs may find you. Fight back against mosquitos by “smudging” them out—that’s industry speak for lighting a small, slow-burning fire or two near your dinner site. “The smoke confuses them [mosquitoes, not your guests], so they can’t find you,” says Denevan. You can also employ a few fans from your home, since “mosquitoes can’t fly well when winds are over 11 miles per hour.”
When the wind or a surprise rainstorm hits during dinner, just roll with it. If your grill gives out, build a fire or take your cooking inside. There’s almost no mishap you can’t override, says Fox. Once, when an ingredient didn’t make it to his cooking site, he knocked on the door of the farmer who owned the property and raided his pantry.
No matter what happens, remember to sit down with your guests and enjoy the meal—heat, cold, bugs, or wind be damned. Savor your wine and relish the time with friends in the fresh air.