Laura Stanley / September 2008
Food Arts presents the September 2008 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Liz Neumark, a leading New York City independent caterer and one of the most visionary entrepreneurs in the American foodservice industry today. After 28 years at the helm of Great Performances, growth has come to mean many things to Neumark. Certainly her company has gotten bigger—it's doubled in size since 2000 alone, now serving some 250,000 meals a year. However, what's more remarkable—and more daring, from a business perspective—is Neumark's growing ambition for GP as an agent of social and environmental change.
The company's organic farm, in upstate New York, is unique in catering, as is its innovative "100-mile menu" of exclusively local foods, wildly popular with brides. Neumark, recently appointed to the New York State Council on Food Policy, is equally keen on food justice. She has established the not-for-profit Sylvia Center, which brings disadvantaged schoolchildren to the farm and a kids' kitchen at GP for lessons in healthful seasonal eating. In Harlem, a GP–sponsored farmers' market sells fresh produce at prices locals can afford. "We're operating on another level with this kind of thing," says Neumark. "It's borderline politics—no, it is politics." Her activism is attracting clients and talented staff, people who are excited by the company's evolving sense of purpose. For new hires, Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma is mandatory reading.
If there is any characteristic that successful people in the food industry share, it's the impulse to provide for others. For Neumark, this resolve is especially deep-seated. "I grew up in a Jewish family—you know, 20 people for dinner, food for 40." How she got from that to commander-in-chief of some of Manhattan's most glittering star-studded parties is an oft-told story that begins with Neumark, as a recent college graduate, looking for a way to support a fledgling photography career. She began a waitressing temp service for women artists like herself, which quickly stepped up to full-service, co-ed catering. In the go-go '80s, as private party spaces mushroomed all over town, demand for top-shelf food and service seemed insatiable.
Fast-forward to 2007, when GP, in partnership with Delaware North Companies, signed a 25 year lease and renovated the landmark ballroom at New York City's Plaza hotel. History buffs know this spectacular gilded space as the site of many now-legendary affairs, including Truman Capote's 1966 Black and White Ball. With other institutional partnerships already established (GP runs restaurants and cafes for a number of arts venues, including Jazz at Lincoln Center and Sotheby's), this one is the crown jewel. Plaza waitstaff have been rehired, adding dimension to a team still dominated by freelance artists. It's a big change for GP, one that makes Neumark more determined to link her reformist agenda to the experience of luxury. "Being ‘green' is such a mantra now," she says. "Clients are drawn to it, but they really don't know what's involved until we start to educate them. So we're not just another fancy caterer. We're high-end with a mission."