This (much belated) post is one of a series of essays written for the New Amsterdam Market. Each essay stems from a conversation between the author and a vendor who participated in the New Amsterdam Market of June 29th. The essays seek to address each vendor’s (food-related) enterprise, to highlight the reality behind their commitment to sustainability, and to convey the voice and personality that they bring to their work.
We met in Great Performances’ cafe, in the morning, before it was open. I think Sally was grateful for a quiet, calm place in which to explain the business she so often has to pitch in a few seconds, behind the table at a farmers market or the bar at a large fundraiser. The catering company, farm, and non-profit organization known as Great Performances is a multi-faceted entity that seeks to employ artists and dancers who are working towards their artistic career. The task of explaining this particular company in three seconds strikes me too as daunting, though I’ve seen Sally do it. I was grateful we had a little more time to talk, and she was eager to provide a glowing, more drawn-out description.
In 1979, Great Performances was established by the struggling young photographer Liz Neumark. It began as a staffing company for women in the arts, including Liz, to sustain themselves in New York City. When the catering industry took off in the 1980s, Great Performances launched full-on catering services, partnering in particular with the city’s cultural institutions. Their business has only grown. Today, they cater events in venues throughout New York, from fundraisers in their own space on Hudson Street to events in the ballroom at The Plaza Hotel. They also run their own staffing company, and manage the food service in several of New York’s arts-related institutions, including the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Jazz at Lincoln Center. Their menus draw from “New American cuisine,” and emphasize seasonal products local to the Hudson Valley.
That’s one part of what Great Performances has become. Part two: In 2006, Liz bought land in upstate New York, and the catering company became the first in the nation to own and operate a farm. Katchkie Farm occupies sixty acres in Kinderhook, New York, in Columbia County. Now only in its second growing season, the farm now includes three greenhouses and a chicken coop. About twenty-five percent of Great Performances’ catered events include some Katchkie produce. While the main purpose of the farm is to provide produce for their catering, Great Performances’ catering clients must request the “local” menu to receive Katchkie products. “A lot more clients now are asking for the ‘local route,’” Sally said. “It’s a little more expensive, but primarily it requires trust and faith on the part of our client to ask for a whole menu from within 100 miles.” During eight weeks over the past summer, the farm also services the Rockefeller Center Greenmarket, where, Sally mentioned, “we have to explain what ‘greenmarket’ is.” Touristy as the market may be, the stand in Rockefeller center has gained Great Performances a growing membership in their “corporate CSA.” Employees of a nearby corporation either receive weekly CSA shares of Katchkie produce, or coupons for $5-$10 bags of vegetables per week.
The third component of Great Performances is the Sylvia Center, a non-profit organization that works with neighborhoods and children at risk for food-related diseases. For the past three years, the center has worked with the students at P.S. 180 in Harlem, who help run a farmers market outside the school for community service credit. Other Sylvia Center programs involve bringing NYC students to local city kitchens and up to the farm, always with a farm-to-table and nutrition focus. “Some kids who go up [to the farm] have never seen a farm!” Sally mentioned. “I’ve seen them react the realization that their food is a plant (‘Carrots?! From the ground?!’) We introduce them to the way their food is grown, teach them about farmers markets, and cook with them using our produce.”
Just as it has from the beginning, Great Performances hires individuals who are particularly involved in the arts. The employees have particularly flexible hours, allowing for days they need to audition, or nights when they’re performing. They can leave Great Performances for an extended period of time, with the option of coming back (when the tour ends, or show closes). Sometimes, they come back to help even after their careers have taken off! Marcia Gay Harden once worked for Great Performances as a cater waitress, and now, after winning an Oscar for her performance in Pollock, she will be judging the scholarship contest held by the Sylvia Center for the students of P.S. 180.
A dance and Spanish major in college, in her first year at Great Performances, Sally was not the first to tell me that Great Performances is a wonderful place to work, and a gift to many struggling artists, actors, and dancers making their way in New York. Those who work there are constantly learning more about the food industry while not being forced to abandon their ambitions elsewhere. The company brilliantly connects the dots, between economic sustainability, human health, and environmental sustainability, in a way we can only hope to see more of in the future.