It’s commonplace to see chefs dressed in white — white jackets, that is. But it’s rare to watch culinarians zip up full-body white beekeeping suits with netted hoods as if they’re preparing to battle aliens from outer space.
Yet, if you dine at Polaris, the rotating restaurant with the blue dome above the Hyatt Regency Atlanta, you just might look down at the hotel roof a few stories below and catch a glimpse of a couple of chefs stepping into these white spacesuits. They’ve become pollinator crusaders.
Chefs are increasingly bringing attention to the importance of honeybees in our food supply. According to the Georgia Department of Agriculture, nearly one-third of our food is the direct result of pollination by insects. The honeybee holds enough significance in Georgia agriculture that it has been the official insect of the state since 1975. Many chefs support the cause by sourcing locally produced honey. A select few, however, are taking action by tending their own hives.
Blue Dome honey
Bees have been buzzing 25 stories above Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta since hives were installed at the Hyatt in 2013. When Thomas McKeown became the executive chef there in 2015, he agreed not only to oversee culinary operations at the property, but also its four hives and the 350,000 bees that are permanent residents of the hotel.
For McKeown, keeping bees on-site and showcasing that honey at the Hyatt — along with products from 70 other local food and beverage purveyors — is “a unique thing for guests to understand what Georgia is all about. There are not that many places in Atlanta where you can see your food and eat it too,” he said.
When McKeown suits up and checks on the hives, he looks for several things, such as the activity of the bees, their health, signs of pests, and, this time of year, the prized honey.
That honey makes its way into specialty Blue Dome brand honey ice cream churned by Marietta-based High Road Craft Ice Cream and available only at the hotel’s dining venues and sold in pints at its grab-and-go market in the atrium. The honeycomb is featured on meat and cheese boards at Polaris. Conference organizers can even plunk down extra bucks for a honey break table between meeting sessions. A sort of glorified coffee service setup, the honey table is a spread of sweet and savory nibbles all prepared with the hotel’s honey: honey-roasted almonds, pecan honey cakes, honey-drizzled peach slices, honey and goat cheese mini pockets and more.
Turning a river into a runway
In late April, two beehives were installed at Ray’s on the River, the upscale restaurant that sits on the banks of the Chattahoochee River just south of I-285 in Sandy Springs. The project was the brainchild of its executive chef, Scott Hemmerly.
“I wanted to be able to say that we produce and grow honey that we use in everything from vinaigrette to cocktails,” Hemmerly said. “Just walking around here, I felt like, ‘Man, how could it not work here?’ There are so many plants and everything to support a hive.”
A Google search for beekeepers led him to Brooke Vacovsky, a member of the Metro Atlanta Beekeepers Association, certified beekeeper and founder of Southeast Beescapes.
Once Vacovsky was hired — she charges a $500 fee for the installation plus a yearly $1,000 maintenance fee that includes two hive inspection visits a month, honey harvesting services and disease diagnosis and treatment — the first step was to determine where to place the hives at Ray’s.
Safety was a priority for Hemmerly. “For Easter, Mother’s Day and Thanksgiving, we’re pushing 2,000 people on the property all day long. Even if it’s not a holiday, for regular Sunday brunch, we’re doing 500, 600 people, and they’re scattered on the lawn. I don’t want to have kids that are not overly supervised getting off the beaten path and accidentally disturbing the hive.”
They settled on a spot just feet from the river and a good distance from the manicured lawn and garden. “It’s far enough away to where you’d really have to run up and kick it over,” Hemmerly said.
Besides the safety of guests, the bees’ own needs dictate site placement, Vacovsky explained. Bees require access to a food supply, known as forage, which consists of nectar and pollen from blooming plants. Flora already grows naturally within the flight range of the bees at Ray’s, but Hemmerly also planted pollinator-friendly berry bushes, tomatoes, peppers and fragrant herbs like lavender in the restaurant’s garden.
Water, too, is essential. According to Vacovsky, a hive can go through up to 3 gallons of water on a hot day. The restaurant’s proximity to the river eliminated that problem.
She also elevated the hive so that the bees “had a space to go out and over something. In this case, the Chattahoochee is kind of a runway for them to come out onto.”
With Vacovsky’s help, the colonies have grown from 9,000 to 50,000 bees per hive.
But that growth has come with learning curves. Initially, the hive wasn’t getting enough sunlight, which affected production and stunted the growth of the colony. “Bees have a circadian rhythm similar to ours that is defined by the sun,” Vacovsky said. “When the sun rises and hits nicely on the front of the hive, they get up first thing in the morning and are productive. If not, they get a little lazy.”
After tree branches around the hives were trimmed back, the population exploded.
The sweet story of nectar
Since this first year is all about establishing the hives at Ray’s, honey won’t be extracted there until next spring. And when it is, Hemmerly has grand plans for a honey harvest dinner. “I want an estate table down on the lawn. Forty people, 20 on each side. And just line the table with ingredients from the garden. It would be really super great to have honey as a part of every dish, every course,” he mused.
Meanwhile, owner Ray Schoenbaum still sees a way to tell the story now. As Vacovsky and Hemmerly inspected the hive on a hot day in late June, Schoenbaum pointed to the low metal fencing that formed a perimeter around the installation. He wanted something prettier. A picket fence perhaps. And, for sure, signage to explain the project to guests who happened upon the hives.
There is certainly an educational component that Atlanta’s beekeeping chefs are tapping into.
David Bartlett, chef de cuisine at Southern Art and Bourbon Bar in Buckhead, has a special device that he uses for show and tell about the honey produced by bees at his home in Gwinnett and served at the restaurant.
Beehives are made of a series of thin frames that are inserted vertically into a box, like an upended dresser drawer. The bees fill the frames with honey and, when the frames are full, they cap them, sealing them with wax.
But a picture is worth a thousand words. So, Bartlett engaged a woodworking friend to build him a “honey luge” — a wooden contraption on which he can rest one of the frames from his own hive. When honey drips down from the frame, it slides into a honey pot to the sweet delight of Southern Art diners.
Bartlett brings out the honey luge during weekend brunches. “It’s a good focal point to tell a story around. People are really interested when you talk about the honeybees and what they are responsible for,” he said.
For Mother’s Day, he brought in a mobile hive enclosed in glass. “It gives anybody a chance to see what they do. It is a really cool experience,” Bartlett said.
However, the experience gave Bartlett a bit of anxiety. “My worst fear was that thing falling over,” he admitted. Yet Bartlett is a mobile beehive veteran, having worked with bees and similar displays since his tenure at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead, where bees were kept on the third-floor rooftop. “No guest has ever been stung during one of my displays,” he said.
Bees were also the center of attention at a recent dinner at Bacchanalia hosted by chef-owner Anne Quatrano, who, along with her husband Clifford Harrison, has been keeping bees at their farm in Cartersville for more than 20 years. The couple especially depend on the bees to pollinate the trees in their orchard.
“You kind of need them,” she said. “Without them, you don’t get fruit.”
Dubbed “Give Bees a Chance,” the four-course dinner was a fundraiser for the Whole Kids Foundation bee grant program, which supports educational beehives at schools and nonprofit organizations.
More than 80 guests supped on dishes — from roasted duck and crab fritters to a blackberry dessert — touched with the honey from Quatrano’s farm as well as that supplied by event sponsor Savannah Bee Co.
Similar to special events at Southern Art, a glass-encased nuc (short for nucleus) box holding a small colony of bees was on display during the dinner at Bacchanalia.
“You could see them at work. Honeybees are really gentle and sweet,” Quatrano said. “It’s great to teach people that they are not to be feared, so they don’t kill them.”
Quatrano and Harrison have lived with bees long enough that they are practically part of the family. Harrison, the primary beekeeper, does not use a suit when visiting the hives. The bees hang out around the saltwater pool on the property, stopping to quench their thirst.
She recounted a time when she picked up a new hive and had to transport it in a rental car because her truck needed repairs. The bees were as behaved as a well-trained dog as they buzzed around the interior of the car while Quatrano drove. “They were all around my head, but they never stung me. Some of them sat on me. They are friendly and nice.”
Who’s with me?
When a restaurant takes on a new initiative — from recycling programs to house-made charcuterie — the success of the project takes buy-in from staff.
It’s not enough that McKeown has taken a class with the Metro Atlanta Beekeepers Association or that he’s got the help of pastry chef James Gallo, who previously kept bees when he worked at a restaurant in New Jersey, or another pair of willing hands in sous chef Adam Sheff. The front-of-house at Polaris need to know about the bee venture so that guests can appreciate the uniqueness of the honey that makes its way into dishes at the restaurant or can inquire about the hotel’s rooftop bee mural painted by Georgia State University. And the sales and marketing teams need to know what differentiates the property from other downtown hotels if they want to attract and win accounts.
In late June, members of the Hyatt sales and marketing teams gathered in the massive kitchen in the bowels of the hotel to watch McKeown and his crew extract honey. They had invested in their own extractor, and it was the first time they’d be harvesting honey in-house. Gallo cut the beeswax off capped frames, heavy with the weight of honey. McKeown inserted them into the machine. The frames spun around and around. He opened the spigot at the base and raw honey poured out into a 5-gallon bucket, the work of 350,000 busy honeybees.
“That’s an extension of our staff,” McKeown said.
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