The Cleaver Company is Changing the World, One Hors d’Ouevre at a Time

Despite its name, the Cleaver Company isn’t some sparsely furnished make-your-own-chopped-salad shop in Midtown or a butcher supplier trading in steely blades. In fact this 30-year-old catering company is the quirkiest among the quirky businesses strung along the hall of Manhattan’s Chelsea Market, a company known for creating top-shelf events serving farm-driven food and, more recently, a funky, sweet little six-table tasting room called the Green Table.

That’s because the Cleaver here refers to the company’s founder: Mary Cleaver, a 55-year-old caterer and restaurateur with a tiny frame, wire-rimmed specs, a flyaway bob of just-beginning-to-gray hair and a soft-spoken sensibility that’s part laid-back urban earth-mother, part farm-friendly chef and part vote-with-your-fork activist—albeit one modest about her achievements, which are many. Cleaver runs a $3 million catering operation—one that’s cooked for Tina Brown, Al Gore, the Dalai Lama, Prince Charles, Martha Stewart and Alice Waters, by the way—but whose main objective is neither profits or praise. “It’s my belief that how you spend your money,” she says of her 30-year mission, “is how you change the world.”

That’s the kind of du jour lip service you could hear from almost any city chef these days. But according to Jen Small, owner of upstate’s Flying Pigs Farm, known for some of the country’s best pastured pork, Mary Cleaver “got it a long time ago.” In fact, Small attributes her farm’s continued existence to Cleaver’s early patronage and mentoring. Stumbling onto Flying Pigs’ farm stand on their very first day at a small city Greenmarket eight years ago, Cleaver asked if they could fill a catering order for 500 spare-ribs—but all they had was a handful of mixed cuts from their first 14 pigs. Any other caterer would have walked away laughing and called an industrial supplier instead, says Small. But Cleaver said, “‘I’ll take it all.’ And that’s a perfect example of Mary,” says Small. “She wants this to work with farmers.” Even when it means more work for her.

Such purposeful procurement is nothing new for Cleaver—she scoured the city searching out flavorful, farm-raised tomatoes for her clients back in 1975—a year before the Greenmarket launched in then-junkie-turf Union Square. This is a chef who’d been intimate with upstate dairy farms and lettuce growers for nearly three decades before “locavore” made it into the Oxford American Dictionary or “farm-to-table” became a phrase as worn and overworked as an old pitchfork.

And while a restaurant can put anything on the menu, convincing event clients to stick to strictly seasonal fare isn’t always easy—imagine telling a mother-of-the-bride she can’t have chocolate-dipped strawberries or chicken breasts with asparagus in February. “Catering is giving people what they want,” says Cleaver, who worked for Eli Zabar in the ’70s, built her first kitchen in ’81, spent time as a corporate chef and a pastry chef, taught cooking at the New School, and wrote The Tribeca Cookbook in 1995. “You walk a fine line with catering between making a living and being true to what you do.”

And while in the past decade she’s seen “a positive trend toward people understanding seasonality,” she remembers early days when friends would advise: “Don’t tell them you’re organic.”

That’s partially why more than 30 years later, the Cleaver Company isn’t just a place for organic crudités for eco-weddings or mini-burgers made with pastured beef and artisanal cheese, but a kind of farm team for young cooks or aspiring leaders of the sustainable food world. Know somebody who wants to take down commercial agriculture? Chances are they’ve worked with, for or alongside Mary, either in her kitchens or at one of the many fundraiser events she’s thrown for farms, the city Greenmarket system, the Northeast Organic Farming Association, Just Food or culinary scholarships for young women. All that makes the Cleaver Company feel less like a commercial kitchen and more like an artsy, brainy extended food family sharing a renovated loft.

Literally: Cleaver became a founding tenant of Tribeca’s Chelsea Market in 1996, relocating her business and working around the former Nabisco cracker factory’s planked wooden floors and distressed brick walls to carve out a farm-friendly looking space. The back is walled off for office space—a warren of desks, with the loading dock for catering delivery vans at one end and Cleaver’s cookbook-cluttered office on the other. Out in the kitchen, there’s a constant mix of prep and catering composition. Preserved lemons marinate in big jars, plastic tubs of heirloom beans and whole grains are stored up high, trays of just-roasted mushrooms and ready-to-bake tubs of mac ‘n cheese sit stacked beside the stove, which is used mainly for catering, but also for the Green Table, which Cleaver added to the front of the massive kitchens of her catering business in 2003.

Cleaver opened the tiny tasting room—when you stumble on the farmstead table sitting out in the hallway at the Chelsea Market, you’ve found it—for two reasons. For starters, says Cleaver, the restaurant was a place where she didn’t have to be a caterer: “I could show people a little bit more of the soul of what we do, and who I am, and what I like.”

But more importantly, more people could afford it. “I wanted an environment where for not a lot of money you could come in and see what it’s like to have food from a farm. You didn’t have to have a wedding or a $10,000 event to taste our food.” Or even a dinner expense account. Unlike most ingredient-driven city restaurants—where stylized rustic fare can cost a pretty penny—the entrées at the Green Table—like a slow-braised lamb shank with olives and housemade flatbread—start at $13, and the grilled cheese, made with Neighborly Farms raw milk cheddar and pear ginger chutney, is just $10. (Also unlike those tonier showcases, at the Green Table lunch is when you’ll have to wait in line.)

But it’s just a sliver of a space, and the real money-maker for Cleaver is still catering: those upcoming events with their menus hanging on the fridge, outlined in pink and yellow highlighter (yellow dishes are done, pinks are not). They’re for clients like the Hayward-Hillinger wedding party, who’ll have tiny slices of Seckel pear wrapped with local Copa ham, farmstead cheese and a single sage leaf; deviled quail eggs topped with North Carolina trout caviar and shredded nasturtium blossoms; parsnip soup with fried parsnip ribbons and chile oil; and a sliver of dense mushroom tart, the earthy filling barely bound with a bit of pastured egg.

All of which are being made by Marcellus Holton early one evening for the bride and groom to try. “Ooh,” shouts Holton with a twist of his hips as he samples their dessert, a row of tiny shot glasses filled with real banana pudding, “Mary, these are gooood.”

There’s a true communal camaraderie back here, a seldom seen de-stressed kitchen vibe that fits with Cleaver’s approach. One chef passes around little bowls of butternut squash soup and grilled sourdough, say, or the cook making tasting menus for a catering gig stops to give props to the Green Table’s waitress (there’s only one) after chatting up the barista at Ninth Street Espresso across the gastro-mall hall. Up front the pastry chef brushes pale orange macaroons with blushing pink sparkly paint. “Do these look like apricots?” she asks of the Green Table’s chef, who steals bites between ladling out duck and sausage gumbo or plating housemade pappardelle with roasted pork from Flying Pigs, organic pistachios and sage-brown-butter sauce made with Long Island sage and Hudson Valley butter.

Granted, such ingredient pedigrees are common these days, but for Cleaver they’re ingrained. Which is why she’s spent her own time and money helping to found Farm to Chef Express, a 5-year-old, slowly growing cooperative of Albany-area farmers who joined forces to sell their harvests to city food businesses like hers. Cleaver still drives three hours each way for board meetings.

Other chefs, other restaurants, would probably put that type of thing in a press release, but it’s something Mary Cleaver just does, out of the spotlight. “She has a very quiet, selfless leadership style. You would never know all that she is doing because she’s so modest about it,” says Small. “My husband and I, we think New York City should have a Mary Cleaver Day.”

Chances are, Mary herself would offer to cater it.

Braised Lamb Shanks with Moroccan Spices

By The Cleaver Company
Serves 6

When it’s chilly out — or when you want an excuse to crank the AC in your apartment — this hearty dish from The Cleaver Company warms from the inside out. It’s even better the next day: To reheat, gently simmer 15 minutes. Mary Cleaver, the executive chef and owner, suggests grassfed lamb from Three-Corner Field Farm—their stand can be found at the Union Square Greenmarket on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

3 preserved lemons*
2 T. oil
6 1 to 1 1/3-pound lamb shanks, 12 if less than a pound each
3 to 4 cloves garlic, minced
1 T. grated fresh ginger
1 T. ground cumin
1 T. ground coriander
1 t. garam masala
1 t. sweet paprika
1 bay leaf, crushed
3 onions, diced
3 sticks cinnamon
½ cup green olives, pitted
½ cup kalamata olives, pitted
1½ cups diced canned tomatoes
2 quarts chicken stock—more if needed
Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 300°.
Separate the lemon pulp from the rind. Chop the rind well. Discard seeds and roughly chop pulp. Set both rind and pulp aside.
Season shanks with salt and pepper. In a heavy ovenproof casserole large enough to hold all the shanks, such as a large cast iron or enameled Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium-high heat, and sear shanks on all sides. Remove shanks, lower heat to medium and add onions, sautéing 2 or 3 minutes. Add garlic and ginger and sauté another minute, then stir in cumin, coriander, garam masala, paprika and crushed bay leaf. Return shanks to the pan and add preserved lemon pulp, cinnamon sticks, olives, tomatoes and enough stock to just cover the shanks. Salt and pepper to taste, but remember that the preserved lemon is salty. Cover, transfer to the oven and braise for 2 hours, until meat is very tender and just ready to fall from the bone. Remove cinnamon sticks and add preserved lemon rind.

*Available at Kalustyans or Sahadis or make your own.

Photo credit: Michael Harlan Turkell