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Chef brings bees to Four Seasons

When a honeybee stings, she dies.

Robert Gerstenecker spends more time lamenting that these days than he used to.

“I feel so guilty if I get stung, even though that’s a rare thing,” says the executive chef of the Four Seasons Park 75 in Midtown.

This past spring, he brought his beehive to the posh hotel’s fifth floor terrace, and the staff has been, well, abuzz ever since.

Gerstenecker is Canadian, and grew up on a small cattle farm outside of Toronto. The youngest of four, he spent a lot of time in the kitchen with his mother, who inspired him to cook. After he graduated from George Brown Chef School in Toronto, he got a job with the Four Seasons as a line cook.

That was 20 years ago, and the company has moved him from Canada to New York, Hong Kong and Palm Beach. He’s worked in Atlanta twice — moving back here from Palm Beach five years ago. At 40, Gerstenecker has grown up in the corporate world of food, rising through the ranks of the hotel system until finally, here in Atlanta, he can call his own shots.

“Most of the shots,” he emphasizes. “I knew I wanted to bring the bees to the fifth-floor terrace, but I also knew I’d need approval from Dan (the hotel’s general manager, Dan Normandin).” Normandin loves honey, according to Gerstenecker, and uses it as a sweetener in his coffee every morning.

“When I asked him, it took him about three seconds to say yes,” says the executive chef.

The bees are all part of an ad hoc hotel-to-table program this gentle-minded chef has brought to the Four Seasons. In addition to his beehive, he also utilizes two of the hotel’s enormous planters for tomatoes, peppers and lots of herbs — from verbena (which the cocktail staff has nearly ravaged for muddling into drinks for the hotel’s ever-popular bar) to chocolate mint, sage, basil and anise. Next year, he plans to plant heirloom potatoes and more pepper varieties in all six.

Getting out of the corporate mind frame and back to the farm was a “huge learning curve” for Gerstenecker.

“I feel like I lost touch with my roots. The bees have helped me get that back.”

Inspired by his neighbor, Vance Dietz, who Gerstenecker guesses has been keeping bees for over 20 years, he and his wife, Brooke, started the hive this past spring. The bees also inspire him. “I could watch them all day. I have so much respect for them — they have no wasted moments and work so seamlessly together. We have a lot to learn from them.”

The couple takes do-it-yourself and farm-to-table seriously, keeping chickens for fresh eggs and even roasting their own coffee beans. “The bees just seemed to be a good fit,” says Gerstenecker.

Of course, the rewards reaped are more than just peace of mind. Gerstenecker expects to get about ten pounds of honey from his hotel hive this year, and he’s already incorporated honey-laced dishes onto the menu at the Four Seasons’ premiere restaurant, Park 75. I sample a taste of delicate, tempura-fried squash blossoms (he gets them from his home garden) filled with Split Creek Farm goat cheese and crowned with cherry tomatoes from the hotel’s garden, as well as baby zucchini and nasturtium blossoms. The vinaigrette it’s drizzled with is made with honey and vinegar.

And the sweetness spreads: the kitchen staff has spent the last few weeks canning pickled peaches and okra, all to be used as amenities for the hotel’s guests. “Our guests should enjoy something we’ve made, not something ordered from a catalog,” says Gerstenecker. “And my staff really understands the meaning of where something comes from these days.”

“The bees have brought a sense of community and family to our workplace,” says Gerstenecker. “It’s an honor to care for them. It’s a perfect partnership.”

12 comments Add your comment

Zekiah

January 7th, 2010
11:33 am

I think it is a bad idea

Tom Griffiths

August 14th, 2009
11:12 am

Hi Chef,
great story, I’m a bee keeper in the Hudson Valley, NY. I’m also a chef, I’m an assoc dean at the CIA and we use a lot of really different flavors of honey in our global classes.
I’ve been bee keeping for about 12 years and still not too sure what I’m doing right or wrong…. I’m doing a lot of work developing recipes with the boutique flavors (terroir) that my bees produce. I get a blueberry flavor in the Spring, great clover in the Summer and Goldenweed and Maple in Autumn. I’d love to give you a tour of the CIA and some of the hives out here if you’re inclined to visit the area. Rachel could come too… it would be nice if she had a better understanding of the really yummy tastes of different honies…
warmly,
Tom