Volume 21, Number 20 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | Sept. 26 - Oct. 2, 2008
Discovering Hudson Square
Downtown Express photos by Elisabeth Robert
Christopher Harkness, executive chef of Great Performances catering in Hudson Square, also oversees the kitchen in the Mae Mae Café next door, below.
Catering to the hoity-toity & serving lunch to the New Media
By Victoria Grantham
Walk down Hudson St. and you may come upon a massive, industrial-looking commercial kitchen. Turn the corner on Vandam and you’ll see in the same building an intimate, red-walled café called Mae Mae. Though they appear opposites, they’re actually two sides of one coin: the realization of a vision of Great Performances’ C.E.O., Liz Neumark.
Great Performances may not be a household name, but in the world of society weddings, cultural fetes, and celebrity soirees, the brand’s a recognized star. Established 30 years ago to provide women in the arts with the ability to work in waitressing while pursuing their other career goals, the operation has morphed and ballooned into the largest catering company in the city. It feeds guests at Michael J. Fox’s Parkinson’s fund raisers and Mayor Bloomberg’s galas, as well as the patrons at a string of co-managed cafés in cultural institutions like the Asia Society, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Lincoln Center and Sotheby’s. Mae Mae, Neumark’s first foray into the restaurant business, opened its doors in 2002, a decade after Great Performances had moved to its Hudson St. space, which back then cost $12 a foot in rent and was, she says, so remote that it was like “relocating to Jersey.”
Neumark describes her panic the week before the café launched: “We’d never done retail before. It was such a new experience. There’s no public in the life of a caterer since everything’s a private event, but once we opened I was bitten by the bug. Suddenly I saw the allure.”
Of the impetus behind creating her European-style enoteca, Neumark says, “We operate Mae Mae for ourselves. We wanted to connect to the neighborhood and also use it as a testing ground for new ideas.” The moniker Mae Mae seemed right to Neumark because it’s the nickname of one of her children.
The low-key, jewel box-like eatery keeps very limited hours a colorful lama stands guard when it’s closed and is largely a Hudson Square secret. Neumark characterizes Vandam as “the street of no human traffic,” but says she plans to augment Mae Mae’s hours and serve three meals a day after the Viceroy Hotel, which is slated to launch in 2010, opens.
Currently, neighbors in the know, like those from nearby WNYC radio, MTV, and area non-profits, turn to Mae Mae for fresh salads, savory paninis and delectable desserts. Wine lovers come to the “enoteca di vino” to select from an extensive library of bottles. The restaurant stays open for dinner on Wednesdays, and musicians some of whom also work as Great Performances caterers come to entertain patrons. The sophisticated space, which features a mahogany bar, walls lined with bottles of wine and an eclectic mix of art pieces, also hosts events, such as showers, rehearsal dinners and tea parties.
Neumark is proud of her organization’s fidelity to its founding mission. “We’ve been true to our roots,” she says, citing a $4,000 arts scholarship Great Performances awards to select employees from its pool of artist/caterers to further their creative pursuits. She’s also excited about her company’s farm initiative, which enables her to provide fresh, local ingredients in dishes served at Mae Mae and at her other cafes and events.
“We got involved in farming before green was the new black,” she says, referring to her purchase of Katchkie Farm, a 60-acre property in Kinderhook, New York, in 2006.
“We work so hard, but it becomes such a commodity. We needed to take a step back and re-connect to the fundamental building blocks of our work.”