Lane Zirlott Wants To Take You By Surprise

Our host at Murder Point Oyster Co. is trying to change your perception of the South, one bivalve at a time.

“I always felt like I was doing what I was called to do – to be away from everybody, go out on the water, catch something wild, living on the bottom of the ocean that you couldn’t even see – until I stepped off the boat and stepped into this world. It was like one more color went off on the scale.” 

Lane Zirlott is an oyster evangelist. His family are commercial fishermen by trade, and he has captained and managed shrimp boats in the Gulf of Mexico all of his life. Just over ten years ago, his parents enrolled in an aquaculture training course through the University of Auburn and decided to try to diversify their operations. Lane, who was looking for a way to spend less time out at sea and more time with his family while remaining connected to the water, decided to commit to oyster farming full-time. “To do this, and to do it on the level that I wanted to do it,” he says; “I was going to have to change what people saw as a Southern oyster, a Gulf oyster.”  Thus, Murder Point Oyster company was created, named after the farm’s home on Murder Point (formerly named Myrtle Point – the land was renamed after a 1929 murder over the site’s disputed oyster lease). 

The Death of the Status Quo

Lane started by rethinking the way Gulf oysters grow. Instead of harvesting from oyster reefs, the Zirlotts seed their own oysters in their on-site hatchery, then grow them in floating baskets suspended in the bay. Their use of the Australian long-line system allows them to control how long the oysters live underwater, and ensures they tumble with the tides. This controls the growth and shape of the oysters, keeping them small, white-shelled and buttery-sweet, in contrast to the “big, fat, steak of an oyster,” Lane describes as typical to the Gulf.  

It’s one thing to grow a great product, but it’s entirely another thing to convince people to try it. Lane faced the very real challenge of convincing people to stock his Alabama oysters alongside bivalves with better pedigrees from the east and west coasts. 

Fisherman, Reborn As Farmer

Zirlott saw the reputation of Gulf oysters as an invitation, rather than an obstacle. “It had to become who I was, it had to become my identity to get this to go over,” he asserts. While he dedicated himself to growing the best oyster he possibly could in his home waters, Lane set off on a mission to change people’s minds, and convince them to pay raw bar prices for an oyster from Alabama. Leveraging the influx of culinary creativity in New Orleans as the city rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina, he started knocking on kitchen doors throughout the city.

“Nobody said, ‘this is a Gulf oyster.’ Nobody said, ‘this is an Alabama oyster.’ Everyone wondered, ‘what coast is this oyster from?’” He remembers, “We were able to take everybody by surprise. To change people’s perception of something, you almost have to ambush them.” 

Slowly, Murder Point Oysters began to sit next to oysters with better-known merroir on raw bars throughout the South, and even around the country. They aren’t stopping there, though. “The goal,” says Lane, “really, is to get a Murder Point in everybody’s hands, get them to try at least one.” He believes that just one is all it takes to know this is an oyster worth killing for. 

The View On The Horizon

As the farm grows, Lane has fewer opportunities to personally shuck his oysters for excited (and skeptical) eaters. So, he’s opening up his farm to us to share his labor of love first-hand. He’s inviting us to an oyster dinner, right on the sandy shores of the bay.

“If you can imagine a vineyard, just the rows and rows of the grapes, that’s very similar to what you’ll see when you get down here. You’ll see the rows and the oysters hanging in line in the cages, but what you won’t see is the work that goes on in the hatchery and the work that goes on at the farm. You won’t see that labor of love, but you’ll see the effects of the love.”

You’ll taste it too, in the creamy, plump oysters that taste like salted butter, harvested right from the waters of the Gulf. They’re sure to surprise you. They even may be good enough to kill for.

Chef Nico de Leon Wants To Get Your Hands Dirty

“Understanding the geography of LA kind of helps you understand who I am.” 

Finding Purpose 

Chef Nico de Leon’s family dinner table in LA’s San Fernando Valley was equally likely to be topped with steak and mashed potatoes as traditional Filipino favorites, but his parent’s roots as Filipino immigrants always bled through. “The food I grew up with was my mom’s interpretation of what American food is,” de Leon explains, remembering her experiments from cooking magazines or the Food Network, which was perennially on in the background of their home. Once a little older, Nico would cook and eat at his friends’ houses, experiencing cuisine from across Latin America while sitting across the table from fellow immigrant families. He also remembers fondly that he grew up enjoying his fair share of fast food. This chef pulls from the culinary grab bag of his childhood to build his own playful, surprising style of Filipino cuisine. “I really pull from any direction, he says. “As long as it’s tasty and as long as I feel like it can add something to my dish or my plate or my concept.” 

A childhood interest in cooking led him to try cooking classes in Community College and eventually to culinary school in Pasadena. After a few years working in kitchens around LA, de Leon found a spot on the opening team of Hotel Bel-Air, working under Wolfgang Puck. “Wolfgang, to me, was not just a celebrity chef, he explains. “Not just someone I watched on TV a lot, but his story was really captivating because he’s an immigrant to LA and, lo-and-behold, created what Los Angeles Cuisine ended up being.” This experience introduced Nico to a different kind of cooking – one that prioritizes seasonality, sourcing and story. “I started learning more about what food can be: it wasn’t just a way to provide sustenance to people, or a way to make someone have a nice meal. You can have real intention there, beyond intention of what’s on the plate, but intention in your sourcing and seasonality.” This introduction to fine dining led him to spend a few years in San Francisco, working in kitchens closely connected to the Bay Area farming community. 

However, Chef Nico’s point of view was always tied to the unique cultural makeup of Los Angeles. He connected with fellow Filipino-Americans Chad and Chase Valencia, who had dreams of bringing Filipino cuisine into a progressive, modern fine dining space. “I had never heard of a concept that focuses on a young Filipino American cook. I was enamored,” says Nico, talking about their first project together, Lassa. “The idea really propelled me and gave me a sense of identity. Before that, I was just cooking Eurocentric food that didn’t really speak to me and I didn’t really have references to. It was just food that I saw on every menu. Being able to identify with what was on the plate was really important, and gave me a sense of purpose and direction.”

(R)evolution And Rotisserie

Post-pandemic, Lasa closed but the concept evolved – with the help of a rotisserie purchased on eBay – to a small menu “focused on rotisserie chicken and pork belly lechon, both of which were essentially influenced and mirrored by these actual dishes in the Philippines. In the Philippines, there’s no rotisserie culture, so it was more or less me adapting these dishes to rotisserie.” Why rotisserie? That goes back to de Leon’s LA upbringing, and the city’s beloved chain restaurant, Zankou Chicken. Chef Nico explains, “it’s arguably one of my top five restaurants in my life, something I’m constantly gravitating towards. It’s a comfort food for me.” There’s no accounting for inspiration in the creative process. 

Since opening in 2021 as Lasita, this new concept has evolved from a small takeout service window to an acclaimed full-scale restaurant. “The menu still focuses on the rotisserie, but everything around it is seasonal and intentional and plays off dishes I grew up with or was influenced by.” 

Filipino Philosophy 

It is especially fitting that Filipino food serves as the canvas for Chef Nico’s playful style of cuisine. Filipino food, by nature, is a cuisine of invention and competing influence. It’s easy to taste the results of almost four hundred years of Spanish occupation, but there’s also flavors from neighboring China and even hints of American influence from more recent occupation in the 20th century, all blended by indigenous flavors and ingredients unique to the islands. “It allows me a lot more fun,” he admits. “I get a lot more creative freedom.”

“The first few years we were doing what we’re doing, I was constantly asking, ‘how do we please our elders, how do we make sure our traditions aren’t being bastardized?’” Not that I want to say I’m DGAF about it now, but I see a different point of view in our culture already. I mean, in the Philippines it’s household to household – there isn’t a standardized recipe for Adobo. Every grandma or Lola makes it however they want to make it. Oftentimes it comes down to what’s available in your surrounding area. I take that into consideration as well; if that’s how they’re able to do it in the Philippines, I can see what’s available in the farmers markets within a 15 mile radius of me, and that’s what I put into my Adobo… What I’m putting on a plate here, this is authentic to me and my expression of being a Filipino-American kid who grew up in the Valley, influences from fast food, from my best friends and their cuisines and the food that surrounds me here in Los Angeles.”

Sourcing locally, for chef Nico, goes beyond his weekly trip to the farmers market. As he says, it’s about “what’s around us in LA and exploring these little diasporas. Picking up spices at an Indian shop that we don’t really have access to, or picking up tropical fruits from a Latin store…I think it also speaks to why so many immigrants decide to stay in or to move to LA. They can find little bits of themselves here, little bits of their culture and their homes. it’s a sense of comfort. but they just have to adapt, which is everyone’s story.” Certainly, as a Filipino chef and a child of immigrants, Nico knows a bit about adaptation. 

For his upcoming event at Wattles Farm, Chef Nico is planning to highlight his culture with a Kamayan feast. Literally translating to “by hand,” this traditional style of Filipino dining is defined by colorful platters, banana leaves and communal eating with your hands. Sitting down to this meal, “you’re elbows deep in my culture, and I love the idea of doing that;” says Nico, a smile spreading across his face as he brainstorms the menu. “This is a celebration of culture, and of LA. Having this beautiful farm, this oasis in the middle of West Hollywood. Are you kidding me?”  

Join us at Wattles Farm in February to be transported somewhere totally different, but still completely, uniquely LA.

Share the Aloha Spirit

We are kicking off our Winter Tour at Kona Sea Salt Farm, where they harvest deep sea salt from pristine ocean water 2,200 below the surface. The resulting flakes, coarse and crunchy, are rich in minerals and lower in sodium, meaning they are a bit sweeter and less salty — adding depth of flavor and texture to dishes without over seasoning. 

While salt is elemental to cooking, we often forget to think about its origin. Like produce, protein and everything else that makes up a plate of food, salt is a product farmed or foraged by hard working hands, a representation of the place it comes from. Our table on the coastline of the Kona Sea Salt Farm will not only overlook the source of their sea salt, but prized ancient Hawaiian fishing grounds and the historical site of traditional fishponds, where native Hawaiians pioneered aquaculture techniques now practiced in the open ocean nearby. 

To celebrate this unique place, we have invited two chefs into the field kitchen to collaborate on a meal focused on the best the Big Island has to offer. These chefs bring culinary influences and classical training from across the globe, but share a passion for the hard-to-define spirit of the islands – some would call it the spirit of aloha. 

“The Hawaiian language has a limited amount of words, but every word means so much more than any word in the English language,” explains Vitaly Paley, one of our guest chefs. “To learn the meaning – and the hidden meaning – behind each word, is so much more. Aloha is a word that everybody knows, but it means so much. It means hello, it means goodbye, good fortune, goodwill, it means so many things. When you say that (and you hopefully say it the way you mean it), you give so much more aloha. To wish someone “aloha” is very enriching.”

We are setting the table at Kona Sea Salt Farm in the spirit of aloha, and we invite you to join us for this special collaboration dinner. 

“Aloha is a word that everybody knows, but it means so much. It means hello, it means goodbye, good fortune, goodwill, it means so many things. When you say that (and you hopefully say it the way you mean it), you give so much more aloha. To wish someone “aloha” is very enriching.”

– Vitaly Paley

Chef Justine Ma 

Justine Ma first learned to cook in Milan, Italy while working as a teacher overseas. She traded her chef friend English lessons for his tips on Italian cooking techniques, an exchange that sparked a culinary career which led her to eat her way around the world. Eventually, she visited Hawaii on a yoga retreat and never looked back. 

She bought a parcel of raw land and built her own homestead farm where she hosts cooking classes and farm stays for others interested in slow living. “I’ve just fully immersed myself into the Hawaii slow living lifestyle,” says Ma. “I’m about slow travel, slow food, slow life, slow coffee – everything is made from scratch, with love…It’s really a lifestyle that I’ve adapted here in Hawaii and, even though I didn’t realize that I was going to build a farm, it naturally, organically unfolded into this dream that I am now offering to other people.” Since arriving in Hawaii, Chef Justine has made it non-negotiable in her weekly schedule to make a trip to the farmers market in order to stay connected with the local agricultural community, even as she has expanded her farming efforts on her own land. 

Chef Vitaly Paley

Chef Vitaly trained at some of the best restaurants in France and New York City before settling down to build his career in Portland, Oregon. He gained worldwide recognition for his enduring celebration of the wealth of ingredients in the Pacific Northwest. After decades running several celebrated restaurants, he and his wife decided they were ready for a change of pace. They stumbled upon the slow life of the Hawaiian islands. “In Hawaii, and they say the island chooses you, you don’t choose the island. We got chosen by the Big Island of Hawaii.”

While his pace may have slowed, Vitaly’s passion for the best ingredients has not waned one bit. He has taken on the role of culinary ambassador for Blue Ocean Mariculture, a sustainably-focused open ocean aquaculture project located in the waters off of Keahole Point, the same location as Kona Sea Salt Farms. “Fish farming in Hawaii has been an ancient practice, Vitaly explains, “Hawaiians have been growing fish for centuries in fish ponds. We’re not farming in ponds, but in the ocean. It’s a quarter mile offshore and very deep, filled with lots of currents and lots of wildlife, and the environment is incredibly conducive to raising this particular fish [Hawaiian Kanpachi].” While he is happy to have stepped out of the restaurant kitchen, Vitaly says, “it means a lot that I can continue learning, I can continue working for a company that I’m proud of. I think the work is incredibly meaningful.”

“To a certain degree, we are in a way a nation of white bread and boneless chicken breast,” he says. How do we change that perception? Food comes from somewhere, and the source of your food, where it comes from, how it’s going, who grew it and how to bring that to the table responsibly and respectfully has always been a big issue.”

While creating their menu, both chefs are thinking about ingredients first, wanting to showcase everything the big island has to offer — from fresh fish grown in nearby waters to grass fed beef from the overlooking volcanic mountains, locally sourced chocolate and herbs from Justine’s own garden. “I think the ingredients speak for themselves,” says Justine. “I think simple is best. It doesn’t need to be bougie. It needs to be good quality, simple, farm fresh ingredients.” Topped with a little sprinkle of sea salt straight from the source and enjoyed with a view of the sun setting over the Pacific, we can’t think of anything better. 

Chef Jason Weiner Wants to Work With Limitations

Jason Weiner of Almond restaurants has joined us in the field kitchen more than any other chef. He meets us in the Hamptons each summer and in Florida each winter to delight everyone at the table with his culinary creations. 

This January, we’ll meet him again at Holman’s Harvest, just outside of Palm Beach, Florida. This will be our third visit to the family-owned farm run by Marty and Liza Holman. We initially met the Holman’s through Jason, who pointed us their way because we were looking for a farm near Almond, somewhere that we could build the kitchen for him once again. 

Recently, we got the chance to speak to the field kitchen’s most veteran chef about what keeps him coming back to the field, the farming communities in both the Northeast and South Florida, his long standing tradition of the human pyramid, and how he builds his menus – gathering whatever is coming out of the ground, and then trying to stay out of its way. 

Interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

What keeps you coming back to the field kitchen year after year? 

Honestly, I look at it the other way around. I’m like, “wow! Every year, they still like me. They want me to come back.” I’m just always so psyched to be asked to do it. What makes Outstanding so unique is that it’s the venn diagram of cooks and farmers and civilians. They’re all  just captured right there in the middle. 

In a restaurant, there’s literally a wall between the kitchen and the dining room. Even if it’s an open kitchen, there’s still a division there that you can’t avoid. Sometimes, we obviously have farming friends who are in the restaurant eating, but to have it all there at the same time, and being able to tell a story and kind of stay out of the way, but still get involved in a little bit. It’s kind of perfect. Like I said, this is really the only time we get to do that.

How do you develop an Outstanding menu? 

Yeah, it’s a good question. The refreshing thing about working with a farm is, in general, these are the 17 things you have to work with. Just work with these things. The parameter is not infinite, and that’s how I cook anyway. My cooking is sort of supply based not demand based. I don’t come up with the menu and then get the food, I get the food and then come up with the menu. 

I consider my job to be a little bit of a storyteller, but I don’t want to be paid by the word. I want to keep things as simple as possible and just kind of try to tell a story. I just get the ingredients in front of me and just try to – I’m not into being maximalist at all. I just kind of give the things a little bit of a whimsical push here and there, but try to stay out of the way and not screw it up. 

[Opening Almond in] Florida opened up a whole world of banana leaves and avocados and lemongrass and ginger and mangoes and papayas and star fruit. These fun things in Florida that up until the past couple years, I never really had an opportunity to work with. 

What is your relationship to Holman’s Harvest?

Marty and Liza are just awesome – you hear people throw around the term ‘salt of the earth’ a lot, but man, it really applies to them. Their three kids are great. Liza makes the deliveries with the kids in tow. His parents are around as well. It’s really a family operation. His background, he was originally an engineer, and all farmers, they’re all problem solvers anyway. That’s their schtick, right? But, there’s so many funky ways he’s figured out to kind of build better mousetraps – and their food is great. That’s the other thing. 

They’re half an hour due west from the restaurant. Just basically you make one turn and you get on the highway and you’re at the farm. You may as well be in another world in that half an hour drive. I mean, you go from being in Palm Beach, to West Palm, then things start – it’s a little strip mall-y, there’s less going on, and then by the time you get there, it’s rural. It’s really another world getting out to their farm. It’s great. There’s farm cats and farm dogs, and kids and grandparents and just – it’s a great vibe. And again, the food is great. What they grow is great and the stuff that’s growing wild there is awesome too. 

When we did our first dinner there (which was, I guess, three years ago) I went to the farm and I was just kind of  walking around with Marty – it was in December so I’m asking him, “what will you have in January?” He’s kind of giving me the list, which is usually how I start the process of coming up with  the menu. What are the 17 things, right? I’m on the way out, and I look up and I ask Marty,  “what’s that in that tree right there?” It was like, pink berries. 

He says, “Yeah. I don’t really know – wait, I’m sorry. Yeah, those are pink peppercorns.” 

Pink peppercorns! There are pink peppercorns right over there! 

“I’ll take them, shake the tree, dude! I’ll take them all.” 

They have a lot of trees of things, like mangoes and avocados and papayas and star fruit, but they also have squash and lettuces. They have a really nice array of things. It’s always delicious. And again, I can’t say enough how wonderful these people are. Liza and Marty, they’re just great people. 

At every event where you’re the guest chef, you round up the crew (and sometimes a few guests) to make a human pyramid. Where did that tradition start? 

I mean, I do it. I do it in my professional life, my personal life, it’s just a thing that we’ve always done, obviously we’ve done many versions at the restaurants. I have all kinds of human pyramid videos.

I think the first dinner we did at Marty and Liza’s, we thought it’d be fun to do it on a picnic table to get a little more lift. We thought it would be just photogenic, a little more dramatic, and we totally ended up breaking that poor picnic table. It was a mass of human bodies all over the place. But no one ever really legitimately gets hurt. I’m always shocked that sometimes people don’t really want to do a human pyramid. Why wouldn’t you want to do a human pyramid? I mean, it’s kind of like a big trust fall right?

Speaking of tradition, your daughter always comes to dinner, right?

My daughter was four months old at the first dinner we did. She was seven in this picture, and now always down to bang it out with us no matter how teenager-y and sassy she gets as the years roll on. 

We can’t wait for dinner number 18 in January! 

Meet the Artist: Joanne Lee of Sunday Studios

Joanne Lee of Sunday Studio is a multi-disciplinary designer with a background in fashion and home decor. She creates one-of-a-kind hand-built vessels and sculptural objects inspired by the feeling of a sunny Sunday. After setting the table with her handmade flower vases at our Governors Island event this summer, we knew we wanted to showcase her work in the shop.

Joanne Lee Wants You To Use Her Spoons

To some, Joanne Lee’s path to becoming a full-time artist may seem a winding one. “Let’s go back to my childhood…No, not quite that far.” She jokes as she starts her story by explaining her upbringing in an Asian-American immigrant family in Southern California; “parents always want you to study something academic, traditional – be a doctor, be a lawyer, etc. Going to college, I was like, ‘I’m going to be a good student, follow this traditional path,’ but kind of needed to be more creative, to work with my hands. Putting something out there that is more physical is always something I’ve enjoyed.” 

After school, Lee spent several years in merchandising and fashion design, which satisfied her need for creation for a while. “I was drawing pictures, sending out something that was in my mind and then just drawing a sketch. To get a physical product back from that was super interesting and exciting. But, after you do something for a while, unless you’re really climbing the ladder and going on a certain path – I was really questioning, ‘what is my role in this industry?’” She began to interrogate how her work in fashion played into her personal values of sustainability and living responsibly. Meanwhile, she started taking a weekly pottery class on Sundays. 

“To me it was such a hobby that I enjoyed, it was playing. I was like, I can’t make a living out of playing!” Her weekly date with wet clay inspired her to think about what life outside a corporate structure could look like, but she wasn’t quite ready to leave design (or a regular paycheck) behind. Joanne transitioned to interior design just in time for COVID to shut down New York, then the world. 

Joanne’s weekly clay date became one of the few outlets she had during the pandemic, and she started to spend more time at the studio, alone due to social distancing. “I really took that time to come up with new ideas and new techniques, more exploratory. I started delving into more handbuilt, sculptural objects.” She used her design eye – honed by many years in the fashion industry – to create her signature style defined by soft curves and clay coils. Over time, her playful experiments caught the attention of buyers online. 

Playing with Clay Turned Into a Full Time Career

Her handmade ceramics now live on countertops and coffee stations, in cupboards and on crowded mantles across the world. “When I make my bigger pieces, they’re more decorative and maybe they just sit on a mantle and occasionally they hold flowers or whatnot, but most of my pieces – they’re not meant to be precious,” Joanne explains her relationship to her pieces’ functional uses. “It’s funny. When I do some markets, there are a few things that people ask ‘what is this, what do you use it for?’ For instance, I make a ceramic spoon. To me, it’s a spoon. Scoop things with it, stir sugar into your coffee, whatever. People always think that I will dictate exactly how it should be used. I’m not going to police what you do with these objects; once you take it home, it’s yours. You can do whatever you want with it, and if you come up with a special way to use it that I didn’t think about – that’s amazing. You put your life into it.”

“I want you to enjoy it. I want you to use it every day. Sometimes things happen; you break it, you chip it, but also – if you can salvage it – that becomes part of the object’s story. I put it out there, but you take it and you make it your own.” In that way, Joanne sees her work as a collaboration between herself and the people who buy it, who incorporate each piece into their everyday rituals. “I have to let it go, let it live its life.”

From the Studio to Your Home

Joanne’s hope for her work is exemplified in the inspiration behind the name Sunday Studio – the feeling of a sunny day off at home. “Something about candle light and little objects on the table adds ambiance and sets the tone for an evening,” she says when thinking of the ideal environment for her handmade candle holders

“I’m not seeing them in a specific kind of space, but for them to be part of a group of friends getting together, contributing to an occasion where people get together and have conversations and discuss ideas. That’s them serving their purpose. That’s why I put them out there.”

Sunday Studio Tapered Candle Holders Set

FIELD NOTES: A Taste of Place

I’ve learned something new about you this year. We’ve all suspected it for a while, but you’ve confirmed it this season at events in California and Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and South Carolina. It prompted us to change our Winter Tour planning. It led Nolan to spend several hours in the steamy heat of New York City with a power drill and fresh plywood, building us a brand new bar. What is it? Your most defining and uniting characteristic? You love oysters. 

Why wouldn’t you? Oysters are a particularly wonderful food. They delight. They confound. They lend themselves to be enjoyed in any season, mood or preparation: slurped with champagne, cool and crisp and reminiscent of a day at the beach in the height of midsummer. Fried, with crispy edges, lemon and tartar sauce in a grease-marked paper boat on the seashore. Stirred into a stew with a side of their namesake crackers or steaming sourdough to warm chilled bones in the winter. Slathered in herb butter and broiled, served bright green and bubbling on a bed of rock salt. 

Oysters are as diverse as the areas of the country in which they grow. “American oysters differ as much as American people,” says great American food writer M.F.K. Fisher in her own ode to the bivalve, Consider the Oyster. “There are, oddly enough, almost as many ways to eat such a simple dish as there are men to eat it.” Oysters are unparalleled by possibly any other food in both their romance and literary representation. For those of us who value food that tells a story, they are a goldmine (or a pearl, if you will allow me to stretch the metaphor). 

Not to mention the second life of oyster shells – paving beach house driveways with memories of backyard parties, piled into middens lining the coastline with reminders of ancient history or, with the help of hardworking people like the Billion Oyster Project, making their way back into estuarine waters to restore lost coastal ecology.

“Nothing connects you to the place where food is grown like an oyster.” Josh Eboch from Barrier Island Oyster Company told the gathered crowd at our first event on his farm, held just a few days ago as I write this. Unlike almost any other ingredient, the oyster doesn’t require translation via a chef, butcher or winemaker. The whole product can be served from the farmer’s own hands – when you’re really lucky, right on the dock, plucked straight from the cage, still dressed with seawater and maybe a shake of tabasco from a bottle left in the boathouse for just such occasions. Recent guest chef and James Beard Award Winner, Rob Rubba, named his restaurant Oyster Oyster after the mushroom and the shellfish, respectively. This restaurant was founded on principles of sustainability, and is fully vegetarian except for oysters (although some would say the oyster still qualifies, due to its lack of central nervous system), an ode to their importance to the ecology of the nearby Chesapeake Bay. 

Even their shells, large and striped with stone and steel, or petite and white with streaks of mossy green and brown, look like miniature landscape paintings, an illustration of their homeland in distant waters or just down the road. 

Oysters are the ultimate exercise in farm-to-table dining, really. They improve the environment by actively cleaning the waters in which they grow, preventing erosion and offering habitats for marine life. They taste of the water from which they came, briny and fresh or delicate and fruity, flavored with clay soil or slate or the salty tidewaters in which they’ve been washed. Even their shells, large and striped with stone and steel, or petite and white with streaks of mossy green and brown, look like miniature landscape paintings, an illustration of their homeland in distant waters or just down the road. 

As the Tour Crew travels the country, many of us will tell you we are most excited about the oysters. We’re not immune to their charms, either. On a day off in Maine or Malibu, the coast of Washington or along the Gulf, you’ll find us at whatever local oyster bar last night’s host farmer or chef recommended, slurping a taste of place as we pass through town. They’re poetry embodied, these hard shells that may be so easily overlooked in the overall landscape, cracked open with precision and skill to reveal a softer side, a deeper story, an invitation to a vulnerable exchange (as anyone who has ever eaten a bad oyster will tell you, it is a risk to down that dozen). 

We often talk about breaking bread together being the ultimate form of connection. I want to offer an alternative metaphor, that of shucking the oyster. From the farmer’s own hand to yours, a story to be told in the time it takes to swallow a bit of the ocean embodied, a celebration of place and the people who tend to it – the cages they control and the tides they do not, the long hours of work they put in to tend to their harvest, its progress one that few of us ever get to see – a true example of dining as an act of connection to something deeper. 

It’s no wonder you all love these silly little shellfish so much.

—— Ariel

FIELD NOTES: To Nourish and Delight

“I think you’re doing a great job.” I affirmed, as melon juice gushed over the knife and pooled on the cutting board around the perfectly ripe cantaloupe Fred was slicing in half. “Thank you.” He replied with French-infused inflection, “I feel like I’m wasting a lot of it.” He seemed almost embarrassed by the richness of its flesh, the perfection of this Platonic ideal of summertime fruit. This set the tone for the weekend, a Platonic ideal of the community that is built around the table – the spirit and inspiration behind our Community Table Series. 

We were finishing up a site walk through his vineyards the day before our event at Vignoble Camy, a small winery just south of Montreal, when Fred Tremblay Camy and Isabelle Leveau mentioned to Seth that they were grilling a chicken and some vegetables from the garden. If they were making lunch for themselves, it simply made sense to make a bit more and feed us as well. (I love this type of straightforward hospitality, almost aggressive in its humility without being precious about it). Fred and Isabelle proceeded to set the wooden table on the front porch of their small winery with fresh grilled zucchini, roast chicken (from their own flock, of course), summer tomatoes smothered in herbs and that perfect melon for dessert. We threw onto the table a few cheeses from our trip to the market that morning, feeling it made a paltry addition to their abundant spread, while Fred opened a bottle of cider made from wild apples scattered around the property. 

“We don’t even know what kind they are,” he said as he caught the lively foam that rose from the neck of the newly opened bottle in his glass. “We just pick them up off the ground and see what happens. Every year is different.” We sat under shelter of the winery’s overhang while the skies gently misted a bit of this year’s ubiquitous summer rain and enjoyed a simple, perfect meal with our hosts. Right after we left, Josh Crowe, our guest chef, arrived to stay with them for the night so that he could be on site and ready first thing in the morning to set up his kitchen, complete with a dried fish-bone garland he made to hang above the pass and a laden table display honoring each of the farmers and vendors whose work contributed to his artistic meal. 

Sometimes the magic of our dinners comes from the beauty of the surroundings, sometimes from the story of the food on the plate or the wine in the glass, and sometimes from the people by whom all that is created. Here, it was the people behind every bite, sip, and bit of soil that made it so special – from the service team from Monkland Taverne that committed their day to helping us produce this event because of their love for their chef, to the artist who created the custom poster that we featured on the menu, to the farmhands sitting at the table with Fred and Isabelle, who dressed up after their workday to celebrate the fruits of their labor. While some of the crowd was from nearby Montreal, there were people in attendance from all over the world – as far away as Berlin, Germany and Asheville, North Carolina – a fact which our hosts could barely believe. Why would so many people travel so far to come to their little vineyard project? Like so many passionate producers, the potency of their work is difficult for them to see through the haze of tarps to roll up and order notes to fill in and those spots of mildew they found while inspecting the grape leaves this morning.  

Three languages flowed easily across the table, translated through gestures of tearing off thick slices of sourdough to spread with soft goat cheese, scooping duck-fat roasted potatoes onto another’s plate, offering up the last slice of summer tomato sitting in its own brothy juices before taking it for oneself. Community is universal. Abundance doesn’t require strict translation, nor does a smile or the clink of toasting glasses. 

This is the spirit of our Community Table dinner series.

 – an evolution of the Outstanding mission to connect us through the celebration of all that is handmade, local and personal. The connections formed around the dinner table transcend the many differences that tend to occupy us every day –  from backgrounds to beliefs to how and for what we hunger. It is in satiating that hunger that we recognize our common humanity. Hunger extends beyond just the physical, as we all know. It encompasses the need we all feel for beauty, for connection, for a purpose related to something bigger than ourselves. 

While this was not one of our official Community Table dinners on the schedule this year, I couldn’t help but think about that series while at Vignoble Camy, watching the winery’s farmhands chat with the chef, who was standing next to the artist, who dined across from one of the farmers from down the road who grew the tomatoes they were sharing. This is the spirit behind our Community Table dinners, where we’ve expanded our showcase from farmers and chefs to potters, spoonmakers, florists and flax linen weavers. The abundance of stories that make up these tablescapes overwhelms me, as someone who loves a good story – especially those told around a crowded table, the blush of a glass of wine coloring cheeks gathered under eyes twinkling on the edge of laughter. 

After each of our Community Table dinners, I have had the pleasure of getting to know the featured makers a bit better, in order to tell their stories to you. I’ve learned the importance each one places on their contribution to the table, how they approach their work with such care, such thoughtfulness – but that they aren’t precious about it. 

Plates are made to be used, which means they sometimes break. That doesn’t detract from their beauty.

Ceramicist Drake Bialecki at our June 16, 2023 Santa Cruz Community Table event in Santa Cruz, CA

Wooden spoons get stained with wear – marks of memories and meals enjoyed. 

Spoon maker Paul Pendola at our August 02, 2023 Galena Community Table event in Galena, IL

Wine spills on tablecloths during a particularly well-told story, when enthusiastic hand gestures drive the punchline home, so we dye them indigo and celebrate their next life to live. 

Indigo linens by Kitchen Garden Textiles at our August 02, 2023 Galena Community Table event in Galena, IL

So often, we are running through our lives without thought for the everyday art around us, the potency of the work difficult to see through the haze of routine – the carefully poured foam on top of a properly made latte, the stitches and dyes on the napkins on our lap, the mural tucked around the corner on a morning run, a sketch drawn in the sand of a summer beach, and yes – the food on the plate in front of us. Good art, like good food, does not have to be precious. It should first and foremost be intended to nourish, but at its best will also delight — and isn’t that really one in the same? 

—— Ariel

Meet the Artist: Ty Williams

Ty Williams Is Always Looking For an Escape 

Ty Williams is an irreverent visual artist based in Southern Maine, who uses the ocean as a main source of inspiration for his vibrant, playful work. In celebration of his collaboration of our collaborative merch collection, we thought we’d get to know Ty a little bit better. On one of the first sunny days of summer, we met up with him for an afternoon coffee at Smalls in Portland, Maine’s West End. He arrived with his partner and fellow artist, Jasmine, their hair still wet at the ends from a quick swim in the ocean before joining us for the afternoon. As we sat in a sun-filled window booth of the bustling neighborhood cafe and market, we talked about Ty’s artistic process and inspiration, his love of his home state of Maine, and a few of his favorite surf spots. Rather than telling you all about it, we thought we’d share our conversation in Ty’s own words. 

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

On Art

“I’ve been drawing and making stuff my whole life.”

“I’m from Southern Maine, a little seacoast town. It’s actually nine miles from the water, on a little horse farm. My parents are a little older, so growing up, drawing and making stuff was always kind of like the first option that my parents gave me to keep me busy at home. It was the early 90s, so other kids were always wanting super soakers and to play video games. I really wanted that, but my parents were pushing pencils and pens and crayons. A lot of my childhood was spent drawing, almost wishfully, what I couldn’t have. I was drawing a lot of dinosaurs and dragons and stuff like that. Then, always, my fascination with the ocean fueled everything. I ended up basically growing up on the beach. When I wasn’t on the beach and I was at home on the farm, I was drawing sharks, marine biology, all of those types of things.

“The whole entire time from age 14 to like 30, I was always working a restaurant job and then art. I started making t-shirts in college, bootleg style, and selling those. I did that for years  – well after college – while working in restaurants all the time. I’m always inspired by the ocean and friends in the restaurant element. Maine being a wild restaurant frontier, I always think there can’t be much more – I won’t be able to do much more. Then from oyster farms to restaurants to friend’s surf brands to clothing, there’s always more work to do. I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t love to be doing large scale paintings and selling them in galleries – and I do a little bit of that – but this all kind of pulled me in this direction. There is something special about seeing your work used in a restaurant or other experiential setting.”

On Surfing

Ty received his first surfboard in his early teens, a gift from a young man running the skateboard booth at a Maine agricultural fair. Ty floated past herding demonstrations and jam tastings towards a graphic displayed on the bottom of a board hanging on the wall. After talking skating for a few minutes, a casual question opened up a whole new world that the native New Englander had never considered: “do you surf?”

“I was like, ‘can I do that?’ He was from here, he was from Portland. He was like, ‘I have an extra surfboard, I’ll give it to you.’ 

“That was the catalyst. He gave us completely the wrong surfboard to learn on, a short board. But, I went out onto the water and I just caught the bug. It took me a while. I was a really really slow learner. I wish I had more of a community, I think I would have learned faster. 

“There were no surf lessons, no instructors, in Maine. No one else knew what surfing was. I got into doing little surf contests, so I’d get to travel. I’d go down to Massachusetts, Rhode Island, eventually California. All the while I’m drawing all of the time. My mom was like, “you’ve got to keep a journal,” and even though I was rebellious about almost everything else, with the art stuff I was good. The surfing led to travel because I wanted to surf other spots, and then totally in an organic way I was being exposed to different art, different people, different styles of clothes. 

Through surfing, I was traveling. At that time, I was like, I want to be around other surfers. My community is really small, so I’d save up some money working at Bob’s Clam Hut in Kittery so that I could go out and travel, be around other surfers and progress. By default, I was seeing more art, more design. I was seeing surfboards with cool logos, listening to new music.  

Sometimes being transient is when you’re the most creative. The best work I’ve ever made in my life has been in motion. If I’m on a surf trip, traveling, sitting at a restaurant with friends, waiting for a table or whatever, I get an idea and I have my notebook and I draw in it.”

On Music

“Music is such a huge part of my whole creative process. When I started to travel, people would exchange cassette mix tapes and stuff. I’d listen to a cassette tape, making mix tapes with my walkman. That would then affect what I’m doing in my journals, which then sometimes would end up being a t-shirt or sold in a gallery or to a surf brand, ultimately to pay for me to go on another surf trip. 

I’d come back to Maine, my hibernation zone in the winter, and I would have just been in Jamaica or in the Caribbean where I was listening to reggae, and it affected my work. People see my stuff and be like, it’s always bright and tropical, but I’m from Maine. “

On Maine

“I’ve spent a large swath of my life elsewhere, traveling, but I always come back. As a kid, I was always drawing palm trees. It was a wishful thing. Yeah, I’ve snowbirded forever, and I still – I was talking about it today, where are we going to go for the winter?

But Maine, for me, is vital. All of my inspiration, for the most part, is incubated here. 

Maine, to me, is a very resilient place. Mainers are wildly resilient. I don’t think of myself as being overly resilient – as soon as it’s winter time and there’s no swell, then I don’t want to be here. If it’s -11 degrees and there’s waves, then I’m fine. If the weather is really shitty and there’s no waves, I get soft. All of my friends that are from here I really respect and am inspired by, because of what they are able to do in an environment that ultimately is pretty adverse. 

Inherently, Maine is a place that births creativity because the weather is pretty tough, but a lot of people want to be here. There’s a major art community, whether it be people from here or people who have second homes here. When you’re around it, it feels so electric. I feel like I’m constantly finding out about people doing stuff, and it’s not an environment necessarily like Los Angeles or New York, where you’re like of course I know him, and he makes paintings like mine. Here, you have to work a little harder to find it, and when you do it feels so special. You have to put the effort in, and that really means something. It means something to me if someone drives two hours to visit, or three. I think that’s ultimately – Mainers are tough. We’re a little harsh. 

I tried living in California for three years, and it was…fine. I found myself always missing home. I feel like I get more work by not being there, if that makes sense.” 

Because you’re not from there.

“I think that’s why. I think if we lived in California, I probably wouldn’t be as prolific. I know that. Because our weather patterns here, I believe in this – winters are the time to make stuff. I am so insanely busy in the winter making things, because I’m doing that and I’m thinking about where I’m going to travel. When I lived in Topanga [California], for the three years I lived out there, I didn’t do much. I surfed every day, because the waves are fine every day – by New England standards, awesome. Every day, I was just eating burritos and people were like, “are you making stuff?” I was like, “yeah, a little bit, when I go visit my parents in Maine.” Even today, with the weather switching, I was like “holy shit, this is magical, we have to swim.” 

For Ty, it always comes back to the ocean. 

FIELD NOTES: Welcome to the (Tour) Crew

I’m currently sitting in the Seattle airport after spending a few weeks on the road, with the new tour crew and without. First, a few of us spent dusty days in the warehouse repacking the trailers, visited future sites we have yet to see, and hosted the first few events of the season to give the new team a chance to pack up their lives and make the appropriate arrangements to get on the road for the next seven months. There is surprisingly a lot to figure out in that time period: where will your mail go? Do you have to put things in storage? Who will hold onto your car – or maybe even your cat – while you’re gone?

Last year around this time, I remember giving away the last key on my key ring. I shedded the one to the front door of my old workplace, the apartment that had been my home for many years, the mailbox I always forgot to check and finally my car, which would take me to the airport with someone else behind the wheel. I felt immediately unmoored. I’ve had a key ring since I got my driver’s license at 16. It has held keys to friend’s houses, to storefronts, to many places that felt like home and a few that were simply a place to sleep. It’s opened doors across the country and lived in purses and jacket pockets for more of my life than not. On tour, I felt its absence every time I left a house (none of them my own anymore, always borrowed for a night or a few) reciting the routine refrain of “keys, phone, wallet” to keep track of my most practical belongings. Except now, I had to learn to keep track of all of my belongings, at all times, packing them in and out of the two bags I was allotted in order to maintain enough space in the trucks for six individual identities. 

For the rest of this year, I will be a visitor on tour. The full-time crew will be on the road together, day in and day out. It’s strange to see the dynamic from the outside; even this early in the season, you can tell this collection of individuals is braiding into a unit from which they will never untangle, regardless of where their lives take them from here. 

Meet the Crew


Service / Tour Manager

Will still sleeps New York bartender hours (read: very few, and never before 3am), and concocts the most delicious mocktails you’ll ever find on a farm. He manages to ooze both professionalism and goofiness in perfect balance, and can work a full farm dinner in a cream-colored sweater without staining it. I promise the latter is a more Herculean feat. 


Driver / Infrastructure Manager

Nolan is a lanky Santa Cruz native with a lackadaisical swagger who drives the truck and trailer with a film camera on the dash and a birding book on the center console, pointing out wildlife as we cruise down the freeway and beautiful plants as we wander through strange cities. 


Driver / Reception Manager

Lily is an effortlessly cool and exuberant young woman with countless adventure stories and a collection of refined skills that make her as suited to driving the trailers as she is to manning the reception kitchen (and maybe, if we’re lucky, one day whipping us up some croissants at an airbnb). 


Host / Marketing Coordinator

Megan is taking over my role as host for the year. While she is petite enough to necessitate that she stands on two boxes to get into the same photo frame as Jim during opening remarks, don’t let that sweet smile and small size fool you. She is strong as hell.


Front of House Manager

Rose may just be the kindest person you’ll ever meet. The service staff that she manages love her for the unshakable sense of calm and radiating positivity she brings into every service, from cold, dewy early mornings through to late nights loading the trailer. 


Expeditor / Kitchen Manager

Brent is my former teammate back for his second year as the Kitchen Manager and Expeditor. Last year, after a beach event grilling in ankle-deep tidewaters, one chef told me he executed dinner so well only because he felt metaphorically swaddled in Brent’s arms the whole time. I’ll just leave it at that.

 While watching this year’s crew find their footing on uneven ground over these past few weeks, I was constantly reminded of my first days on the road – the bruises up and down my forearms from carrying tables, days of layered sunburns from before I learned how often to reapply in the California sun, sore muscles from lifting and a raspy voice from yelling over ocean breezes. There were plenty of moments in those first few weeks when I asked myself, “what did I sign up for?” But I also remembered, in my bone-tired haze, the late nights rubbing aloe on each other’s backs to soothe those sunburns, laughing until I couldn’t breathe at my teammates’ faux-bickering in the front seat of the truck, the wonder I felt with each new site we visited, feeling unspeakably lucky to be able to set foot in some of the country’s most beautiful places – and then trusted to share that with hundreds of others. 

This week, the team left California for the PNW. This is the first major milestone of the tour, when the trailers fly the nest, the Watsonville warehouse is no longer a drive away to pick up lost supplies and there’s no option to call in reinforcements for difficult events without some extra planning and purpose. The team is embarking on their own, producing memorable experiences for hundreds of people each week – and countless unforgettable moments for themselves. I can’t help but feel so proud of them — and a little bit envious, if I’m being honest. There’s nothing like the joy, exhaustion, abundance and never ending challenge of being on tour.

In my last note, I talked about flow — that feeling of effortless immersion in the task at hand, a separation from oneself in service of a single task. That flow state is not easy to come by. It necessitates hours of practice and countless repetitions to burn a memory into tired muscles. That kind of ease only emerges from earned expertise, from a lot of painfully obvious effort. I’m watching this wonderful new crew tackle the same difficulties and excitement and the lack of understanding that I felt last year, and even now seems only to expand as I continue to wrestle with its margins. But I guess that is what mastery is all about — learning more and more of what you don’t know as you climb on top of what you’ve learned.

If you’re attending an event anytime in the near future, I hope you take the time to say hello to these folks, many of them mainly operating behind the scenes. They work really hard, and the work is endlessly rewarding because of people like you. Your presence at the table allows them to earn that expertise, to grow into a place where the effort becomes invisible, or at least a little harder to see.

—— Ariel

The Road Is A Great Romance

Here’s to beginning our next adventure.

Last week, I found myself driving myself up and down Highway 1 on a two-hour roundtrip in and out of Santa Cruz, sourcing some ingredients for an upcoming dinner. I relished in the gentle, joyful solitude of driving alone on this particular stretch of road. The windows were rolled down, the salt air still cool on the fresh breeze of spring. Frothy yellow and soft purple wildflowers, vibrant after weeks of heavy rains, skimmed up and down the hillsides.

I turned up the volume on the stereo, listening to the kind of country music I try not to admit that I like. It made for a romantic soundtrack, all about false loves and unrequited wanting, missed opportunities, and waking up on the wrong side of the sunrise. I had only my own thoughts for company, soft and rubbery as they wobbled through my mind. I couldn’t help but envision a movie’s opening credits as I propped my elbow on the sunny windowsill, hair blowing across my sunglasses. It would most certainly be a love story.

The open road — and the promise of freedom at the far end of it — is addicting. Ask anyone who has managed their way through a full season’s tour (or a few) and you’ll be able to see it in their eyes — at once wistful and a little bit war-torn. It’s hard, certainly. But the romance is real. Our truck is a little clubhouse, home of whispered secrets and long hours of good conversation, comfortable silences as we all gaze at the changing view and singalongs when the landscape gets mundane. It’s a special kind of intimacy, unmatched by many typical experiences. Being on the road together is about camaraderie, it’s about ritual — the gas station stops for special treats, assigning beds at the end of a long day, knowing which flavor of energy drink each person prefers, knowing when to chat and when to slip into silence on those long drives after long hours of work and truly no time alone.

Photo by: Neringa Sunday

Driving for hours on end requires a unique combination of stamina and long-ago-learned skill, a practiced focus and a release of oneself. It turns out, there is a name for this. It’s called a flow state. You hear about “flow” a lot from athletes and artists, when they are fully immersed in their work, with no distractions, often no sense of time, sometimes fully removed from their body. It’s a level of focus hard to find in our world today, with its constant notifications and never-ending inputs. I find one of the easiest ways to slip into it is by driving down the open road.

A really good event can also put you into a flow state — and not just as an individual, but as a team. Suddenly, service seems to become a ballet; food is ready at the exact right moment and you hit the table with wine just before those seated begin to think about wanting more. Waters stay full, supplies are under your hand when you reach for them, and walking paths remain clear. Everyone is working in perfect harmony, in complimentary motion.

Photo by: Neringa Sunday


Suddenly, the sun is setting and it’s time to break down. The event is over. Smiling guests are leaving, and you surface from the flow to realize it all happened in a gentle, perfectly choreographed blink. It’s cinematic; you can almost see the tracking shot along the table, showing a cheers here, a platter being served there, conversations surfacing from a general, joyful chatter. This movie, also, is a love story.

As with any great love, there will always be something to fight over — and the road will test you with everything it has. But, when the sun sets over the Bonneville Salt Flats or the Midwestern sky lights up with lightning from a summer thunderstorm, when the truck goes quiet not out of boredom with each other’s endless company, but in awe of the wonder of this world we get to travel, it’s easy to forget the struggles of every day and fall a little bit more in love with this life, again and again. To me, that is the greatest love story imaginable.

See you out there.

—— Ariel