by Jonathan Vatner | December 01, 2007

Liz Neumark





Liz Neumark (above)runs the trailblazing Great Performances catering company, based in New York City, which offers clients foods grown at its own organic farm.

Liz Neumark is in clover, so to speak. A bunch of just-picked radishes in hand, the founder and CEO of Great Performances, a New York City-based catering firm, strolls around her farm, gregariously exchanging a few words with anyone who happens to cross her path.

A woman approaches. “Liz, this is amazing,” she says. “I was here just a few months ago, and it was...”

“Nothing,” Neumark finishes.

Indeed, the sprawling plot they’re standing on in Kinderhook, N.Y., was as recently as last year a tangle of waist-high weeds. Neumark bought it -- and a section of the neighboring organic farm, 60 acres in all -- thinking she could grow enough produce on it to supply a significant portion of Great Performances’ needs. The idea is appealing but also shockingly bold, that a catering company in the modern era would actually grow the food it serves.

“There seems to be no more fundamental building block to express our passion in our food than the literal act of growing it,” says Neumark. “It’s so basic and unpolluted and simple.”

Using organic, locally raised, whole food (all separate yet interconnected concepts) has been a priority for high-profile restaurateurs and socially conscious consumers for years. More recently, however, this food has crept its way onto banquet menus and, very rapidly, the field has become packed with hotels and catering companies.

“We’re seeing a significant trend toward ‘green’ events, which often means locally grown and organic ingredients,” says Daniel Briones, director of catering at the Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia and president of the National Association of Catering Executives, based in Columbia, Md.

For those planners who aren’t “greening” their menus because it seems too expensive or difficult or faddish, it’s time to pay attention. Most caterers are doing something to improve the quality of their ingredients, and it’s only getting easier to bring healthier, better tasting, more socially conscious food to attendees.

Locally grown

After buying its own farm, Great Performances launched the “100-Mile Menu,” a banquet option sourced entirely from farms within about 100 miles of New York City, and mostly from the Great Performances farm (which, to be a stickler, is actually about 120 miles away). In its purest form, the meal lacks olive oil and salt, since these ingredients aren’t produced in the area.

A less stringent version of that menu will be served to meeting attendees at New York’s Plaza hotel, which reopens Dec. 3. Fairmont Hotels & Resorts will manage the rooms as it has for years, but this time around, Great Performances won the catering contract. Executive chef Christopher Harkness has planned a menu based on foods grown and produced in New York State. “As a chef, it gives you a sense of relaxation, because you know where the food is coming from,” he says.

There’s perhaps no easier way to improve flavor than by cutting out the long-distance shipping, says Charles Kassels, the executive chef at Eldorado Hotel & Spa, a property in Santa Fe, N.M., that sees about a quarter of its meeting planners eager for meals made solely using ingredients from local farms. “Anything that’s pulled out of the ground Tuesday morning and served Tuesday night,” he says, “is going to be better than something grown in California, washed, put in a bag and shipped 800 miles.”

Doug Brecht, director of marketing at the Doubletree Hotel & Executive Meeting Center in Portland, Ore., sees local purchasing as a way to increase the economic impact of a convention without spending more. “It feeds our local economy, making our area a little bit more vibrant,” he says. “The obvious factor is you do not expend gasoline to get food to the hotel.”

Serving authentic ingredients also enhances a meeting experience, says Scott Cohen, executive chef from the Watermark and La Mansion del Rio, two Omni hotels in San Antonio. Cohen adds at least one or two items grown in the Texas Hill Country to every dish. “They come away pleased because it’s something they haven’t had,” he says. “Local ingredients make the dish more than the recipe.”

Going local ensures that the produce will be fresh, rather than held in storage for months. “A perfect supermarket peach could be four months old,” Cohen says. “Apples can be up to 18 months old. Tomatoes? They’re old.”

One challenge of using such food is that it can be inconsistent in flavor and color, according to C.T. Nice, vice president of food and beverage for Aramark Sports & Entertainment, which has implemented a number of eco-friendly efforts. Also, the definition of “local” depends on the location. “If you’re in Houston and want produce, you may have to go 150 miles to get it,” says Nice. In New Jersey, on the other hand, “you may go 15 miles.” The West Coast and parts of the Northeast are the easiest places to buy from nearby farms, he notes.

Then there’s the difficulty of filling 5,000 plates with ingredients raised nearby. Gaylord Hotels started adding local produce to banquet menus about a year ago, but only for smaller groups. “Trying to find free-range chickens for 5,000 people is almost impossible,” says Giorgi DiLemis, the Kissimmee, Fla.-based vice president of food and beverage for the Nashville-based chain.