By Cassandra Landry / Photo by Michael Piazza
As movements go, the oft fetishized, hyper-local farm-to-table credo could be worse. Its many incarnations and trappings often include reclaimed wood communal tables, yes, and there are sometimes bar seats along the kitchen line where we can ogle our dishes being crafted by a cook with a sleeve of colorful tattoos and a sweaty bandana. It makes sense that in thinking “farm-to-table,” we often drift to “barn,” which leads to “rustic,” which turns a simple philosophy into a design choice.
But it means well, this credo! It answers our five W’s from childhood—the who, what, when, where, and why of what’s on our plate. But more often than not, in our flurry of adoration for salad greens from such-and-such farm 10 miles away, we forget that lone “H.” The how, it seems, is always more complicated than we’d like.
Bees are usually the answer to that “how.” The bad news is, of course, that beekeepers around the country are still reporting staggering hive loss and widespread bee deaths every year. The good news? They may finally have the restaurant industry’s attention: a handful of kitchens around town have recently begun to build up small, buzzing artilleries against the threat of colony collapse.
Seth Yaffe, general manager at The Gallows in the South End, recently headed up the process of installing two hives on their roof. A self-professed New York Times junkie, Yaffe says the continuous coverage of colony collapse disorder and the heightening stakes of hive destruction began to blur the lines between vague concern and necessary action for he and owner Rebecca Roth.
“We’ve been paying very close attention to those issues for a while because they’re so important to our farmers,” he explains. “We’re sitting here learning about how they’re dying out, and wanted to do something, anything. We thought, instead of putting our energy into finding a preventative measure, why not see what we can do to get more bees out there right now?”
Yaffe contacted urban beekeeping company Best Bees, and with the help of owner Noah Wilson-Rich, the Gallows family had grown by tens of thousands over Memorial Day weekend. When the hives have produced enough honey to harvest, Yaffe says, in addition to appearing on the menu, he hopes it will serve as a tool to increase positive guest awareness about the pollinators.
“A lot of the responses from people who understand the implications of bee loss have been awesome, but there’s always the other side of it, where people are worried about their kids getting stung,” he admits. “That’s something we deal with a lot of in the food business; people’s fear of the unknown.
“People have this negative connotation with bees,” he continues. “The best thing people associate with them is honey, but at the end of the day, honey is not even 1% of what you should be thinking about when you think about bees’ health.”
Yaffe’s dedication to raising awareness begs the question: do restaurants, as the primary connection between the public and the farmer’s field, have a responsibility to take up the cause?
“There’s definitely something to be said about being a pioneer on something, but I feel like that comes into play when you’re trying to dramatically change the status quo,” he says, after thinking for a moment. “This is something that I feel is everyone’s responsibility. If as chefs we can help people realize that this is important, then I’m happy with that.”
Atop the Taj Hotel, overlooking the Public Garden and the Common—a sprawling green swatch, the walking paths resembling rivulets from this high up—a stream of bees flows up and over a corner ledge from two small hives.
Executive chef Daniel Dumont says he didn’t know what to expect when he originally proposed the idea and sought out Wilson-Rich last year. Initially motivated by his desire to reenergize the culinary program at the former Ritz-Carlton, the hives were meant to be a lynchpin for a new kitchen M.O.
“When I started here, they weren’t making a lot of things in-house,” he says, watching the bees meditatively. “This was a big part of refocusing on those from-scratch methods. That’s the spirit of why we wanted to do it.”
Dumont grew up among apple orchards in New Hampshire (along with his sister Mary, who helms the kitchen at Harvard Square mainstay Harvest), which he says grants him a solid comfort level around the insects. Now that he’s had the opportunity to observe them up close, the environmental dangers of a world without bees resonate that much deeper.
“It’s amazing that they’re such an integral part of food and how we live, and it’s something that we’re barely aware of day-to-day,” Dumont says, citing a Discovery Channel program on bees that made a particular impact on him. “I used to whack a bee if it landed on me, and now I definitely don’t.”
His hives have been in place for six months, but he plans on waiting a bit longer to harvest any honey out of respect for the hive’s stability. Once he does, though, plans for incorporating it run the gamut from house honey-citrus vinaigrette and honey blend tea, to using it on cheese boards and offering it in little jars as a guest amenity. Since it’s a big place, Dumont says he’s looking to increase the number of hives in the long term in order to support such a full-scale honey program.
Back in the kitchen, sous chef Matt Audette is flipping through a book and taking notes. When he hears where we’ve been, his excitement is undeniable.
“I’m totally allergic, but I think they’re great,” he says. “Just from a culinary standpoint, I can’t wait to try the honey. All those flowers in the Common…it’s going to be so intensely floral. I love the idea of terroir that immediate.”
Down the street at the Fairmont Copley Plaza, home to the recently-revamped Oak Long Bar & Kitchen, sales manager and first-time beekeeper Jessica Tardiff keeps watch over three busy colonies on the building’s sunken rooftop. We’re surrounded on all sides by windows, where certain guests can catch a glimpse of a flurry of bees diving in and out of a few lush garden plots.
The hives, which have tripled in height since being installed last April, have so far garnered 100 pounds of raw honey for the kitchen’s use. It’s most recent incarnation is in hearth-baked rosemary focaccia bread topped with honey butter, and the bar is busy dreaming up honey-based libations. The Battery Wharf location has only had their hives for three weeks, and the kitchen has already made a small harvest.
“I think most chefs are obviously concerned about where things are coming from these days, and a restaurant or a hotel is essentially a platform to share something with people,” says regional director of public relations, Suzanne Wenz. “If you have a hive in your backyard, that’s great, but it stops there in terms of really getting the word out. The benefits of cultivating bees has really been overwhelming—it’s good for the environment, it’s fun for our guests, and you can’t get much more local for the kitchen. It hits all the goals.” She brings up a picture on her phone; a grinning chef, proudly displaying a small rack of honeycomb.
Tardiff nods. “I get a lot of calls from the front desk with guests who want to see the hives,” she says. “We actually get a surprising number of people who are personal beekeepers. I really think it’s something that people are definitely becoming more aware of. There’s so many more hives out there than you’d think.” They list off other Fairmont locations that have jumped aboard the hive wagon—Dallas, Toronto, San Francisco—and sigh wistfully when San Francisco’s in-house honey beer program comes up.
“Hopefully we’ll have enough soon to do something like that. Maybe a batch of mead!” she says, a few bees hovering around her before moving on to some flowers. “That would be so cool. For now, I just really like having them here, doing their thing. It feels good to be able to do that.”
Cassandra Landry was most recently the food editor of The Boston Phoenix magazine, specializing in chef profiles, industry trend pieces, and the high art of taking coherent notes while deep in a food coma. During her tenure, she learned the correct way to butcher a pig, what snake wine tastes like, and how quickly your coworkers will line up when you tell them you are testing cannoli. Her work has appeared in The Boston Phoenix, The Improper Bostonian, Metro Boston, Boston Magazine, Modern Farmer, and Drink Me Magazine, among others.