For Todd Kelly, executive chef of Orchids at Palm Court, farm-to-table just wasn’t cutting it. So, two years ago, with the help of his pastry chef Megan Ketover, he began producing his own honey for the restaurant via four bee colonies housed on the fifth-floor rooftop of the Netherland Plaza. Roof-to-table? That’s as fresh as it gets.
Of all the things you could grow or produce, why honey? We wanted to do something on one of the rooftops, and we thought with the black roofs and the temperatures it would be challenging to grow something properly with no shaded areas. So we decided to go with bees.
Do you use a specific species? We use an Italian breed of bees, which are a little calmer and better honey producers. Some breeds are better pollinators, some are better honey producers.
If Italian bees are calmer, does that mean they’re easier to work with? Every bee colony is a bit different. My kids might like green beans, but your kids might not like them. Bee colonies are the same way. One of our hives is aggressive as can be. Another one, they’re just whistling Dixie. You try to figure it out as you go and see what works best for each hive.
How much honey are they making? Out of our four colonies this year, we’ll pull about 20 gallons of honey. When you have to cut the wax and harvest all the honey—and we use the honeycomb too—it’s a whole process.
What does it feel like to suit up when you’re working on the roof? [Wearing the bee gear] is kind of like putting on an astronaut suit. It’s hot, it’s sticky, and you’re on a 120-degree roof wearing long-sleeve everything. It’s not the most pleasurable thing. But every time we go [into the hives], it’s something new and exciting. We’ve really become bee nerds. [It’s like] we attend ‘bee school’ every year.
Do you notice a change in the taste or flavor of the honey in different seasons? When we harvest in the spring, it’s a lot clearer. As it gets later in the season, the honey tends to get darker from the bees eating different wild flowers and whatnot. In the fall, it tends to be darker, a little bit fuller of flavor, and a little less floral.
How do you adapt your recipes for the different flavors? When it’s light, we’ll use it for vinaigrettes, or more as a sweetener. When it’s really dark and caramel colored, we’ll use it more for a glaze or a finishing item, or something that Megan will use, like a syrup or sauce for one of her desserts.
Are you more likely to use honey in dishes now than before you had the bees? You know, it’s the same as before, but this adds a different dimension to it. You’re invested in it and you tend to take a little bit more ownership of it. You hear the guests say, “Get out of here! This honey that’s glazing the duck was in a beehive only two hours ago?!” So it tells a good story as well. It’s all part of the experience.
Originally published in the October 2013 issue