chef Gavin Stephenson takes beekeeping
to new heights at the Fairmont Olympic
STORY BY BY MEGAN HILL
If you were to take a bird’s-eye view of downtown Seattle–or perhaps that of a honeybee’s—what you’d find would be a predictable jumble of glass and concrete, a cold and anonymous cityscape. But on one roof, you’d find something completely different.
Atop The Fairmont Olympic Hotel, colorful boxes are stacked to form an apiary, a buzzing collection of beehives among pots of lavender, mint, thyme, and tarragon. Here, surrounded by views of office buildings, Executive Chef Gavin Stephenson is doing his part to change the world, one bee at a time.
Stephenson oversees the Fairmont’s decidedly upscale The Georgian, a restaurant whose dining room is swathed in white tablecloths and hung with massive crystal chandeliers. His beekeeping project may seem a little at odds with this fine-dining restaurant—city beekeeping is typically associated with plaid-wearing, bearded urbanites on bicycles—but Stephenson is quietly changing the way food is consumed at The Georgian.
It all started when Stephenson was introduced to Corky Luster, whose Ballard Bee Company maintains and collects honey from urban hives around Seattle. Stephenson had long been interested in keeping bees, and the two struck up a friendship.
“I apprenticed with him for a year or two,” Stephenson says. “I didn’t know anything about bees, but I knew I liked honey and had read a little bit about colony collapse. I wanted to try to do something about it.” Stephenson is referring to Colony Collapse Disorder, a phenomenon affecting critical honeybee colonies around the world. CCD is associated with precipitous declines in honeybee populations, the very insects that ensure the production of some $15 billion in crops annually, from almonds to cabbages and many more in between. In short, much of the world relies on domestic honeybees for food production. With scientists not yet agreeing on the cause for CCD, this problem continues to devastate.
Stephenson knew he couldn’t solve the mystery surrounding CCD, but he could try to maintain his own healthy bee colonies. He soon discovered that beekeeping comes with a steep learning curve.
“You learn a lot from observing and then by making mistakes,” Stephenson says. He has unintentionally killed his bees by taking too much honey from the hives in winter, when the bees need it for insulation. Though he has learned quite a bit since his first hives were established in 2009, Stephenson is filling in the gaps with the Master Beekeepers Program, offered by the Washington State Beekeepers Association. His hard work yields some 200 pounds of honey in a good year, from around half a million bees in ten hives.
Stephenson’s project isn’t born merely out of scientific inquiry. At The Georgian, he cooks frequently with honey and pollen harvested from the roof. “I put them in so many different things, wherever I would use sugar. For Easter, we did an espresso-and-honey-glazed ham, and it was just amazing. I do a pork belly that’s glazed with honey and maple.
“When I learned to cook with raw honey and raw pollen, it made a humongous difference in how the food tastes.”
Stephenson also folds the raw pollen into butter for spreading on bread and uses the honey frequently in desserts. He’s hoping to start producing an ice cream laced with bits of beeswax. It’s all in an effort to cook honest food that lets ingredients shine in their most natural forms.
“Chefs sometimes try to manipulate things too much,” Stephenson says. “I want to take things back to their really basic forms. Just keep things simple and make the flavors the best they can be. I try to source things that are real and that have a story behind them.”
The hotel also partners with The Pike Brewing Company, which each year brews a honey beer in a different style, available exclusively at the hotel and its restaurants, including The Georgian. Stephenson is also collaborating with Seattle Cider Company to produce a honey cider, which should be out later this year. He’s got his sights set on a honey vodka and a mead as well.
“We went from using 100 pounds of honey a year to 600 to 800 pounds of honey a year,” Stephenson says. Whatever honey he can’t produce himself, he sources locally. Stephenson is so enamored of bees that he maintains three hives at his home outside of Seattle and two at a friend’s house. He has helped others set up and maintain hives, too.
“I can’t explain it,” he says. “It’s fascinating watching how the bees work. They are the most efficient animals I have ever seen. They don’t waste any movement. They are so clean. The smell, when you open the hive, of all that pollen and flowers gets in your sinuses and you smell it for days. There’s something about it that attracts me to it more and more.”
Stephenson says he was concerned initially that his bees wouldn’t be able to access flowers in the concrete jungle surrounding his hives. He can’t put a GPS tracker on his insects, but bees generally travel six or eight miles for pollen. “You want to believe they’re getting into good flowers that don’t have pesticides and molds,” he says.
“Legally, I didn’t have to do it, but I sent the honey from the hotel and the honey from home out to be tested, and it was funny,” says Stephenson. “Both the honeys had zero bacteria, but the honey that came from the country had more mold in it.”
Chefs are notoriously busy people, so it’s impressive that Stephenson has found time to manage the bees and run a successful restaurant. He says that now that he’s several years into the project, he checks the hives only about once a week and works on them for about two hours. There are busier times—such as when he’s collecting honey or treating the bees for mites—and slower times, like during the winter when the bees aren’t as active.
He is also getting help from two restaurant workers, Chloe and Jake, who act as Stephenson’s eager apprentices and help cut down his workload. Ultimately, though, Stephenson is not looking to outsource his work with the hives.
“I’ve learned so much about honey, bees, and pollen in the past six years,” he says. “I’m not going to call myself a honey snob, but when you taste honey that comes straight from the hive, that flavor, you’ll never forget it. It’s so much different from the little squeezy bear we all grew up with. I guess that’s one of my quests, to get things back to the way they should be. The bees are just one of those avenues.”
Megan Hill is a Seattle-based food, travel, and outdoors writer. She highly recommends the honey beer at the Fairmont Olympic.