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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

harry wolters

July 20th, 2009
12:36 am

Great to see folks are beginning to keep bees in their back yards and roof tops too. I have four hives in my yard in Bisbee Arizona and recently have tired of taking the honey but keep ‘em for pollination and just for the joy of having them around. Even Obama has some in the garden area of the Casa Blanca. Everyone should have a hive to two.

Gale Walters

July 17th, 2009
9:41 am

really Rachel…crazy Canadian??? Shame on you……. you have come down a couple of notches in my respect for you.

Karl Hansen

July 17th, 2009
8:19 am

Great to hear and see food people keeping bees. One out of four bits of food that we eat is directly related to honey bees. Honey Bees are in real danger from mites and hive collapse disorder. We need more Urban Bee keepers and rural bee keepers.

My wife and I along with our two girls, ages 9 and 11, started keeping bees this spring. Urban bee keeping is going on more than the average person knows and is needed for local plant health and to support a falling – failing honey bee population.

We keep our bees in the Cincinnati area in a suburb – back yard. Yes it is safe and the bees are doing great and so are the people – no stings reported but lots of blooming flowers and gardens all around our house.

Paul From Milton

July 16th, 2009
11:26 am

My wife and I stayed at the Four Seasons for our wedding night and have stayed and visited there several times since. It is a wonderful place with an exceptional staff and is truly an asset to Atlanta.

zadi

July 16th, 2009
11:04 am

what an inspiring story!

Meridith Ford Goldman

July 16th, 2009
10:55 am

Yes, and our honey bee population is also threatened by varroa mites, a pesty killer that was first discovered in the US in Florida back in the 1980s. We need all the bees we can get. I started a hive this spring, and it is a wonder. The bees are so docile and productive. Like chef Gerstenecker, I’m hoping to get at least 10 pounds — maybe 20 — of honey by the end of the summer. If you want to know more about keeping bees in the Atlanta area, you couldn’t meet a better group of people than the members of MABA (Metro Atlanta Beekeepers Association). Go to http://www.metroatlantabeekeepers.org for more info.

Deanna

July 16th, 2009
10:52 am

I’m starting to think we could start a very productive eugenics effort based on reader postings about some of these AJC stories. Could users be forced to post their GPS coordinates instead of their email addresses?

imjustduckie

July 16th, 2009
10:47 am

uh…Rachel, honeybees pollinate about a third of the food we eat. and it’s important that chefs (and others) start playing a role in farming them. We are losing huge numbers to Colony Collapse Disorder. So unless you want to rely on cheetos and twinkies out of the vending machine you might want to perk up. Just a thought.

Josh

July 16th, 2009
10:44 am

Honey bees are endangered these days due to some disease aren’t they? It’s great when someone has a hobby they really enjoy that just happens to be productive and good for the environment.

Rachel Ray

July 16th, 2009
10:34 am

Uhhhh……So what? Crazy Canadian collects bees.