Good Food

Friday, February 26, 2010

Mary Cleaver: The darling of sustainable chefs is still a stranger to diners

The Green Table, like its owner, Mary Cleaver, is a bit of a culinary secret. Not many New Yorkers know that her homey little restaurant in Chelsea Market’s crowded corridors serves some of the city’s best sustainable cuisine. (Even if the city’s other locavore chefs do.)

While Dan Barber may be spokesperson for the city’s strong farm-to-table movement, its most passionate pioneer is Cleaver. The Green Table fronts her enormous catering kitchen, from which she runs Cleaver Co., the city’s most rigorous (and delicious) green, sustainable catering company. Cleaver’s hugely influential in the industry—a foodie’s foodie—but what’s missing are the trappings of a high-profile chef—a showy dining room, book deal, and cooking show. Though not in her mind. This Brooklyn-based mother of two is much happier quietly running her business than penning op-eds and leading speaking engagements. She is, however, musing about a cookbook. And she worked behind the scenes to start and run Farm To Chef,  a program that puts the wares of small producers directly into Manhattan restaurant kitchens, until it was sold to Basis in March.

Manhattan’s green markets started buzzing around the same time that Cleaver Co. formed in 1981, and Cleaver had always been drawn to local produce. “There hasn’t always been poison our food supply; food hasn’t always come wrapped in plastic. I’m just doing what I’ve always done.”

If you can't snag an invite to one of Cleaver & Co's catered events, just stop by the Green Table for the restaurant version

Cleaver never studied cooking formally—in the ‘70s, the Culinary Institute of America had only just start accepting a handful of women. Instead, she went the self-trained Julie Powell route, cooking her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in her parent’s kitchen. This East Coast Alice Waters first sharpened her knives at Eli Zabar’s E.A.T. (though she started as a dishwasher) and then worked for Giorgio Deluca at Sandwiches, his venture shortly before Dean & Deluca. Customers at E.A.T. started asking her to cater their Upper East Side dinner parties, and a business was born—initially from the kitchen in her fifth-floor walk-up on Mulberry Street.

While Cleaver’s serious about sustainability, she’s also not doctrinaire or preachy. So she manages to be both Alice Water’s go-to caterer for NYC events and also attract clients who don’t know a ramp from a rutabaga, like the creators of the Shorty Awards, the Oscars of Twitter, happening next week. “I imagine a lot of the guests will be tweeting, but I hope they remember to eat the food,” laughs Cleaver, who has a warm smile and dresses in drapey Eileen Fisher-style clothes.

Today, the Green Table restaurant acts as Cleaver’s classroom. “Initially this was a tasting room for my catering clients,” she says. “But there needed to be a place where people could learn about local food and what I do, even if they aren’t having a catered event.” You can drop in for lunch, dinner, or Sunday brunch—no prerequisites required—and be pretty certain that you’ll be able to snag a table at this under-the-radar sustainable food stunner.

The Green Table, 5 Ninth Avenue, New York, NY 10011; 212-741-9174; www.cleaverco.com

Have you ever eaten at the Green Table? Please share your experience, here!

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